ATWOOD — Vevalee Smith said attending this spring's high school graduation ceremonies at Atwood-Hammond High School will be emotional for her, knowing the high school will become a memory a year from now.
"There's no doubt about it. Graduation is going to be a little bit tough," said Smith, who worked for the school district's superintendent's office for more than 15 years and is currently the mayor of Atwood.
"My son graduated from here, and there's a lot of wonderful memories at this high school, not only for me, but for my friends."
After voters approved a ballot question last month approving the consolidation of the Atwood-Hammond and Arthur school districts, school officials, teachers and students have begun the process of merging the two districts into a single entity.
Atwood-Hammond Superintendent Kenny Schwengel said the two school districts will spend the 2013-14 school year getting ready for the merger, which takes effect on July 1, 2014.
"I think, for the most part, people are taking it in stride," Schwengel said. "There's some anxiety among the adults, but the kids seem to adapt to change more easily than the adults."
Starting in the fall of 2014, the whole district will be known as District 305, according to Arthur Superintendent Travis Wilson. "We will keep the same district unit number," he said.
Schwengel said Atwood-Hammond students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade will continue to attend classes at their current school in Atwood.
But Atwood-Hammond High School will be closed, and the students in grades nine through 12 will attend classes at Arthur-Lovington High School, which will have about 300 students.
"Collectively, the students will play a role in determining the name of the high school," Wilson said.
Longtime Arthur resident David Conlin said he welcomes the merger of the two districts.
"I believe this will mean a better curriculum for the whole school system," said Conlin, a former Arthur mayor who graduated from Arthur High School in 1951. "I think the students will come out winners."
With the formal annexation a year away, Schwengel said, there will be time for everybody involved to plan for the larger entity.
"We have been working to coordinate the school calendars," he said. "We are scheduling some in-service days during the upcoming school year where teachers and staff can concentrate on scheduling, curriculum and other issues."
He said teachers from Atwood-Hammond and Arthur are beginning to work together in an effort to make the materials covered by the two schools more uniform so that to ease the academic adjustments when consolidation becomes a reality in the fall of 2014.
Schwengel said he doesn't anticipate any teachers will be losing jobs as a result of the annexation, with the idea of positions being eliminated as teachers retire and openings filled from within the district whenever possible.
"Everybody is assured of a position," he said.
School personnel in Arthur have experience in many of these matters since the district completed a similar consolidation with the Lovington school district last summer.
Schwengel said the consolidation issue was put on the April ballot because of declining enrollment and shrinking fund reserves. A bigger district provides a larger tax base from which to draw funding.
"This started four years ago when we were looking at possible cuts," he said. "We tried to pass a tax increase, but it failed by a 2-to-1 margin."
He said having a larger combined tax base and combined resources will allow the schools to be more secure financially, will help the larger district stave off severe tax increases and will also hold the line on possible budget cuts that some school districts are considering.
The larger combined enrollment means students could have access to classes they might not otherwise have under the current setup.
"For example, Atwood-Hammond students who haven't had access to agriculture classes will be able to take them," Wilson said.
The annexation of the two school districts figures to mean additional money to the larger Arthur district.
"The state provides money as an incentive for annexation," Wilson said.
According to figures provided by the Illinois State Board of Education, the state will provide about $242,000 of "reorganization incentives" to the Arthur school district during the first and fourth years and about $662,000 during the second and third years.
Assuming adequate appropriations by the Illinois General Assembly, the new, larger Arthur school district would receive $1.8 million of new money overall over the four years.
Smith said there were some disadvantages to Atwood-Hammond being a small school.
"We never had a nurse at the high school level," she said. "I remember one year the student council was having an event over in the gym, and one of the administrators came running toward me.
"We had a student with peanut butter stuck in the esophagus. Luckily, I knew about a woman across the street who used to be a nurse, and she came over to help."
Cooperation between Arthur and Atwood-Hammond has already begun when it comes to athletics.
Schwengel said the two schools are already fielding co-op teams in all sports except boys' basketball and girls' volleyball.
Two issues yet to be determined are the combined high school's athletic team nickname and the school colors for 2014.
Schwengel said the students will likely be involved in selecting a nickname and mascot, and a committee will be making a recommendation to use school colors incorporating those worn over the years at Arthur, Atwood-Hammond and Lovington.
He said Atwood-Hammond's colors have been black and gold, Arthur has worn red and white, and Lovington's colors were purple and gold.
Schwengel said Arthur High School and Atwood-Hammond High School will continue to hold separate proms in the spring of 2014.
"Yes, we'll still have one more prom here at Atwood-Hammond next year," he said.
According to Schwengel, the elected Arthur school board will be responsible for the entire school district beginning on July 1, 2014. The next school board elections won't happen until the spring of 2015.
Wilson noted that, after Lovington annexed to the Arthur school district, two Lovington school board members were appointed to fill vacancies on the Arthur school board.
Smith said she expects more than a few residents of Atwood and Hammond to shed a few tears when the final Atwood-Hammond diplomas are presented a year from now.
"We're a small town like Mayberry," she said. "We loved every day there was an Atwood-Hammond High School. I know things are changing, and I'm going to miss it.
"But our youth are our future, and we've got to give this a try."
Students will likely be involved in selecting a nickname, mascot and colors for their high school, after the Atwood-Hammond and Arthur school district merger is complete in 2014.
It's possible they will incorporate their current — and in Lovington's case, past — athletic team heraldry into their future selection.
Here's what they've got to work with:
Colors: Black and gold.
Mascot/nickname: The Rajahs.
Colors: Red and white.
Mascot/nickname: The Knights.
(prior to merger)
Colors: Purple and gold.
Mascot/nickname: The Panthers.