Dixon School District purchases Nachusa property

Therapeutic day school will be offered at campus

The Dixon School District took ownership of the property on Monday, August 21, 2023. LSSI offices will remain on the campus and pay rent to the district.

DIXON – In an effort to reconnect special-education students to their local community, the Dixon School District this week made strides toward creating a therapeutic day school for students who now are being educated out of the district, and in some cases traveling up to 90 minutes to get to school.

School district officials this week closed on the Nachusa property on Illinois 38, spending $300,000 to buy the campus that includes multiple buildings that had been owned by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. The goal: to open a therapeutic day school in the fall of 2024 that will provide special-education students with a small classroom setting, high staff-to-student ratio and comprehensive treatment for mental health and behavioral issues that occur throughout the school day.

“We’ve been talking about how we get our therapeutic day kids students back on campus for probably three years,” Dixon School District Superintendent Margo Empen said. “We have a subsection of our student population that because of their needs, and they’re usually a very social and emotional presence, we could not appropriately provide them their services and supports so we’ve had to look out to other therapeutic day schools to send our kids to. There are none in our community.”

She said the students currently are being sent to locations that include the Quad-Cities, Rockford and Loves Park.

“It has always bothered us, because we had neither the programming nor the room to do the programming on site and as a result our kids become disengaged from their peers, from the school system and their community,” she said.

In March, 54 Dixon students were traveling to other locations for their education, Empen said, adding that the students cannot be served here because the required programming is not available and there is not enough room in Dixon school facilities unless portable classrooms are used or extra classrooms are added. Because those students’ school day starts later than Dixon schools, and they have an hour-long ride back home, the out-placed students aren’t able to be back home in time to participate in extracurricular activities.

“If those kids wanted to be in Boys Scouts, if kids wanted to go to fifth grade basketball, wrestling, cross country, you name it, all that stuff is either in progress by the time the kids get home from school or they missed it,” she said. “So these opportunities to make a connection with their peers or their community is lost. It becomes hard then for a kid to see and want to make progress to get back in the community. So how could we provide an onsite therapeutic day and say, OK there will be a specific skill set we’re looking at for kids. Not every kid will be brought back but those that need a therapeutic day system, we can start to work with the parents on what that means.

“They’ll be connected to their community and their peers.”

She said 22 students would easily be able to return to Dixon for classes when the therapeutic day school opens; 20 of them in the Alternative Learning Options Program that serves middle and high school students who need a nontraditional day to complete their education, could return to get their eduction on the Nachusa property. The goal is to bring 70 students into the day school, its maximum capacity. Looking to the future, other schools could opt to send their students to Dixon’s day school, which would provide tuition revenue to the local district, Empen said.

Empen said that although the district has wanted to bring special-education students back into local classrooms over the past three years, the district learned about a year that the Nachusa campus would be up for sale. The district paid $300,000 for the property and anticipates spending about $2 million over the next five years to make needed repairs, Empen said.

As for funding, the district will use the Capital Projects Fund, with revenue coming from the 1% countywide facility sales tax, to cover the costs of the day school. LSSI will continue offering services in a couple buildings on the campus and will pay rent to the school district.

Hiring enough staff members to fill out day school programming will be the biggest hurdle, Empen said. The challenge is finding enough regular and special-education teachers; paraprofessionals; occupational, physical and speech therapists; and social workers and behavioral specialists to fill out the social emotion team.

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.