Last Cooper students to graduateAs the school days ended in the spring of 2003, it was an emotional time at Cooper Elementary School in Hastings. The end of the school year was also being marked by the closing of a school. It was nine years ago that Cooper closed its doors for good, a move made by the school district to save some $450,000 in annual operating costs. The third-grade students that year are now seniors in high school, and when they graduate this Friday they will be the final class of students to have attended the school.
By: Chad Richardson, The Hastings Star-Gazette
As the school days ended in the spring of 2003, it was an emotional time at Cooper Elementary School in Hastings. The end of the school year was also being marked by the closing of a school.
It was nine years ago that Cooper closed its doors for good, a move made by the school district to save some $450,000 in annual operating costs. The third-grade students that year are now seniors in high school, and when they graduate this Friday they will be the final class of students to have attended the school.
On one of those final spring days back in 2003, the students and staff members left their mark on the school, literally. Those at the school climbed a ladder, dipped their hands in paint and firmly planted them on a heating register. Their names were printed on their handprints as a way for them to be remembered.
Those prints are still easily seen in the school’s gymnasium. The site now operates as the Hastings Child Development Center, a daycare and preschool.
The operator of the facility, Ryan McGraw, said there are no plans to cover up the handprints. He has even had staff members working for him whose prints were on the wall.
Many of the students who took part in the activity remember the day well, and remember their days at Cooper fondly.
“It was a really cool idea,” said HHS senior Lindsay Engstrom. “Having it up there that way, the people in that school will never be forgotten.”
Engstrom said she remembers leaving the school on the last day. Teachers, staff members and parents made a bridge through the hallway that the students passed under as they left.
She was recently in the school and saw the handprints were still there.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” she said. “It was sad.”
Danie Meier remembers it much the same. She, too, will graduate on Friday.
“I went back a couple years ago to do something, and I saw them still up there,” she said of the handprints. “I found mine. I think it’s cool they’ve kept them up there.”
The school at the time included just grades three through five, and it was small. That size meant the teachers and students had strong bonds, Meier said.
“You knew pretty much everyone in there,” she said. “It was a really comfortable school to be at.”
When it was announced that the school was closing, Meier and all her friends started trying to figure out who was going to which school the next year. She got split up from her best friend, she said.
“It was really tough,” she said. “Depending on where you got placed, it was an easier thing or a tough thing. If you went with your friends, it was easier.”
Tori Tessness was a third-grader there, too, and her sister Ali was a fifth-grader. On their final day, Tori Tessness remembers crying with her sister and their mother Mary.
“I remember it was kind of sad – it was such a small school, and it seemed like all the teachers were part of our family,” she said.
Now that her class is graduating, Tessness is left trying to figure out where all the time went.
“I still feel like I should be in elementary school,” she said with a laugh. “It’s weird to think that the time went by so fast. Last week, we were all like, ‘We’re done with high school? Are you joking? It was really weird.”
The principal the time was Elaine Bell, who is now the principal at McAuliffe Elementary in Hastings. She wanted to do something with the students and staff, but couldn’t deface the property. That’s how she decided on the heating register – it could, after all, be removed, she figured.
“I didn’t ask if we could put (the handprints) on the vents,” she said with a laugh. “We just did it.”
Bell remembers the school nurse at the time, Tammy Engstrom, painstakingly printing every child’s name and every staff member’s name, with black paint. The custodians, the cooks and all the staff members were able to take part, Bell said.
When contacted for this story, Bell was thrilled to hear the names were still up.
“They’re still there?” she asked. “That’s so neat. I didn’t know if they were still there.”
After Cooper closed, Bell transferred to the Hastings Middle School, where she was able to follow about 100 students who had been at Cooper.
Many of them had been through a number of school changes, and she wanted to see them get adjusted at the middle school.
Not only is this the final year for the students from Cooper, but this is the final year for Bell, too. She is retiring at the end of the school year after spending 15 years with the district.