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BISMARCK — It's fourth hour at Bismarck-Henning-Rossville-Alvin High School, and students in one of the new Intro to Agriculture sections have just finished a quiz on swine breeds and terminology.

Earlier in the week, they studied cattle. Next up: sheep.

"Tomorrow, you'll have a worksheet, and you'll be doing a sheep speed-dating activity," substitute teacher Thea Gernand tells them, adding the breed they choose will have only a few minutes to impress their "dates" with their origin and characteristics.

"You should call the activity, 'Are ewe the one?'" senior Emma Mojonnier suggests with a grin, causing her classmates to groan.

Now in its second year, the cooperative high school launched its new agriculture/FFA program this past August, after a nearly 20-year absence at what was formerly Bismarck-Henning High School.

Officials said it's off to a strong start with close to 50 students in three courses including ag science and ag mechanics, 27 FFA members and ag teacher/FFA adviser Amy DeGoyler — who's currently on maternity leave — at the helm.

"Our goal now is to expand the program out to other students," said BHRA Principal Brent Rademacher. "We want to show them all of the career opportunities agriculture has to offer whether they decide to go on to college or directly into the workforce."

While Bismarck hasn't had a bustling business district, a grocery store or even a gas station for years, that hasn't kept folks from settling in this small northern Vermilion County farming community and the surrounding area. Whether a native or transplant, they said their main reasons for doing so: the small-town and rural environment and the "top-notch" schools — Bismarck-Henning elementary and junior high and BHRA — made possible through a historic school district reorganization approved by Bismarck-Henning and Rossville-Alvin voters in April 2017 and put in place that July.

On its 2018 Illinois report card, BH elementary, which had 345 pupils, received the "exemplary" designation, meaning it was in the top 10 percent of schools in the state and had no under-performing student groups. The new rating is still based on students' English/language arts and math proficiency but more so on growth, as well as other indicators such as chronic absenteeism and school climate.

The pre-K-4 school has always been in good standing, Principal Lisa Acton said. But the exemplary designation was "above and beyond" what anyone expected given the school lost beloved Principal Laura Girton to cancer last spring, which took a heavy toll on everyone.

"I think we came off that loss, knowing that our staff was able to persevere and continue doing what was best for students," said Acton, who succeeded her friend and colleague.

The high school, which had 342 students, and its two feeder schools — BH junior high, which had 252 students, and Rossville-Alvin Grade School — all received "commendable" ratings, meaning they had no under-performing student groups but weren't in the top 10 percent. The high school had a 97 percent graduation rate and 79.3 percent of ninth-graders were on track to graduate.

 

'No one worries about getting the credit'

Parents said they like the safe, secure learning environment, competitive curriculum, small class sizes and caring teachers and administrators.

"I felt like the education I received did an outstanding job of preparing me for college," said Maridith Hearnley, a BH graduate who now serves on the BH school board. Her husband, Chad, and father, Ken Hunter, are also alums.

Hearnley said her 9-year-old daughter had a few challenges in math and reading, but "they recognized that and were right there with resources to keep her on track."

"We've had an excellent experience with teachers being very involved with our children's education," said Melissa Leigh, whose mother-in-law, Janet Leigh, is one of them. She and her husband — Kent, a BH graduate — have an eighth-grader, seventh-grader and 4-year-old, who'll start pre-K next year. "We've always felt like our kids are getting exactly what they need."

"And it's been really easy for us to get to know other parents and students," continued Leigh, a former president of the grade school's Parents' Club and member of the junior high's booster club. "We've always felt like we're a family."

Superintendent Scott Watson credits the success to consistency in staff and collaboration among all of the stakeholders.

"You have a lot of districts with high turnover. We don't," said Watson, who's been at the district since 2004. "A lot of people have stayed here all or most of their career. When people don't want to leave, you know you're doing something right."

"We also have very involved parents and community organizations," he continued. "That's why this district thrives — because of the community."

For example, the Bismarck Men's Club has provided donations to many student groups and scholarships to seniors, among other things. Area churches organize food baskets for low-income families at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas with enough food to last a week.

And a group called Bismarck Blessings, led by BH social worker Kerry Hall and fourth-grade teacher Tia Peterson, provides backpacks stuffed with food for grade school students and their siblings so they don't go hungry on the weekend.

