Guest Column: Proposed closure of Cherry Valley School: Do not go gentle into that good night

By Eve Kirk

During the month of May, Rockford Public School District 205 (RPS 205) introduced a long-range facilities plan through a series of meetings around the district. As in the past, Cherry Valley School was once again selected for closing. No media came to cover the Cherry Valley/White Swan meeting May 8. If they had, they would have found what I did — a clean, welcoming, cheerful school in good order. (Cherry Valley was selected a year ago for Heartland’s valuable “Sharefest” spiff-it-up volunteer initiative.)

A little background is in order. Cherry Valley has had an elementary school in the community since 1848 with a high school program in 1889 that lasted more than 50 years. By 1967, the Cherry Valley Elementary District covered considerable territory. But times change. The village that had supported its own school for more than 120 years and had the initiative to collaborate with the developers of the CherryVale Mall was required by the State Board of Education to consolidate with a larger school. RPS 205 was chosen.

Many other rural or country schools in the late 1960s through early 1970s also followed this state mandate and became part of RPS. The result? Over the decades, various elected Rockford Public School boards have closed every country school on the RPS periphery — except two. (Some of these closures may have been mandated by federal officials.) Cherry Valley and White Swan are the last two legacy country schools left within the Rockford School District.

The failings of Cherry Valley and White Swan have little to do with the teachers, students or combined test score performance; the failings are in school facilities perceived to be too small or unmodern by today’s standards. As was presented by a school board member, neither of these schools can support “three or four strands,” in laymen’s language, three or four classes of the same grade level to comprise an elementary building of 500 to 600 students, which we are told is optimum for teaching and support staff, and for securing grants.

In 2012, meetings were held at the downtown RPS administrative facility to discuss facilities. Many of these meetings — at a location 10 miles from Cherry Valley — were held on Tuesday nights, the same night the Village of Cherry Valley has either board or committee meetings. What this means is that the local officials most familiar with the economics of the area and most able to advocate for their constituents were, in effect, excluded from the conversation.

What the officials might have said was that closing Cherry Valley School would have a negative economic effect on the village, if not the entire Cherry Valley area. Just drive around Illinois and take a look at so many smaller communities diminished by the lack of vitality that comes when a local school is shuttered. Many families moved to Cherry Valley years ago because of the good reputation of the nearby school. Without Cherry Valley School, commerce within the old village will be affected — the gas station, the restaurants, the orchard, and yes, the library, sited one block from the school in 1989 to be a support to the school and a civic anchor for the village. The loss of a school from a long-established village effectively drives a stake through the collective heart of the village stakeholders.

The school board endorsed the possibility of Plans A, B and C for facilities. In Plans A and B, Cherry Valley School would be sacrificed, but eminent domain of up to six homes surrounding White Swan School would also be required to add classroom capacity for the displaced CV students. (White Swan, an excellent elementary school, in fact, scored only one notch higher on the “deficient facilities” scorecard.) Plan B would also provide a new Kishwaukee/Nelson school in Rockford, with enough leftover bond money for some overall school maintenance and new furnishings. Only when Plan C is examined, with a proposed new Cherry Valley/White Swan combined school (along with the new combined elementary school in Rockford) do we see that NO MONEY from the bond will be left for all other school district building maintenance! Or so we are told, for surveys can be conceived and worded to suggest the desired outcome.

So, may I suggest Plan D for “decline.” Let’s have a do-over with the citizen taxpayers of the southeast portion of the school district, an area east of Mulford Road for which RPS has made no significant new investment in 40 years. Meet with the Cherry Valley Village Board. Meet at White Swan and meet at Cherry Valley schools. Listen to the parents who truly do not want to pay more property taxes but would like to feel as if a decision to close a school was not foisted upon them. Allow the citizens this courtesy, and see if a revised plan, one that could include a new community school as envisioned, and for which property was set aside 25 years ago, could come to fruition.

Consider the economic boost a new school could have so that redevelopment takes place in an area ripe for it. Consider that new growth in the Cherry Valley area could positively affect property values, thus revenue the entire school district needs for decades to come. Do it right this time, and get buy-in from a separate, distinct community whose school was entrusted to RPS care and oversight for progress, not destruction. For the decisions the present RPS school board makes establish consequences for the next half century or more.

I should know about consequences from school decisions. In 1965, my elementary school in another Illinois county was forced to consolidate with another school 9 miles away. Then, like now, the building seemed to be the most important factor. (My “inadequate” country school produced scores of teachers, National Merit finalists, an editor for the Denver Post, etc.) Forty-eight years later, the population in this area has grown significantly. Where do these families’ children go to school? Still 9 miles away. Think of the decades of wasted time on buses, wasted resources on gas, lost time commuting to a facility in the cornfields because of a decision made without long-range thinking.

I’ve had the privilege to hold 1890s Cherry Valley School textbooks of Thornton Baumann in my hands and observe the flow of his exquisite handwritten notes. (Thornton Baumann was a prominent Cherry Valley farmer.) Nothing stays the same these days, and times keep changing. Yet, I feel a spirit crying out for “respect, caring, inclusion, trustworthiness and accountability,” some of the guiding principles selected for Transform Rockford.

Dear RPS School Board, please step back from the destruction of another community’s school. Take the time needed to forge a real consensus from this community, not go with a result preordained from the manner in which the presentation and surveys were crafted. The extra time invested could surely bring praise, rather than criticism, to the hardworking school board that desires, like the citizens it represents, to serve all the children’s educational needs as effectively as possible.

Eve Kirk is a Rockford resident for 15 years and present director of the Cherry Valley Public Library District for 14 years. She attended Dayton Township School. Later in life, she drove a school bus for three years to pay back college loans. She was one-time director of Friendly City Sound, Ottawa Elementary Schools’ fourth- through sixth-grade audition choir, which provided positive PR through programming to community groups in and around Ottawa.

From the June 4-10, 2014, issue

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