BEMIDJI -- The last day of school usually coincides with joyous celebrations for the start of summer -- ice cream, popsicles, bare arms, splashing in the lake -- but at Central Elementary the day was shrouded in a somber cloud.
At 12:40 p.m. on Thursday, June 3, students took one final walk down the hall, spilling out the main doors and into the warm afternoon. With some excitedly running to greet parents and buses, some wiping away tears and hugging their classmates, Central’s final class said “farewell.”
On one hand, it was a celebration, culminating a strange year of learning. On the other, a funeral, reminding everyone that after the festivities the school would be closing its doors for good. The decision to close Central came in March as a cost-saving measure to help dig the Bemidji Area School district out of a financial crisis. The motion passed through the school board 5-1.
Children milled around the front lawn of Central, asking their friends questions like, “I’m going to J.W. Smith Elementary next year, are you?”
“No, I’m going to Horace May Elementary.”
“Hey, I’m going to Horace May, too!” another remarked.
As they toted home bags of books, craft projects and other supplies from months of schooling, Central students and staff sported matching T-shirts bearing the phrase, “Central: the legacy and memories will live on.”
Prior to Thursday, the Pioneer spoke with some teachers at Central -- some who are still teaching, some who have retired -- all of whom expressed how the school will leave a gaping hole in their hearts.
Current teachers were moved to tears during a break in packing boxes full of classroom supplies set to be shuffled around the district. Former teachers walked one last time through the halls and into their previous classrooms, reminiscing.
Terri Forseth has been an educator at Central for her entire 31-year teaching career, starting fresh out of college in 1990. She taught grades 1-4 and Title 1 during her tenure -- and in 2016 she was named the Bemidji Teacher of the Year.
“It's kind of bittersweet. I'm actually retiring this year. I was going to retire even (before) the school was closing,” she said. “I'm just walking out the doors. Everybody else is getting transplanted and spread all over the district. It’s bittersweet because they're going to all be split up. When you work in a school you get to be a real family, a real cohesive family.”
Rance Bahr, a special education teacher at Central, began his teaching career in 2003. But when was hired at Central in 2013, said he felt like he was coming home.
“It was overwhelming, having gone to school here (starting in 1979) from kindergarten through fifth grade,” he said of his first day teaching at Central. “It was just exciting to kind of explore the building and go around and check out things that had changed. It seemed like every time I turned a corner, a little memory would pop up. You know everybody that walks through the door, everyone's on a first-name basis. It's just more of an extended family than it is a business. That part of it is very unique and very positive.”
Former Central teachers still remember the school fondly.
“I left in 2013 to go on leave, and when I came back I was assigned to a different school. And it almost broke my heart,” said Julie Loxtercamp, formerly a music teacher at Central from 1995 to 2013. “I always say this is my heart school.”
Kim Coequyt-Hoff student-taught at Central when she was attending BSU and years later, she secured a permanent position there.
“I always remember thinking when I was student teaching what a cool place this was, everybody was so friendly. Everybody knew all the families,” Coequyt-Hoff said. “I was thrilled when I got a teaching position here. And then I retired from here (after more than 14 years). It was like coming full circle.”
If walls could talk
Walking into Central Elementary anytime during the past week, you would have come across what Forseth described as a “war zone.”
Every pencil, book, crayon and folder was stuffed into stacks of cardboard boxes adorned with Sharpie notes, directing their journey through ISD 31.
A bookshelf was marked “to Northern Elementary,” two sets of drums in the music room were earmarked for Solway and Gene Dillon, respectively. Chairs were stacked on their way to Horace May.
Teachers remarked that the chaos of packing took their minds off of the sadness of the final days spent at the school.
“We are so busy packing,” Forseth said. “When we're in classrooms and you come upon something from the past, it's just like when you're at home and you start looking through pictures and get stuck -- the same thing is happening here.
“We were all digging through cupboards and closets and we're all like, ‘Oh my gosh, remember when?’ That's been happening a lot to me in the packing process. It's very sad. It's very, very sad. It's been a lot of good times here -- happy times, fabulous times, challenging times.”
Welcomed into the fold
A strong sense of closeness between staff at Central was cited by many teachers as the school's greatest strength. Close ties with the community, families and children also contributed to a welcoming and supportive environment.
The first year they spent at the school was the most memorable year for nearly every teacher interviewed, as they were welcomed into the fold with open arms.
“I think that if you had to use a word for Central, the word relationships would be a huge one, the strong relationships between staff, between the community and the families,” Coequyt-Hoff said.
“This place is so special, it is very unique,” Loxtercamp said. “I think the most unique thing is the fact that I've never seen a staff work together so cohesively, no matter who came in or who left.”