The group also puts on an August event where families can "shop" for school supplies, and students can get free haircuts. And recently, members started giving "random blessings," such as a meal delivery, to folks who are facing hard times or some sort of challenge.

"The community has just embraced this," said Hall, referring to local churches, organizations, individuals and students who hold food drives at school. "I'm sure this happens in a lot of small communities, but it's certainly true in ours.

"If one organization sees a need, everyone jumps in and helps and no one worries about getting the credit."

 

'It was called the Subscription School'

The first school in Bismarck was established in 1850 across the street from the current grade school.

"It was called the Subscription School because people had to pay $1 or $1.50 to attend," said Janet Moss, the Newell Township Historical Society's president.

At that time, Moss said, most development in the area was in Myersville, a settlement that grew around a saw mill-turned-grist mill on the North Fork of the Vermilion River. In 1871, when the C&EI Railroad started building tracks connecting Chicago and Danville a few miles to the east, business owners and residents moved to be close by.

"They could sell their products or receive products there," Moss said, adding the town of Bismarck was officially established the next year.

In 2007, the historical society bought the old Farmers and Merchants' Bank, on the corner of Holloway and South Chicago Street. Members and other volunteers spent a decade restoring the 1927 brick building — which also housed a barbershop, private residence and garage before sitting vacant for years — and turned it into a museum, displaying township artifacts.

Photographs of the high school's earliest graduating classes, including the first Class of 1915, and a plaque are among the treasures.

In 1879, voters approved a bond issue that paid for the construction of Bismarck's first public school, a two-room schoolhouse across the street from the subscription school. After it burned down in 1910, a two-story brick building was constructed in its place. It housed the grade school on the first floor and the area's first high school on the second floor. The high school moved out in 1916 and later was built on its current site, where the grades 5-8 junior high school and district offices are also located today.

Starting in 1946, several area districts consolidated with Bismarck, Henning and Grange Hall, northeast of the Vermilion County Regional Airport. Other consolidations and annexations followed, and the last consolidation — uniting Bismarck, Henning and Grange Hall — took place in 1964.

Ron Winkler, a Bismarck High graduate and retired BH High principal, recalled that merger talks among various north county districts continued sporadically and ramped up in the mid- to late-1990s as enrollments and local and state funding declined.

"That's when Danville lost a lot of industry," Winkler said, referring to the GM foundry in Tilton, ESCO, GE and Hyster, among others.

In November 2005, RA voters approved deactivating their high school and the next year began sending those students to BH and Hoopeston Area high schools through a deactivation agreement.

Robert Danner, an RA graduate, opposed the closure, fearing the community would lose its identity and wither away. But when he got on the school board in 2011, he realized that even though the district had the numbers to reopen, it wouldn't be able to offer the same curriculum or extracurricular opportunities high school students were getting at the larger, neighboring ones.

So in 2016, his board met with both schools, then began the process of forming the cooperative high school district with BH, which was willing to include RA in the school's name, among other things. The reorganization would allow RA to keep its grade school and have a say in how the high school was run.

"The majority of our kids were going to BH," Danner said, adding this took the stress off them on deciding where to go to high school.

The coop high school district is governed by a board of three RA board members, including Danner, and four BH board members that until this month included Winkler. (He chose not to run for another term.)

"One of the main questions was, 'Will this raise my taxes?'" Watson said, adding the answer was no because the district can't levy taxes or sell bonds.

It's funded by tuition paid for by the BH and RA districts based on their number of students. This year's rate was $8,920.

 

'I think socialization happened really quickly'

While it's the second cooperative high school in the state, officials said BHRA is unique in that the reorganization brought together students from four communities. The first, Paris Cooperative High School, brought together two schools in the same town.

That's caused some minor problems such as bookkeeping questions that state education officials don't always have the answer to. But otherwise, things have gone very smoothly thanks to BH administrators and RA Superintendent/Principal Crystal Johnson and teachers at both grade schools, who've worked together to align their curriculums so everyone will be on the same page when they start ninth grade.

And how has the transition been for students?

"I think the socialization happened really quickly," said junior Jack Silver, who's from Rossville. "It didn't take long to become close friends."

Junior Cameron Douglass, who's from rural Rossville, said he got to know a number of BH athletes when they played each other in junior high.

