In the library of Grant Elementary, a collection of scrapbooks lay open on tables, exposing the history of a 94-year-old building that will empty for the last time next week.
On one table, there’s a black-and-white photo of a Grant student riding a miniature horse that’s pulling two carts behind it, part of a 1944 paper drive for World War II.
There’s a kindergarten report for a student named Barbara, dated 1936. Young Barbara made good progress that year, her teacher wrote in neat cursive, and looked much better than she did when school began.
Inside the library, there’s silence. But in the hallway outside, the final class of Grant students run and shout, hold hands with their parents and call out to friends. School just let out, and there’s a party waiting. For one of the last times, the school is filled with children’s laughter, with children’s excitement and with the children themselves.
On the tables there are Star-Tribune clippings heralding the election of a new PTA president in 1966, and an undated drawing of Grant, topped with the words, “Grant Elementary School. The School on the Hill.”
A Grant staff member walks in, donning the red shirt that all faculty and students wore during the Grant finale on Friday afternoon. The school name is on the front, and on the back are the words “Oh the places we’ll go” and “Empowering, enriching, excellent, engaging.”
The woman looks at the photo of the boy on the horse. She puts a hand to her chest and, with her voice breaking, says, “The history of this school.” She turns and walks out the door and out of Grant, where she’s assigned bus duty.
Principal Shawna Smith explains that she found the scrapbooks in storage recently. She’s smiling as she stands in the hallway, where students stream past her and burst out the door, flooding the corridor with sunlight.
“This is a good way to end,” she says.
Tuesday is Grant’s last day as a school. The Natrona County School District’s board of trustees voted in November to close the nearly century-old building, which is in need of $500,000 in repairs and is a victim of declining elementary enrollment in the district. Next school year, about half of the students will move to the new Journey Elementary. The other half will be scattered over more than a dozen other schools in the district.
When the announcement was made, officials promised that Grant would have a celebration so the students, faculty and community could say goodbye.
There was food and a dunk tank manned by high school student volunteers. Students threw footballs through hoops and had paw prints painted on their faces (Grant’s mascot is a grizzly bear; a wood carving of bears greet visitors near the school’s entrance).
Zenobia Rice, who works at the Science Zone, sat under the tent on the blacktop by the face-painting station. She was making ice cream using liquid nitrogen, much to the delight and wonder of the students.
“It’s negative 320 degrees, so it freezes the milk super, super fast,” she explained to the wide-eyed kids. A light rain had started to fall as white smoke billowed from the silver bowl Rice was using to make her concoction.
Her husband, Joel, is a special education teacher at the school, and their son is a second-grader. The family’s attachment to Grant runs deep: Joel worked at the YMCA, which had a partnership to accept Grant students.
He enjoyed working at the Y, but he fell in love with Grant and its community.
“I’ve never seen a place where teachers are so committed,” Joel said. “Teachers really want to see the kids excel.”
Grant is a Title 1 school, and Joel said it can act as a refuge for students and families with unstable home lives. Karla Jump, who works as a mentor for new teachers in the district and was standing next to Zenobia under the tent, said Grant’s designation as Title 1 makes people think it’s a “tough” school.
But until you spend time in those hallways, she said, you don’t know the environment or how “raw” the students can be emotionally.
“This is a family,” she said. “It’s not just a school. It’s a family.”
Grant’s closure, then, is like a member of your family getting terminal cancer, she said. They found out in November that the school had six months to live, and at times, it felt like Grant was dying “a slow death.”
But she credited the students with keeping their heads up. They didn’t mope, she said. They continued working to be the best they could be.
Grant helped Pilar Lopez’s daughter break out of her shy shell, Lopez explained, and now the first-grader will have to start over at a new school.
“This is a great school that we’re losing,” she said from a bench near the entrance to Grant. Students had fled inside as the skies opened up and rain poured down, and the corridors were packed with red shirts.
Down that hallway, principal Smith hugged Stephanie Ryle. Ryle, who stood up at a meeting in November to defend Grant to district officials, held her son in one arm as she pulled Smith tight with the other. Her daughter, a student at Grant, stood by her side and jumped up and down when asked about attending Journey Elementary next year.
“We wanted this one to be a grizzly, too,” Ryle said, patting her son on the back. “But that’s OK.”
Outside, the rain had cleared up and the sun was shining. The smell of the grill, which was hooked to the back of a truck parked in front of Grant, wafted across the blacktop. Cindy Selvey and Stacey Johnson, music teachers at Grant, sat in lawn chairs under a tent. They were the party’s de facto DJs, but they joked that they were only playing the few songs that students loved, like Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” and Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”
Johnson said Grant’s closure reminded her of “On the Beach,” a post-apocalyptic novel that imagined life in the wake of a nuclear war. In the book, southern Australia is one of the only places on Earth not swallowed up by nuclear fallout. But the poison is slowly coming toward the safe zone. Johnson said the characters are upset and left wondering about the unknown to come. But eventually, they begin to accept it.
“Things were bleak in the winter,” she said of Grant.
“A lot of tears, a lot of anger,” Selvey agreed.
With a small school like Grant, students are like brothers and sisters, they said, and the school’s closure breaks up that family.
“Sometimes the kids come from really tough homes,” Selvey explained, “and they get more support here than they ever got at home.”
But the school has rallied, they said, and the staff has pulled them together. The knowledge that no employees would be laid off helped improve morale and set the adults’ anxieties at ease.
Some faculty will even be following students to their new schools. Kayla McIntosh, a kindergarten teacher, said she was going to Journey next year and will be teaching first grade. About half of Grant’s students will be heading to that new school.
McIntosh said the mood was somber when Grant’s staff was pulled into a room in November and told the school would be closing. They had worked hard to make the school what it was.
“I have kiddos in tears everyday because the school is closing,” she said.
But like so many others at the school, McIntosh was optimistic about the future.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said, smiling. “We’ll be with them wherever they are.”