“It was just someplace I always felt at home,” Loxtercamp continued. “I think we all feel that way though. Maybe they feel like that at every school, but it's very close-knit because we're small enough we see everybody every day. Not like, ‘Oh, I didn't even see you today, you were way off in some other wing.’ They were always there.”
“I had already taught for 20 years by the time I came to Central, and it was different than anywhere I had ever been,” said Maureen Holmstrom, who retired in 2017. “I had been in wonderful schools, don't get me wrong. But it was nothing like this. This was a family. And you knew it when you walked through the door and the kids knew it, too.”
Much has changed during the 120-plus years of Central’s existence. The school itself started around 1900, being completed in 1902 to accommodate a 175 student population. The school burned down in 1958 and was rebuilt the following year in the same location.
Over the years, a playground was added, things moved around and were updated. Walls were adorned with murals and new technology adopted. The city of Bemidji changed around it.
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Central has always been a relatively small school, but the enrollment at Central dropped more significantly after the opening of Gene Dillon Elementary in 2018. Now the student population is 109, with only one section per grade level and one split classroom.
A hole in the community
“It is just the heart of Bemidji,” Forseth said, adding that its absence will leave Bemidji with an unfillable hole.
The school's location tied it closely to the community. Teachers recalled fond outings to Paul and Babe, the lakefront, the library, Bemidji State, the history center, the science center and more.
Over the years, members of the community -- mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, radio personalities, coaches and athletes -- have walked the halls, participating in school celebrations and reading to students.
Coequyt-Hoff said this closeness to the community taught the students more than math and history books ever could.
“It seems like this school was more about life lessons than curriculum. Everybody took care of each other. It was kind of like we had our finger on the heartbeat of everything that the school represented downtown,” Coequyt-Hoff said. “There was a huge amount of respect between the parents, the children and the teachers. They understood that we weren't here to help their child just for that year.”
Central served a more diverse population -- more low-income students, more students from varying racial backgrounds -- than other public district elementary schools.
This diversity was the schools’ biggest strength, teachers said.
According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, as of the 2020-2021 school year, 71% of Central Elementary's 119 students qualified for free or reduced lunch. A total of 38% of Central's students are Native American and 11% identified as being more than one race, with a total of 49% of the school being students of color.
MDE data indicates that 10 students at Central were identified as homeless in 2021.
Teachers went above and beyond to give these students experiences they might not have otherwise had -- raising money for a day trip to the Minnesota Zoo, taking the students to the Mississippi Headwaters, and bringing them to museums around the region.
“There are just so many things that have happened in this building, prompted by teachers who cared so much about the kids, that they came up with all these ideas and possibilities to give them experiences that they weren't getting because we had so many children who did not have experiences outside of Bemidji,” said Chris Yingling, a Central teacher who retired in 2016.
Once a year, Central would load all of its students on buses and take them to Itasca State Park to hold “School at the Park,” -- a full day of school spent outside. The librarian was even known to bring along her rocking chair, to have storytime by the Headwaters.
Loxtercamp stressed the importance of the arts at Central Elementary.
Grants were secured allowing Central to host artists in residence, who helped students create murals on the walls. Students had a hand in planning musical performances, and one year, students even performed a school-wide production of “The Hobbit” on the Bangsberg Performing Arts stage at BSU.
“The kids were so talented, and I think this school gave them an opportunity to show that,” Loxtercamp said.
Due to Central’s closing, students from Central will either be moving to Horace May, J.W. Smith, Solway or Lincoln Elementaries depending on where they live.
According to the new attendance boundary adjustments:
Six current Central students will go to Solway
Three current Central students will go to Lincoln
32 current Central students will go to Horace May
27 current Central students will go to J.W. Smith
26 current J.W. Smith Elementary students will go to Northern
These numbers do not account for future kindergarteners, nor the current Central Elementary third-graders who will be going to Gene Dillon for fourth grade.
Teachers and staff will also be shifted around the district, some mentioning they would be going to Lincoln, J.W. Smith or the high school.
“It's a big change for me, it’s basically the only school I've been at,” Title 1 teacher Vince Collyard said of Central. “It's a sad situation.”
What’s next for the Central building? No one knows yet. It was suggested at a recent school board meeting that perhaps the school could one day serve as a community center. At the May school board meeting, the board voted to declare the building as surplus so it could be leased or sold.
“It breaks my heart to think that this community is losing this place,” Holmstrom said, a tear rolling down her cheek. Looking around the space at other former Central teachers gathered, she said, “Central School was probably some of the best years of our life.”