Ellis Middle School, originally called Ellis Junior High, was born out School District U-46’s need for additional classroom space in the years following World War II.
Once confined largely to the city of Elgin, the system faced growing enrollments in the late 1940s, due not only to the postwar baby boom, but to state consolidation laws, which prompted it to annex a variety of smaller districts, primarily to the east and south. To meet this need, residents were asked to support two separate referendums, one in 1946 and the other in 1948. The first authorized the purchase of a north-end site and the second the purchase of a southeast parcel and construction of the two schools. Both questions passed by wide margins, and a five-acre parcel was acquired for Ellis and a seven-acre parcel for its twin, Larsen.
The price tag for each site was just more than $60,000 while the amount allotted for the construction of each school was just more than $1 million. Ground was broken for Ellis in 1950 and during construction, the building was named for prominent district staff member, Emmie U. Ellis. Ellis had served as an elementary principal and English department head at Elgin High School.
What has been a strong resemblance between the buildings was due to the selection of the same architects, LeRoy W. Thompson of Chicago and Elmer Gylleck and Associates of Elgin.
Working with a variety of local subcontractors, Ellis was built under the supervision of Lamp Construction Company. Incorporating advances not found in earlier counterparts, lockers were built flush to the wall, and doors were recessed to avoid swinging outward to the hall.
The schools also included a "small theater" or auditorium, large gymnasium, library and classrooms arranged in "core suites," which provided common storage and office space. Fluorescent lighting was installed in every room, and green chalkboards took the place of their black counterparts found in many older buildings.
Though hopes were high for opening the buildings in the fall of 1951, postwar shortages combined with the scarcity of skilled labor delayed the completion of each building. Priority was given to construction of classrooms, leaving other areas partially completed until the spring.
"We held gym classes in the hall most of the year," noted Rhene Cassell, who served as Ellis' first physical education teacher. Bill Horn, a student during Ellis’ first year added, "We had no bells at first. The main office secretary would step into the hall and blow a whistle to signal the end of a period."
The new seventh- through ninth-grade junior high arrangement relieved the overcrowding at the district's elementary schools, which previously housed seventh- and eighth-graders. Elgin High School, then the district’s only high school, took on a new 10th- through 12th-grade configuration as well. A subject of community pride, both Ellis and Larsen were touted in a community publication promoting Elgin's "All American City" award in the mid-1950s.
Chosen as principal at Ellis was Samuel Nicholas, former Elgin High School industrial arts teacher. A school in which principal tenure is longstanding, the school has only seen four other principals: Keith Sack, James Feuerborn, Dave Smiley and Perry Hayes. The current principal, Yvette Gonzalez-Collins, has been at the helm since 2017.
In keeping with district-wide changes, the building was reconfigured as a middle school in 1982 with the district's move to four-year high schools. The change made available additional classrooms which then housed the district's preschool program, previously housed at Columbia School.
In the mid-1990s, Ellis was included in a district-wide effort to provide the latest in technology in all rooms, including computers with Internet and e-mail access, as well as television with cable TV access.
A decade ago, both buildings were also retrofitted with air conditioning and a new heating and cooling system as part of a district-wide program.
What some view as the most significant educational change occurred in 2000 when a district-wide initiative resulted in the creation of what many call a true middle school program.
Staff agreed to add an extra period to the day for reading, and create "cores," which allowed for most students to have the same five teachers for reading, English, social studies or U.S. history, science, and mathematics.
"It took advantage of research, which tells us smaller communities of learners are better for this age group than the junior high model we used previously," said Ellis former principal Perry Hayes.
Ellis had a number of long-time staff members who have chosen to remain at the school for many years. Even after retirement, the Ellis staff has always been small and close-knit, say many veterans.
Ellis saw an addition in 2003 that included eight classrooms, several offices and a cafeteria and library expansion. It also added an alumni courtyard which contains a number of engraved bricks bought by many students, staff, and alumni during the school’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“Many staff and students have strong ties to the building and return to visit long after they have left,” added Hayes. “Many people tell me time and time again that their time at Ellis was a very positive experience in their lives.”