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Norwich - When the bell rang Friday to mark the end of the school year, it signaled a permanent change in the education landscape for Norwich.
Tears flowed freely and hugs abounded Friday at St. Joseph's School on Cliff Street, at Greeneville School on Golden Street and at Bishop School on Stanton Avenue, all casualties of declining enrollment and financial crises.
"It's a total cry fest," Dorothy Nielson, grandparent of a Greeneville School student, described Friday morning's farewell rally. She will home-school her grandson, Shaun Ames, in fourth grade in the fall.
Principal Marianne Nardone and teachers came prepared with boxes and boxes of tissues and asked several older students to hand them out. The boxes emptied fast. Older students hugged younger ones and teachers and parents hugged the older students.
Nardone joined the tissue parade when school staff presented her with a framed photo of the final student body standing in front of the 1956 school. PTO President Dawn Hooper then handed her a plaque dubbing Nardone "The Best Principal in the Whole Wide World," using the school slogan.
"Everyone is coming with me to my new assignment," Nardone said holding up the photo with all its faces. But she will become principal at the Samuel Huntington School in fall, not one of the three schools Greeneville students will attend in fall.
Alum Richard Seder, 63, stood quietly in front of the school as Nardone promised neighborhood kids she would see them at the playground this summer. Seder remembered walking from the old Greeneville School to the new one carrying bags of books back in 1956.
"I walked up here when it opened, so I figured I would walk up here today," the Durfey Street resident said. "It just doesn't seem like 54 years is long enough for a school."
At St. Joseph, parents, students and teachers didn't feel like 101 years was long enough for their beloved "Szkola Sw Jozefa" as the historically Polish school is named.
Students at St. Joseph School filed out of their building at final dismissal Friday and lined up facing rows of parents with tears in their eyes and cameras in their hands. Led by second-grade teacher Sister Mary Gabriela and fifth-grade teacher Jessica Schlask, they sang and danced to "Friends Forever" and waved their final farewell.
"As we go on, we remember all the times we had together," the students sang. "As our lives change, come whatever, we will still be friends forever."
Eighth-graders who graduated last week were back all week to help teachers and underclassmen pack their desks and closets. Some wore T-shirts sold at the spring carnival: "Saint Joseph School. Forever in our Hearts."
"It's just been so overwhelming," said parent Carolina Dabdoub. "It's just been so, so sad. When the doors are closed for us, it will just be a building."
Principal Sister Mary Mark retained her smile as she hugged students and parents. She will become principal at St. Mary-St. Joseph School in Willimantic in the fall.
"Smiles, nice smiles for your moms," she instructed several students for a final photo with their teacher.
The atmosphere at Bishop was in sharp contrast as Principal Rebecca Pellerin and PTO member Tammy Wasilewski orchestrated a festive farewell.
Wasilewski said the closing is bitter for her, but the students will be fine. It helps that all Bishop students will stay together at Veterans' Memorial School, she said.
"It's sad," Wasilewski said. "They find money for so many things but not for our children."
Pellerin said she kept the final day positive.
"I feel good," said Pellerin, who will become assistant principal at Kelly Middle School in fall. "I know our kids are going to be OK. They're going to a great school. It's change, and change is hard. Change is a lot tougher on the adults than on the kids."
Schools' last week
Emotions ran high as all three schools held "the last" graduations, field days, school picnics and student awards ceremonies this week.
On Tuesday, PTO President Hooper sported her new Greeneville Class of 2010 T-shirt, with all 60 student names written inside the hollow 2010 numbers on the back, at the fifth-grade awards ceremony.
Because the seventh-graders would not get to graduate from St. Joseph, they were included in many eighth-grade graduation activities. On Wednesday, the eight seventh-graders were feted with "the first and only" Hollywood-themed banquet in a school cafeteria decked out with stars and glittery confetti.
"We were really excited to have the banquet," said seventh-grader Hayley Almeida, "Julie Andrews" for that night, "because we knew they've never done it for seventh-graders before."
More than 100 people gathered last Saturday at St. Joseph's family picnic. That evening 250 alumni and current and former school staff held a reunion, taking home school trophies that bore their own or family members' names.
About 300 Greeneville students, their families and school supporters crowded into the gymnasium Wednesday for a village walk in memory of former teacher Doreen Mercier and a Farewell Family Fun Night.
Most wore No. 54 T-shirts: "54 Years. The Best School in the Whole Wide World." Third-grader Abelino Davgea got all his friends to sign his shirt. He will attend the John M. Moriarty School in fall.
"I've been here since kindergarten," he said. "This is still going to be my favorite school."
Class of 1957 alum Robert Guile beamed as students crowded around to pose for photos while he held a large framed portrait of the first graduating class in 1957. Third-grader Belinda French, 9, was first.
"I really wanted her to have that memory," her mother, Aisha Celestin said.
Belinda finished with straight A's and excellent test scores, her mother said. Celestin said no one should think Greeneville School was being closed because it's a bad school.
"We are all sad to lose this school," she said, sounding both angry and sad. "If the parents work together like this with the teachers and the principal, it's a good school."
Greeneville students will attend Uncas, Moriarty or John B. Stanton schools.
At Uncas School on Wednesday, dozens of Greeneville students sat with their Uncas peers to learn the ropes. Aaron Athey, Mohegan tribal cultural and community representative, gave a quick history lesson on the sachem Uncas, the school's namesake.
At recess, Greeneville fourth-graders quickly were indistinguishable from Uncas fourth- and fifth-graders. That pleased fifth-grade teacher and Assistant Principal John Medvec. Uncas has been below capacity for a few years, and he looks forward to a full house this fall.
Veterans' Principal Susan Lacy welcomed 44 Bishop students Tuesday on a tour of their new school. She asked them to list things that are the same and different at Veterans and Bishop schools.
"Homework," first-grader Anna Herbert said, would be the same.
Students said they still would have tests and wear the same school uniform, eat lunch and have recess. Lunch and recess times might be different, and several Bishop students will ride a bus starting in September.
"Look at all the things that are the same," Lacy said. "That's a much bigger list. You'll have a lot of things that are the same."
Greeneville first-grade teacher and Assistant Principal Jackie Falman retired with the closing of her school Friday. She left a parting gift to students and staff, a children's story about the meaning of the oft-forgotten middle E in the Greeneville name.
The story starts with teachers trying to figure out why the third E is there and what it means. Here are the final four pages of the book:
"With qualities like Excellence, Enthusiasm and understanding Ethnicity,
The people at Greeneville discovered that THEY were the E in all its simplicity!
The staff had the E all along - they just didn't know.
That they helped each other find it, understand it and grow.
Their Energy and Eagerness to help both big and small
Made it the 'Best School in the Whole Wide World'
Yes… the best of them all!
The day finally came, the school was being closed with much Emotion.
It was time for everyone to leave, but not without the following notion.
No one could take the E out of Greeneville OR this staff - they wouldn't hear of it!
Instead, they took the E with them in their hearts and carried on the Greeneville spirit."
- Claire Bessette