School’s back in session…and certainly back in the news. When it comes to District 150, the news stories lately are nothing short of exciting.

• The recent billboard campaign has raised some questions around town, but they’ve focused on money alone. In the same breath, the questioners praise the intent of the campaign.
• Money, too, is the focus of questions regarding the proposal to close some schools while building new ones, but it seems to me that should be one of the highest priorities of the school board. The necessity goes beyond the surface issue of the facilities themselves and reaches to the future—and image—of the district. It’s a bold and foresighted initiative.
• There’s a new mayor who has District 150 clearly—and deservedly—near the top of his agenda.
• There’s no shortage of well-qualified and well-intended people who line up for every school board vacancy.
• There’s a new superintendent with an impeccable track record in the district and instant credibility with the board, administrators, teachers, and parents.

It’s an exciting time in District 150, but for all that’s going on, I think I’m most excited about an initiative that’s scheduled to start next month. It’s the “Peoria Full Service Community Schools Project,” which will transform schools as we know them today. Commonly known as “Community Education,” the program will begin at Garfield Primary, Trewyn Middle, and Manual High schools. Dr. John (Jack) Gilligan, chair of 21st Century Workforce Task Force and retired chair of the Fayette Companies, along with District 150 Associate Superintendent Cindy Fisher, make a compelling, passionate presentation.

In essence, schools become community centers: open early in the morning, in the evening, and on weekends. Parents, neighbors, and—most importantly—the students themselves will view and use schools in a whole new way.

In Portland, Ore., the school board just went through the “close schools, build schools” dilemma. But the new elementary school it wants to build is bound to raise some eyebrows—and cheers. It’ll have a wing for the Boys & Girls Club with shared space in between. The city’s parks and recreation department will have facilities there, too.

Imagine the possibilities: medical and dental services for neighbors; school hallways used by walkers in the mornings; the library and basketball court opened in the evenings and on weekends; community dinners or pot-lucks in the cafeteria; a positive police presence; fire truck visits; kite flying on a Saturday afternoon; adult education in the evenings; computers galore that could be used for learning and playing; valuable public and private programs that, now that a central facility is available, could easily be taken to residents; positive role models of every age and occupation volunteering a small amount of time to help; recreational and educational programs that attract parents and residents—not just students; and a neighborhood “front porch” where residents can just bring a lawn chair and sit and chat on a pleasant evening.

You get the idea. There’s no end to the possibilities, and there may be no end to the dent community education can make in some of the problems that trouble us locally and nationally—problems like teen pregnancy, juvenile crime, and school dropout rates. Success may come quicker at the elementary school level, but there’s no reason not to try it everywhere.

The key word in community education is “community.” It’s an effort that deserves support—and a volunteer hour or two occasionally. Maybe one day we’ll look at Garfield, Trewyn, and Manual more as “communities” than schools. IBI