School Tours: Van Hise Elementary

The last in our series of school tours, Carousel tours Van Hise Elementary.

I love the physical space at Van Hise Elementary School. The multi-colored tiled hallways are wide, windows are everywhere, and daylight streams into the building. It is bright and engaging.

Tim and I made our way to the principal’s office for our tour. The principal, Peg Keeler, greeted us personally and asked the gathered parents to introduce ourselves and tell her a bit about our children. I was nearly sold on Van Hise already. This is the only school where the principal gave the tour. And this is the only school where we are asked about our daughter. I am wondering if my husband, who was excited for Midvale and their dual immersion program, is thinking the same thing.

Principal Keeler showed us around. First stop is the community service chart in the main hallway outside her office. All students are invited to be part of one of three community service projects for the year. Each project involves K to 5th graders working collaboratively along with a faculty member, and the project goals and progress are charted in the hall. Scattered around the school are food bank collection bins, one of the current projects, and each bin we pass is overflowing.

When we visit the kindergarten classroom, what strikes me the most is the calm. No one is yelling or running around. Are these really kindergartners? How is it they are sitting quietly at their desks? The teacher tells us about their work—writing (and drawing) picture books to go along what they’re reading. I peek at one student’s work: She has already written 5 sentences, more writing from a kindergartner than I have seen at the other schools. We also visit a K/1 combined classroom, as Van Hise has both K only and K/1 classrooms. Principal Keeler says that they are strongly considering turning all classes into K/1 next year, as the multi-grade classrooms have been a success with students, teachers, and parents—peer learning, closer knit connection to a teacher, more support for children both advanced and struggling.

I confess that I was distracted inside the classrooms from some of the detailed talk because I was enjoying the wonderful brightness. The outside wall of each classroom is literally a wall of windows, and natural daylight fills up the rooms. Tim and I agree Van Hise is where you would want to spend your day and where you would want you child to learn — in a open, day-lit space. Both Midvale and Lincoln seem dark in comparison.

I ask Principal Keeler the million-dollar question: Can you talk about the overcrowding problem at Van Hise? Van Hise elementary (and Hamilton Middle school, which is right next door) has many more students than the building should accommodate. There are not enough classrooms, sometimes not enough desks and supplies. Yes, Principal Keeler says, Van Hise is overcrowded. As a result, every space has been turned into classroom space. They always seem to find the supplies they need, but they do have to scramble sometimes to make it work. We enter the library, and it proves her point. A 1st grade class is sitting in the library reading a book and writing a book report. The space is cramped. Stuffed bookshelves are pushed together to make way for computers and desks. I cannot help but compare it to Midvale’s library with its beautiful muraled wall and open space that encourages you to browse the shelves and sit and read a book.

What the 1st grade class is doing, however, gets more of my attention than where they are. They are reading Stewart Little, a 100+ page book. Wow. I asked if this is an advanced reading group, and the teacher says, no, this is a regular 1st grade class, and all the students in the class are reading the book. Did I already say wow?

As we continue our tour, we visit the music room (which is crammed at the front with book resources for the teachers), the lunchroom, and the art class. The art class was the most disappointing. They were doing shrinky dinks, and the teacher was chewing gum like a teenager.

Before I entered Van Hise this morning, I thought for sure we would send Cass to Midvale. How can you turn down the chance to teach your child Spanish? But now, it is not so clear. Tim and I started the comparisons, and this is what we came up with: Midvale has dual immersion classes taught in Spanish, smaller class sizes, a more diverse student body, extra teachers per class, and an amazing art program. Van Hise has a better academic program, a beautiful space to learn in, K/1 and 2/3 classroom options, and a more involved principal. Which missing strengths can we supplement on our own? Which can we not duplicate? Which can we do without? Decisions, decisions. And it’s almost time to register.


2 thoughts on “School Tours: Van Hise Elementary

  1. Hi,

    We’re relocating from Chicago to Madison, and our daughter will go to K this summer.

    My wife and I toured Midvale last week and we think that they have an excellent Dual Language Immersion Program, the principal gave us a very detailed explanation of the program, we were quite impressed.

    However, the program starts with 90% Spanish, 10% English, then they gradually increase the amount of English every year until they reach 50% for each language (5th Grade, I believe).

    I have two concerns with that: the first one is related to English writing and reading skills, not sure if the program would have a negative impact on their education on the long-run…. The second concern is about moving our daughter to a different school in the middle of the program, if for whatever reason we have to take her to an English-only school, I wonder how she would adapt to a new program that is not dual-language?

    I wanted to ask you few things:
    – did you end up sending your child to Midvale, I’m curious to get your opinion…
    – If you live in a house that belongs to a certain school attendance boundaries, can you still send your kids to a different school from the same school district? My wife and I are very interested in the Van Hise and Randall/Franklin elementary schools. I’m trying to find information related to this but so far I can’t find much…

    Thanks and Great Blog!


  2. My daughter is at Van Hise, and we are loving it there. She is challenged academically and the school is great. I also have friends with children in K at Midvale and they are happy as well. No, as a general rule, you cannot go out of your boundaries, unless you apply to transfer out. The school district had considered allowing families in the Van Hise area to have top priority to switching to neighboring schools, due solely to overcrowding. But they never officially adopted that policy, so it’s not clear if they are doing anything official with that. But that is why we took it upon ourselves to visit Midvale too. Midvale (as a dual immersion school) gets several applications each year to transfer there from other Madison Area School District schools. And Lincoln has a separate, special program that you have to apply to join– the open classroom program. So we visited that too.
    Good luck!

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