By Cheryl Magness
Students in the Class of 2023 at Lutheran High School (LuHi) in Springfield, Ill., gave up any hope of a “normal” high school experience long ago.
“In March of their freshman year, COVID hit,” said LuHi Interim Principal Zachary Klug. “There was, initially, the transition to remote learning, then two years of masking, social distancing and other restrictions. With the 2022–2023 school year, it was looking like, finally, we might experience a year more like the ones we had pre-COVID. Then, this happened.”
“This” is the recent discovery that the structural integrity and long-term viability of the LuHi campus has been compromised by mine subsidence, a phenomenon in which the ground over an old coal mine shifts or sinks due to the collapse of the mine. LuHi, like many buildings in the Springfield area, was built over old coal mines. “Room-and-pillar” mining aims to avoid later collapse by maintaining columns of support in the mined area, but some degree of collapse often occurs over time.
In the case of LuHi, the initial problems didn’t, on their own, indicate anything serious: a hard-to-open door, a leaking floor pipe causing tile to buckle, and water from the athletic fields’ irrigation system backing up in the parking lot. But as the problems continued to pile up, LuHi leadership called for help identifying the cause.
At the time, Klug, then assistant principal, was on vacation, and Glenn Rollins was LuHi principal. Then Rollins accepted a call to serve The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) as director of its Set Apart to Serve church work recruitment initiative, and Klug became interim principal. Upon returning from vacation in late June, Klug opened his email to discover a mountain of messages and photos about the ongoing issues on the school campus. “It was definitely not what I expected my first day back at work,” he said.
‘Case study’ in mine subsidence
Since that time, representatives from the Illinois Department of Human Resources and the Illinois Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund (IMSIF) have become regular visitors to the LuHi campus. Mine subsidence is unpredictable, ranging from small to severe changes in the ground below a structure. Sometimes the effects develop slowly, resulting in the need to monitor the structure over many months and years before mine subsidence can be conclusively determined. Other times the issues are severe and acute, resulting in a rapid diagnosis of the underlying cause. The second scenario is the one LuHi experienced.
“IMSIF told us that we are like a case study in mine subsidence,” Klug said. “They are seeing an entire subsidence event occur in short order in one location. The ground below the school dropped 23 inches within two weeks, most of that in one day.”
The LuHi building has, so far, not been condemned or deemed unsafe, but such a pronouncement will likely come. The initial small problems have led to extreme, wide-ranging and obvious ones. Balls dropped in the middle of the gym roll to one corner. There are large gaps where floors meet walls and where walls meet other walls. Floors and ceilings slope visibly, doors don’t shut properly, windows are bowed, and water enters the building every time it rains, leaving sediment and a persistent mustiness behind.
It didn’t take long to see that LuHi would have to find another place to hold classes for the foreseeable future. The search for a temporary site led to Springfield First Church of the Nazarene. An agreement providing for LuHi to rent space from the church was reached on July 20, and classes began on Aug. 24, only a few days after the originally scheduled opening date of Aug. 18. The intervening weeks were a blur of packing, painting, moving and unpacking.
“So many people donated time and energy to make the move happen,” said Klug. “St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Havana, Illinois, gave a donation to assist the painting of our new space. Lutheran High School in Parker, Colorado, donated 80 tables to better fit the smaller classrooms. Comfort Air in Springfield, Illinois, provided labor to hang whiteboards. Landrey Family Farms provided semi-trucks and trailers for the move.
“Contractors DeWeese Painting and Ryan Electric ran cable for access points and cameras. There were many others who helped. God is good and has blessed us so richly in spite of the larger problems.”
For the students, losing their school and having to adjust to a new building has not been without its challenges. For example, there are no lockers.
“You have to carry everything with you everywhere,” said senior Ethan Theilen.
Junior Tristyn Carlove said the task of getting back into the swing of school after summer vacation was complicated by having to do so “in a building that’s not really designed for school use.”
“It definitely feels different,” said senior Hannah Springer, adding that not only are classrooms smaller, but there is a shortage of space for things like study halls, group activities and meetings.
Sophomore Greenlee Dust misses the LuHi gym with its banners, signs and other visible indicators of school spirit. “Our gym was our home,” she said, before adding how thankful she is for the gym at First Church of the Nazarene.
Asked how LuHi teachers are managing under the strain of the move, Dust said, “They’re amazing.” Sophomore Clara Brunner highlighted teachers’ efforts to help students adapt. For example, in some classes, students have copies of books both at home and in the classroom so they don’t have to carry them back and forth.
Brunner also appreciates the extensive help that has come in from around the country. “People sent donations, helped us paint … all so that we can feel at home.”
Springer says the foundation of God’s Word is sustaining the school community through this trial. “We believe in God, so we know that this happened for a reason and … that He can work through the toughest of situations,” she said.
Theilen said he is not sad that his final year of high school will take place in a different building from the one he’s been accustomed to. “We’re graduating with the same people. We have the same teachers. … What makes Lutheran High School special is that it’s a Lutheran high school. … You can have that in any building.”
From ‘LuHi’ to ‘NuHi’
Lately the LuHi community has begun calling their new location “NuHi,” a name that not only helps distinguish between the two locations but also reflects the forward-looking attitude of the LuHi community. That forward path will not likely include a return to the old building. Deterioration could continue for years, making the possibility of repair an open-ended question.
Any repair would also be cost-prohibitive, as the underlying issue of the mine collapse would have to be addressed first. Like other buildings in the area, LuHi has mine subsidence insurance. The insurance, however, is managed by the state, and the maximum payout is $750,000, a far cry from what is currently owed on the LuHi building, which underwent an expansion in 2017. In the meantime, mortgage payments must continue to be paid in addition to rent on the temporary space.
Klug, who is a 1994 graduate of LuHi and has children in this year’s freshman and senior classes, says that it would be easy, in the face of the obstacles that remain, to become discouraged: “This road has been riddled with problems, and the devil has definitely been working hard to make people feel hopeless.”
But he says he believes God “is working great things in this community to show His Gospel message through the care and love LuHi has received. … I am thankful for the great team of people who have helped in every aspect of this monumental task and made it possible for us to open our doors this year: colleagues, parents, students, board members, members of the Lutheran community, the larger Springfield community, and everyone who came together to help, no matter how large or small.”
LuHi was founded in 1978. For more information, visit spiluhi.org.
Posted Sept. 29, 2022/Updated Oct. 3, 2022