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Belvidere School District 100 may close Perry Elementary School

Belvidere parents and students sing an ode to Perry Elementary School as they stand outside of its 127-year-old walls, waiting to go inside to demand the school board keep the school open.

Young students hold up “Save Perry” and “Please don’t close my school” signs.

“Small schools, high test scores,” reads Liam’s sign. He’s a third-grader at Perry, and a third-generation Perry student in his family.

“I really want to be here for fifth grade," he said, "because I want to be a crossing guard. You can only do that in fifth grade. And if they close Perry school, I will only be here one more year and won’t be able to do what I want to do.”

It’s a story heard from countless community members who gave public testimony at the meeting. They say Perry is more than a school, it’s a family. And one of the big reasons is because it’s a community school. Most of the kids who go there live within walking distance. They say it’s the keystone of the neighborhood where students play after school and in the summer, and where parents connect with each other and with teachers.

Over 1,000 people have signed a petitionto keep Perry alive.

Cassandra Schug is the Superintendent at Belvidere District 100. That night, she spent over an hour laying out various facilities proposals and fielding questions.

One of the reasons Perry may close is a reason people are so fond of it -- its age. It was built in 1897. It has deferred maintenance and needs a new roof. It’s also the smallest school in the district, which Shug says makes it more difficult to pull out students for specialized instruction.

She says they can’t offer Dual Language programming at Perry, which is why 22% of students who live in Perry’s attendance area go to school somewhere else.

“Really," she said, "with the size being the biggest factor that it’s difficult to offer a Dual Language program here at Perry School."

It also has no elevator, which makes accessibility difficult.

There are three proposals that have been brought forward within the vision of the district’s facilities design plan. One would close Perry and build a new Pre-K Center. One would keep it open while creating the new center, and another would keep it open without a new center, while investing in Perry.

A team of 50 stakeholders has been meeting for the past year and a half to discuss the plans and give recommendations. It included a staff member and parent from each school, as well as students, board members and the superintendent.

Their most preferred option was the one that would close Perry. Even though it’s the least-expensive scenario, they preferred to centralize Pre-K with the new center & said simply enhancing the status quo wouldn’t “move the needle” to improve conditions for kids.

The school board’s vote could come as soon as next week, which was shocking to some community members.

“My first question," asked one resident, Harmony, "is why were the 50 stakeholders that were selected for the master plan design team allowed to vote on a scenario before they heard the public's concerns & questions, and the parents and teachers' concerns and questions?”

Those questions ranged from busing, taxes and class sizes to if the board realized how traumatic it could be for all200 or so studentsto switch schools. Schug says parents would have some say over where their kids would go, but that there'd be a lottery system as well.

Members of the community argued that Perry is a successful school that is so successful because of its small size and place in the middle of a neighborhood.

“In the summer," said Madison, a graduating senior at Belvidere High School, who went to Perry, "students could bring their families to the garden in the front and plant flowers, and, after, the teachers would read a book. It was every Tuesday at 10 a.m. I don't believe any other school does that.”

Former students spoke about becoming teachers because of their experience there. Current Perry educators, like paraprofessional Treasure Bock also spoke out.

“Over the years, I can't count how many times I have heard students say, ‘I don't want to go home, I want to stay at school,’” said Bock. “To me, this shows our school is a refuge for students.”

Fort Zachary is an ESL teacher at Perry. He says this is a question about what’s best for kids, and that what Perry has is not easily replicable.

“Being off neighborhood streets instead of the main traffic thoroughfares, children are safer. Parents who can walk their child to school see and meet the teacher more,” said Zachary. “Strong parent-teacher communication leads to better student achievement, which leads to neighborhood involvement and productive members of society.”

Check out the district’s Facilities Master Plan & the three scenarios at district100.com.

The final decision could be made at the next board meeting on May 20. If the board votes to shutter the school, it will close after the 2024-25 school year.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.