RANTOUL — Chanute Air Force Base was the source of many things in Rantoul: Revenue, population, wonderment and its identity.
And as long as Chanute was open, the village's schools benefitted.
The base meant a steady stream of school-age children. And along with them, federal money, because the two local school districts could not tax government-owned property.
It has been 20 years since the base closed, when Rantoul City Schools and Rantoul Township High School had to deal with a sharp reduction in students, revenue and staff. The schools have seen their classroom demographics shift from kids of the military to kids from impoverished homes. The impact aid that Uncle Sam provided ended in the mid-1990s. The taxpayers, reluctantly, have increased their school tax rates to compensate for lost government money and stagnant property values. And the districts have cut their staffs as their overall enrollments have declined.
Despite those negative trends, some Rantoul community members see a positive future.
Kathleen Finney, who owns a local law firm, attended St. Malachy Catholic School in the early 1960s, back when Chanute was bustling with airmen and civilian employees. She recalls classmates being there one year, gone the next.
"You were always open to the new kids because you got used to meeting new people and finding out new things," Finney said. "I know parents seemed to try to stay in Rantoul so their kids could graduate here. For the most part, I recall seeing a variety of kids in the classrooms."
Many classmates hailed from different parts of the United States, as well as Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy and England.
"It was just phenomenal," Finney said. "Our eyes were opened to cultures very early."
During geography lessons, students would tell the class what it was like living in another country, using props like kimonos or origami. They knew. They'd been there.
"That was really wonderful," Finney said. "It created in me a desire to see the world."
Finney attended Rantoul Township High School from 1967-71, where she was a newspaper editor and involved in numerous musicals. She said that period was during the baby boom, and opportunities abounded for students.
"It is different," Finney said. "I went through RTHS during the baby boom rush through 1971. We had 1,600 kids in the school. My graduating class was about 270-280. The number of groups you could belong to was wonderful. There really was an emphasis on excellence."
RTHS a melting pot
RTHS Principal Todd Wilson went to Eastlawn Elementary from kindergarten through the middle of third grade in the late 1970s, before his parents moved to Thomasboro.
"Especially when I was younger, I didn't realize that my classmates were here because of the base," Wilson said. "When I got to high school, I realized how large it was. It was quite large. Having the Air Force base here not only helped Rantoul prosper, but the surrounding bedroom communities too.
"Kids weren't only going through the Rantoul school system, but Ludlow, Gifford, Thomasboro, St. Malachy, too."
Wilson said that at Thomasboro Grade School, he went through third to eighth grade with the same 25 classmates, a narrow social circle. That changed come ninth grade.
"At the high school, you had the melting-pot theory," Wilson said. "You had the kids in the surrounding areas and the Air Force kids. You met so many different people. When I came here, I was exposed to more people."
With more students and federal funding, Wilson remembers various after-school groups such as debate, cultural interest club and having a DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) and co-op programs for juniors and seniors to work part of the day provided, along with more academic subjects.
Wilson graduated from RTHS in 1990, three years before the base's closure.
Carolyn Hinton came from a southern Illinois school when she was hired to be Northview Elementary School's new music teacher in 1987, and she thought Rantoul was the best place to work. She later would become the school's principal.
"It was a utopia," Hinton said of working in the Rantoul City Schools, where students attend through the eighth grade. "It was better than a private school. We just had everything you could ever want. Money from the government kept us pretty well supplied with anything. They bought our coffee, (even air freshener). Every teacher had paints, dollies and every kind of supply you could imagine. We didn't have to have a teachers' union because we all were paid well all the time. We were federally funded well."
The Northview principal loved seeing all the military members in action. She and Northview secretary Mary Shields remember when base personnel lowered the flag while taps played at 4 p.m. each day.
"The whole town stopped," Shields said.
Rantoul City Schools had a solid reputation with the Air Force as being an ideal place for children with learning disabilities. Hinton credits former superintendents Dave Glisson and Bill Trankina for fostering that atmosphere.
Another bonus was the student discipline in place.
"You had trouble with a kid, you'd call his dad," Hinton said. "If that didn't help, you'd call the commanding officer, and then end of story."
Closure affects schools
The spring before Chanute closed Sept. 30, 1993, Hinton and any teacher in RCS with less than 18 years with the district were RIF'd — reduction in force — because of the expected decline in student population.
