Helen Heckle (PHS’s first Kindergarten Teacher) and Roger Fenrick, the District’s first combination superintendent and principal.

Prairie Hill School fifth grade teacher and Athletic Director Mike Rhines welcomed over 100 staff members from the past up through the present to the Prairie Hill School Districts “Bleeding Blue to Bridge the Gap” event on Saturday, Oct. 21 at Willowbrook Middle School.

The focus this year was to bring their past staff members together for a big celebration with those who have taught within the district since 2009.

Attendees included teachers, administration, support personnel, custodians, bus drivers, kitchen staff, speech therapists, social workers, and school psychologists and everyone who made a difference in the district’s continued success.

Throughout the afternoon those who were involved in the district in any way visited, and enjoyed great amounts of delicious food provided by the district.

News clippings covered stories written about the district through the years; some featured staff and students. Photos captured special moments throughout the years.

Special mementos given out included shirts that were donated by Custom Inks of South Beloit. Everyone received a Bleed Blue mug.

Ice cream from Culver’s, homemade breads and jams. Crochet paws were made with love from Secretary Chris Kerska, and notepads and pens were bonus items given away as door prizes.

“This Gathering was labeled, “Bleeding Blue to Bridge the Gap” for a reason as they blended staff members who are in the midst of their first year within the district together with Hazel Ralston who was 18 when she taught at the one-roomed White School back in 1945-1946,” Rhines said.

“Eleanor DeRoos who taught at the first Prairie Hill School; Helen Heckle who was the very first kindergarten teacher (now 99 years old); as well as Roger Fenrick who was the first combination principal and superintendent from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.”

Marcie Ball began teaching in the Prairie Hill District in 1992. In 2009 she moved to Willowbrook Middle School when it opened. Currently she is teaching 5-8 graders.

Ball started her career as a second grade teacher and then transitioned into teaching Physical Education and Health.

“Mike Rhines did an amazing job of bringing so many people together,” Ball said. “There were faculty and staff members from brand new to way back. He spent countless hours finding people to invite who were part of the PHSC #133.”

“I thought that all of the connections and conversations people had were wonderful,” Ball said.

“Mike’s historical presentation was informative and brought back some great memories for a lot of people in attendance.”

Rhines captured attention while reflecting on the history of how the school district has evolved over time.

Throughout the 1800’s until 1952, the northeast section of Winnebago County housed several one-room school houses. Those original schools on the prairie included Nichols (formally the Old Log Inn and Old Stone School), Hayward (formally Mathews School), and White School on the corner of White School Road and Prairie Hill Road.

These schools consolidated in 1952 to form the original Prairie Hill School on Prairie Hill Road just east of where Dry Run Creek runs under the road at the intersection of WIllowbrook Road (formally Ellis Road).

Unfortunately, it was announced just a couple of years later that the I-90 tollway was going to go right through the new building.

Suddenly the new Prairie Hill had to become the old Prairie Hill and a new Prairie Hill School was opened in 1959 with four classrooms and a small gym on Willowbrook Road. This core structure is what formed the foundation for the present Prairie Hill Elementary School.

Four building additions happened over the years. Three different times there were portable classrooms on the Praiire Hill School site until construction was completed. In 1981 a gymnasium was dedicated to Bob Clothier who served in different capacities.

Willowbrook became the district’s middle school in 2009 covering grades 5-8. Prairie Hill became a K-4th grade building, (now a pre- K- 4), and Prairie Hill was one of Winnebago County’s last K-8th buildings.

Due to a generous donation of land by the George Palmer family, Willowbrook Middle School was able to be built.

The school’s gym is named “George Palmer Gymnasium.”

A year ago a similar gathering was held for staff members who had been a part of the district when it was one building, which held grades kindergarten through 8th grade (1959 through 2009 when the district split into an elementary and middle school campus).

Ball gratefully added to her previous sentiments, “Mike truly bleeds blue. He has worn many hats over the years and continues to. Our district has been blessed to have such an outstanding leader like Mike Rhines for the past 35 years.”

Rhines reflects, “There were so many other people who also attended as important pieces of the puzzle that is called Prairie Hill School District .”

Back in 1952 it was a blending of the one-room schools of Hayward, Nichols, and White and now in 2023, it’s the blending of Prairie Hill Elementary and Willowbrook Middle School – as they work to “Bridge the Gap” throughout the years,” Rhines said.

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