Dixon schools readying Nachusa property

School district bought the site on Illinois 38 from Lutheran Social Services of Illinois for $300,000

Matt Wolfort (left) and John Mahon of Bray Architects of Davenport speak with Dixon Schools superintendent Margo Empen and Kevin Schultz, director of buildings and grounds, Wednesday, August 23, 2023 about buildings on the recently purchased Nachusa Lutheran Home property. The firm was brought in to assess the condition of the buildings.

DIXON – Work is underway at the Dixon School District’s Nachusa property as the district turns the site into a therapeutic day school for students who now are attending schools at other sites throughout northern Illinois.

The Dixon School Board on Wednesday night heard an update about projects underway and planned at the Nachusa property, located on Illinois 38 and bought by the district from Lutheran Social Services of Illinois for $300,000 in August. The goal is to open a therapeutic day school in the fall of 2024 to provide special-education students with a small classroom setting, a high staff-to-student ratio and comprehensive treatment for mental health and behavioral issues that occur throughout the school day.

A report from Dixon School District Director of Buildings & Grounds Kevin Schultz indicates work now happening includes exterior cleanup of the property, tree trimming, mulching landscaping areas, mowing and general grounds maintenance.

“We have done a lot of work out there; there is a ton of work to continue to do, obviously, over the next few months,” Schultz told the board. “But our great, dedicated maintenance staff has been able to do fabulous things out there. We’ve started out with a lot of general maintenance and cleanup.”

“We have done a lot of work out there; there is a ton of work to continue to do, obviously, over the next few months. But our great, dedicated maintenance staff has been able to do fabulous things out there. We’ve started out with a lot of general maintenance and cleanup.”

—  Kevin Schultz, Dixon School District's director of buildings & grounds

Also, school building interior preparation has included: removal of ceiling tiles; testing and repairing water lines; removal of old non-operational heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment (such as the boiler and associated piping, HVAC cabinet heaters/unit ventilators and installed block after removal); building cleaning; removal of electrical wiring from mechanical spaces; completion of asbestos removal; and restroom preparation for renovation.

One of the site’s buildings has been cleaned and prepared for theater storage, including cleaning, removing old carpet and hanging rods for storage.

“Additionally, preparation of work to be completed is taking shape,” Schultz wrote in a report to the board. “Some of the projects in the immediate future include working with the architects and engineers on electrical and HVAC upgrades, continued cleanup of the exterior property, opening up the cafeteria ceiling, and window and door upgrades, to name a few.”

Schultz pointed out in his report that as a general timeline, the replacement of systems and physical upgrades cannot begin until the Regional Office of Education issues a permit. The process for getting a permit requires the architect to submit drawings and appropriate permit documentation, he wrote.

“We anticipate the permit submission process in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, the DPS Maintenance Department has been very busy at the property,” he said.

The district had been talking for several years about bringing students who need therapeutic day services onto a Dixon-based campus.

“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,” Dixon School District Superintendent Margo Empen told Shaw Media in an August interview. “We’ve been talking about how we get our therapeutic day students back on campus for probably three years.”

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

Empen said last month that 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.

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. 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 in August.

Along with preparing the physical structures for students, the district also is pondering a new name for the property. A submitted list of potential names – gathered through a survey given to Dixon School District staff members and included in Wednesday night’s agenda - had a wide range of possibilities. That list included Dixon Therapeutic Day School, Dixon Building Block Academy, a presidential name – such as Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt or Gerald Ford – and Dempsey Education Center in honor of the late Thomas Dempsey, a former special education teacher and principal of the former Nachusa Campus. Of the many other names submitted, some included Nachusa since that name has a recognizable connection to the property.

Empen said the name will have to be selected by spring 2024 so it can be placed on the Illinois State Board of Education’s roster as the therapeutic day school heads toward opening in August 2024.

LSSI employees hosted a decommissioning ceremony at the campus Sept. 12 to close the chapter on its proprietorship of the Nachusa Campus and to look ahead to Dixon Public Schools’ ownership. Empen, Schultz and Dixon school board member Melissa Gates attended the ceremony.

“It was a beautiful day,” Gates said of hearing stories from LSSI staff members and people who have been part of Nachusa in one way or another over the years. “They were really touched and very thankful that we’re going to continue servicing children out there, that the goals for the property and the facilities are going to continue there.”

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.