Fortunately for Hinton, she was hired that fall to be principal for Northview.
"The staff that was left was really seasoned, but they lost out on so many wonderful young teachers," Hinton said. "It made for an expensive staff."
Federal aid was tied to student enrollment, so the town's population decline prompted the grade school district's teachers to form a union.
According to a February 1993 article in the Rantoul Press, three-quarters of the grade school district's $9 million budget in 1992-93 was made up of state and federal money. The same school year, more than half of the high school's $4 million budget came from state and federal funding.
At that time, Glisson said the majority of RCS' federal funding was "impact aid" given to all schools teaching children of military personnel. That would drop from $1.3 million that year to zero just three years later.
"My first year when I was an administrator was when the teachers' union was voted in," Hinton said. "We were one of the last two or three in the state to get one. They were worried what would happen since the past wouldn't be the future anymore."
Hinton said teachers and administrators were blindsided to what the aftermath of the base closure would be.
She said some of Chicago's public housing began to close, with many of its residents moving to Rantoul and other downstate towns.
"We didn't know how to deal with poverty children," Hinton said. "We didn't know how to deal with Hispanics," who would need language services.
Trankina, the grade school district superintendent, was an "astute businessman," Hinton said, as he saved enough money to last the district seven years after the base closed.
"We had a referendum because the money from the base completely dried up, and the classrooms were going to be 40-45 kids in them if something wasn't done," Hinton said. "The first referendum failed, but the next one passed because people finally understood we needed more money."
Rantoul voters approved a higher property tax rate in April 2003. The high school district — which includes Ludlow, Thomasboro and Gifford — won a property tax rate increase in April 1999, after five previous attempts failed with the voters.
Maplewood School closed due to low enrollment, and Trankina converted the schools into grade centers.
"The poverty was settled in two schools, and you can't run a district like that," Hinton said. "That's why Bill (Trankina) wanted to switch to learning centers, so they could be better integrated."
RCS and RTHS declined in student achievement, with both districts consistently failing to meet state and federal achievement test marks. RTHS and Broadmeadow School had to restructure as well.
Behavior problems became rampant, culminating in RTHS briefly having a gang problem, which the police department resolved.
Wilson came back in 2007, after teaching in the Champaign school district. RTHS went through structural changes.
"The west wing that I went to was the 1921 building. We got the building erected in 2003. The actual facade by (Superintendent Scott) Amerio's office was the original entrance to the 1921 building, and they just kept it in place. The school district did that to tie the old community back into the new community. There's so many people who walked through that entrance who walked from 1921 to 2003, and that was their high school."
Wilson said student achievement is difficult to compare from the Chanute era with now, as changes in demographics and educational legislation make it "an apples-and-oranges comparison."
"The learning environment is different because it's a different population that you are serving," Wilson said. "The kids who came from the Air Force base had more strict households because of their parents' military background. When I went to school, were there kids who misbehaved in my class? Yes. Are there kids who misbehave now? Yes. There is research out there that says 10 percent of your kids that cause 90 percent of your problems, no matter the size of your population."
Wilson said the Common Core standards being taught now foster better critical thinking skills in students, hopefully preparing them well for college or the workforce.
"Before, we were providing them with information and recite it back to us," Wilson said. "Now, we're making them find the information, giving them the tools to search for themselves, think about it and apply it instead of a multiple-choice test."
Hinton said RCS is rebounding as the district now better understands how to serve an ethnic, economically diverse clientele. The district applies for numerous federal grants, is moving toward more interactive and small group learning styles, and added English Language Learners classrooms.
"A lot of things have changed," Hinton said. "We've got a lot of wonderful initiatives. They aren't at ground floor anymore, but maybe on the second or third level."
Finney said RTHS impresses her from what her clients and friends tell her.
"There's an emphasis on kids determining a goal and reaching the potential," Finney said. "I find kids that have deeper educational problems like autism or things like that are very well served at Rantoul High, and to me that's a plus with so many kids having disabilities. They are not only meeting, but exceeding their charter, and I'm glad to see that."
Rantoul's residents, Finney said, need to decide individually and collectively if they will spend money, effort and their time to improve education.
"If you go along with everyone emphasizing our negative aspects, there's not a lot of growth there," Finney said. "That's a lot of echo."