"Now we're all Blue Devils," he said, adding that history had been there for more than a decade through athletic co-ops.

English teacher Tracey Watson — a BH graduate who taught in RA for 20 years before the deactivation — said she felt embraced by BH staff when she moved there. She said that culture has continued.

"I can walk down the hall, and I can't tell the RA and BH kids apart," she said.

Silver and Douglass were thrilled the co-op allowed the RA and BH districts to pool their resources to restart ag education. (After BH's program ended, the district and Hoopeston ran a program at Rossville for a few years. When it moved to Hoopeston, Rademacher said BH students went there, but that stopped after a year because it was too taxing on students and the budget.)

Senior Phillip Howie said FFA has helped him improve his communication and leadership skills, which he learned as the chapter's secretary and by participating in contests that put him in real-world scenarios like selling livestock trailers.

"I've always been very shy," added Mojonnier, the chapter's past president. "This has helped me be more outgoing and learn how to voice my opinion but not in a bossy way."

While Douglass and Silver come from farming backgrounds, the current FFA president and vice president said they're now aware of many more career paths in the industry.

"Like banking or insurance," said Silver, who along with other students hopes to have ag business and construction courses next year.

Going forward, school officials would like to bring back an industrial arts program to provide more opportunities for students who aren't college-bound and prepare them to step into skilled-labor jobs in the area. They also want to provide one-to-one technology at the high school and BH's lower levels.

Danner said board members also have talked about one day building a high school sports complex. Currently, the girls' softball team plays at the park, and the boys' soccer team plays at Rossville.

 

'It used to be like Mayberry, USA'

Mike Brown, who was seated as Bismarck's mayor on Tuesday, said it's time the village follows suit and makes some much-needed improvements for its residents. Topping the list: installing a stormwater drainage system to address flooding when it rains and a sanitary sewer system that may soon be mandated by the state.

When the village incorporated on March 17, 1998, following a failed attempt in 1996, village leaders hoped to use land grants to pay for those projects, recalled Eleanor White, who served as a trustee and later as mayor.

Greg Lewis, who just finished his term as mayor, had a project for a sanitary-sewer treatment plant ready to go, but residents balked at the hefty sewer tax increase that would fund it.

Brown said the village is in desperate need of new revenues streams that would be more palatable.

"Back in the day, we got sales tax revenue from local businesses," said Brown, who grew up in town and remembers some of the businesses that were around then.

Before people became more mobile, they included a feed mill, blacksmith shop, tile company, lumber yard, sale barn, creamery, general merchandise stores, a millinery, doctors' offices and a cafe.

Lifelong resident Kay Ronchetto recalled her father, the late Earl E. Payton, opened a store that sold Oliver tractors while still teaching ag classes at the high school. (The football field is named for him and teacher Hugh Moss.)

After he retired from teaching, Ronchetto said her father opened Payton Seed Co. on Bowman Avenue. She and her husband, John, took it over in 1967, then closed the business and sold the building in 1995.

"While we were in business, there was a gas station on the south side. Harold Ingram had a cattle feed store on the north side. There was a laundromat and grocery store. Brown Brothers had a nice hardware store. Roy Handell had an electric business. It used to be like Mayberry, USA," she said referring to the fictional setting for "The Andy Griffith Show."

Ronchetto remembers when tornadoes in 1953 and 1974 severely damaged a number of businesses. She said townsfolk pitched in to help the owners clean up and rebuild.

But "it eventually just phased out," she said, adding many moved or closed when the owners retired, while Danville continued to grow north.

"A lot of people just gravitated toward Danville," she said, adding the city provided jobs, more shopping and other amenities.

Ronchetto, one of Bismarck's first trustees, would like to see some village improvements and a few businesses including a gas station/convenience store come to town.

"That would be such an asset," she said. "I hope (Brown) can get some of those things done, and I hope the people back him."

While Ronchetto no longer thinks of her hometown as Mayberry, she said her husband, John, a transplant from Westville, talks it up when he meets people on their travels.

"He'll tell people, 'I live in the garden spot of the world.' That's what he says," she said with a laugh.

Reporter

Noelle McGee is a Danville-based reporter at The News-Gazette. Her email is nmcgee@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@n_mcgee).