As parents dropped off their kids Tuesday at Grant Elementary, many knew that the school’s fate had been sealed the night before.
But the Natrona County School Board’s unanimous decision to close Grant and dispose of other properties didn’t assuage any of the parents’ frustrations.
“Isn’t the public school owned by the public?” demanded Jay Fountain, who has a kindergartner at Grant. “What’re teachers going to do? What’re the kids going to do?”
“It should be left open if there are students here,” said Alex Slater, mother to another kindergartner.
But district officials have said a primary problem is that not enough students are there. The school is at only 80 percent capacity, and in a district with more than 500 open elementary seats, that’s a problem.
Superintendent Steve Hopkins said that although Grant has significant maintenance needs, which would cost around $500,000, the factor that steered school officials to look seriously at closing Grant was the lack of students.
The sobering facts that made Grant an ideal target for closure amid an economic downturn that’s stretching into its second year didn’t help.
Principal Shawna Smith, whose future after Grant closes is still up in the air, was emotional, introspective and at times frustrated Monday afternoon, hours before the vote.
“It’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? We’ve worked this hard to get to this far and now you’re closing us?’” she said.
“We have a really great opportunity to help write the end of the our story,” she added. “We get to choose what that looks like.”
When Smith was asked if she could sum up Grant in a single word, she struggled to find one to encapsulate a Title 1 school with 174 students, many of whom have found a second family inside a building that needs a new roof and foundation work.
She offered several, but the one that came first was family.
The school has become a family to students who brought Smith a pile of banners celebrating Grant to hang around the school. Other “kiddos,” as she calls them, offered their own savings and wanted to raise money themselves.
“After the staff found out and it was the first day after the news broke, one of our kiddos matter-of-factly told one of our teachers, ‘Well, I can bring my piggy bank,’” Smith said, laughing. “It was the cutest little thing. (Some students) brought in a little old first aid box, the handles broken, and had written ‘Grant fund’ on it.”
Grant’s strong effect on its students wasn’t lost on the parents who walked their students to school on the cold November morning.
“It sucks,” Jessie Petterson said as she wiped snow off of her car in front of Grant. “It’s her first year here. Who’s to say the friends she made here will go to the same school next year?”
Misty Courson, a babysitter who walked her student to the door, said the kindergartner loves Grant. And Courson herself is attached to the school.
“I went to all these elementary schools when I was a kid,” she said. “This is the only one I liked.”
None of the parents who spoke with the Star-Tribune on Tuesday morning had an idea of what they would do next. Some hadn’t heard of the option to move the school en masse to another elementary, likely the new Journey Elementary.
Some talked about open enrollment, but most said they just didn’t know yet. The same is true for Smith. At a parents meeting on Nov. 21, several parents spoke up about Smith’s effect on their children and their concern about where she’ll land. Even she isn’t sure.
“Some of those families said, ‘Well, we’re going where you’re going,’” Smith said. “Well, I don’t know where I’m going, because I don’t know what that looks like.”
“I’m just trusting in people’s good intentions ... I still have a job to do, and that doesn’t end until ... “ she said.
Her voice trailed off.