The winner is... Kirk Wessler, sports writer for the Peoria Journal Star. This guy hit a home run with this article. It is so on-point and comprehensive I can't think of a single comment to improve upon it.
By KIRK WESSLER
of the Journal Star
Posted Jun 18, 2009 @ 10:30 PM
Last update Jun 19, 2009 @ 01:45 PM
PEORIA — When the District 150 school board finally votes on which of its four high schools to close, the choice should be a no-brainer.
Say good-bye to Manual.
It won’t be that easy, of course. For some reason, Manual seems to be surrounded by a magic force field that has made the school untouchable in this debate. That needs to change. Right now.
Much as I hate to see any school close, I believe it’s a financial necessity. Reasonable people disagree and present compelling data about the “right size” for urban high schools, to support keeping all schools open. If they can find a way to do that without drowning us in debt, more power to them.
The board, however, voted in April to close a high school but deferred specifics. The vote on which school to close will come whenever it shows up on the agenda. Could be any week now.
Closing Richwoods, the only city high school north of War Memorial Drive, is out of the question. All the talk to date has focused on Peoria High, a.k.a. Central, and Woodruff.
But why has Manual been off the table? I know one board member who wonders the same thing, and I suspect there are others. It’s way past time for them to open their mouths in public and in a loud, clear voice demand rational, substantive answers before they endorse one more lame proposal from an administration that has zero credibility with the taxpaying public.
Manual’s location alone should make it the No. 1 candidate for closure. The campus is pinned into the far-southwest corner of the city, a mere three blocks from the Limestone Community school district. The growth potential is non-existent. Residents of West Peoria and the Peoria West Bluff, a sizable slice of which falls within Manual’s attendance boundaries, abandoned the school years ago.
Manual’s future as a viable high school is a lost cause.
That’s painful to say, because the negative perception of the neighborhood is overblown and unfair. I’ll grant it can be a rough area, but not once have I ever felt unsafe there. I attend church on the South Side, three blocks south of the school. I visit Manual. I’m in the neighborhood several times a week, day and night. I’m watchful, but never worried.
Perceptions are real, though, even if they’re wrong. So, parents of kids in suburban schools don’t want to schedule sports contests at Manual, and city dwellers don’t want to attend events there. Almost nobody with a choice wants their kids to go to school there. So they don’t do any of those things.
Those are facts. Here are more.
Other than basketball, Manual’s programs have become perennial failures. We’re not talking about dismal won-lost records, which have led to ownership of last place in the conference all-sports standings for most of this decade. After all, extracurricular activities are about more than winning percentages. No, Manual’s problem is that most of its sports programs lack the participation necessary to offer reasonable opportunity to compete.
It’s one thing to play and get beat. It’s quite another to have to forfeit, or to concede victory before the starter’s gun fires, or to reschedule — over and over — because there aren’t enough kids to field a varsity team, let alone freshman or sophomore development squads.
Peoria High and Woodruff fight some of the same battles, but not nearly to the degree Manual does. They remain salvageable.
First, the boundaries for Central and Woodruff still encompass thriving residential neighborhoods that have not given up on themselves, or on their high schools.
Plus, there are other factors in play.
Closing Peoria High as an institution would be crazy. It was founded in 1856 and remains the oldest continuing high school west of the Allegheny Mountains; 17th oldest in the entire country, according to the school Web site.
My best friend, a former Richwoods basketball player, is a high school administrator in Michigan now. He was back for a visit last weekend and wanted to know more about what he’d been reading in regard to Peoria school closures.
“You know,” he said, “I never had any use at all for Central. But closing that school would be nuts. You just don’t throw away history like that.”
When the Peoria Diocese merged Academy of Our Lady/Spalding Institute with Bergan to form Peoria Notre Dame in 1988, the Catholic community here lost a lot more than two old school buildings. A part of its soul was needlessly, stupidly ripped out and flushed away, never to be recovered.
If you don’t believe me, ask an old Spalding or Academy alum.
Another thing about Peoria High, the building. Opened in 1916, it’s the oldest in the district. It’s also the largest. And it’s a fortress. What sense does it make to increase enrollment — and crowding — at the remaining schools and shut down the biggest one?
As for Woodruff, I’ve seen more overall improvement there over the past decade than at any of the other high schools, Richwoods included. The community spirit, in an area of the city that’s too easily written off, is palpable. What Tim Thornton and his staff have done to restore the football program — on the field and in the classroom — borders on miraculous. Wrestling remains strong and won the conference championship last winter. Its teams are not all doormats.
Closing Manual would be sad. From a sports standpoint, closing it barely a decade after the Rams won a record four consecutive boys basketball state titles also would be stunning.
But closing Central or Woodruff would be wrong.
Full disclosure here. Four generations of my family attended Peoria High. My wife works there, and I’m a member of the school’s alumni board. Also, my brother, who is a Manual graduate, teaches at Woodruff. And I still live on the West Bluff.
Take that however you wish.
KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 686-3216.