Roosevelt to celebrate 80th anniversary


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When Sarah Parker remembers her years at Roosevelt Elementary, she speaks of them as if her first day of school in 1941 was but a week ago.

She flips through the pages of a crayon-colored picture book she created in kindergarten, remembering the teacher's directions.

"Fill the pages," she mimics as she parts her hands above her head, as if she was smoothing the pages of the book.

It was in the little four-classroom school that she first realized her love for art, a passion that took her to art classes at the University of Iowa in 1954.

Parker loved the Roosevelt building and the teachers in it. She and her classmates were more than content with life at the school, she said.

"No one ever wanted to leave," she said. "If we all could have quit school after sixth grade, when it was time to move on, we would have."

So when Parker thinks of Roosevelt being emptied of its students for the last time next year, she shakes her head and the smile in her eyes turns to a slight frown.

"I am just devastated," she said.

Hosting its first classes in 1932, Roosevelt Elementary, 611 Greenwood Drive, will adjourn for good in the spring of 2012. The school will throw a party in honor of its 80th birthday on Saturday.

The decision to close Roosevelt and build a new school several miles west — Borlaug Elementary — arose from a unanimous vote in June 2009 by the Iowa City School Board. The controversial decision sparked much debate, outspoken opposition, and for many, a sadness to see a piece of Iowa City history come to an end.

"The school has been just about the only community amenity here as well as the main focal point in terms of history," said neighborhood resident Katherine Parker Bryden.

Bryden, a mother of two, moved to the area to send her young children to the neighborhood school. But now, her kids will never experience the student-run apple orchard or class nature walks through the Roosevelt Ravine.

Many former students consider the school's land and location a highlight of their childhood. Even the less-desirable conditions of Roosevelt's early days are remembered with happiness and nostalgia.

When Parker arrived at Roosevelt, the school was almost 10 years old, but many of the neighboring streets had yet to be paved. When the school was built, much of the surrounding area was still farmland. In a 1981 Press-Citizen article, Burrell Matthess, the first custodian, recalled cutting steps into the clay hill for students to use as they approached the building.

Parker walked roughly a mile from University Heights each day.

"I don't recall ever not getting there," she said, remembering the winter assistance of the janitor who would help unfreeze the zippers of her snow leggings with pliers when she made it to the top of the hill.

The school sits at one of the highest points in town.

"It's so wonderful how you can walk out onto the east playground and see all of Iowa City," said Roosevelt teacher Mary Kampling, who has been there for 15 years.

Kampling teaches kindergartners in the very room where her mother sat as a student in the 1930s.
Former student Bev Brant arrived at Roosevelt as a kindergartner in 1938. On Tuesday, she sat at her kitchen table, sipping iced tea and motioning to a well-worn paperback novel close at hand, an accessory she always keeps near. Brant credits her time at Roosevelt, along with her family's lifestyle during the great depression, with her love of reading.

"I started reading at Roosevelt and never stopped," Brant said. "And my folks were like anyone else during the Depression — they discovered the Public Library."

Roosevelt arose in a time of economic turmoil in Iowa City. According to Irving Weber's books on local history, teachers' salaries in 1933 were cut by 11 to 16 percent, dropping some of their yearly wages to under $1,200. The decision to build the school was approved in 1927. Two years later, following the stock market crash of 1929, all five of Iowa City's banks closed, either voluntarily or by the State Banking Department.

But the project carried on. The total cost of the land and the building in 1931 amounted to $52,000, according to a 1931 article in the Press-Citizen. At that time, the building consisted of just four classrooms and a gymnasium.

As Brant recalls, her third-grade class had only two students and had to be combined with the equally small fourth grade. The enrollment has risen from 33 students in 1932 to the current 300, said Roosevelt Principal Celeste Shoppa.

The school now hosts 20 classrooms following three additions to the original building, but Roosevelt is still considered too small by members of the School Board. The overcrowding and necessary repairs were cited as reasons to build a new facility.

Kampling said she had mixed feelings on the school closing.

"While I'm sad to leave this place, I do think we are in need of new building," she said.

But some community members wish the money would be used to repair the original structure.

Mary Knudson, a mother of two Roosevelt students who lives across the street from the school, has spoken out against the decision. Aside from sending her kids to the school, Knudson has enjoyed the land itself, and she likes to see the playground and outdoor areas in use on weekends.

Over the years, Roosevelt has incorporated the land into the schoolroom, perhaps most notably with the Roosevelt Ravine. In the 1960s, a sixth-grade teacher suggested the area be returned to a more natural habitat. From then on the area evolved into an outdoor classroom and nature trail.

"The ravine is something that you can't really replicate anywhere else. There's a good focus on history and Teddy Roosevelt [the school's eponym] with so many links to the outdoors," said Roosevelt reading specialist Peggy Jeffries, who has worked there since 1991, pointing to bright murals of safari animals in the school halls.

Sixth-grader Michael Dion has spent time in the ravine for his classes.

"I just think it's a really good school, and I especially like the ravine because it's something that no other school has," the 12-year-old said.

Years ago, the steep hill was a favorite sledding spot for daring students, along with the yet-unpaved surrounding roads. Former student Bill Dane remembers winter recesses in the early 1960s.

"If some children didn't have anything really warm or boots, somehow, the teacher would always seem to find an extra coat or pair of boots someplace for them to use," he said. "Rarely did someone have to stay in."

In 1975, former student David Peterson was sliding down the ravine on makeshift, cardboard sleds with his classmates. When current library secretary Kathy Paulsen attended the school, the kids waxed the cardboard bottoms with crayon to gain speed, she said.

While she has worked to preserve some of the school's old tales, school librarian Anne Marie Kraus said she hopes to work with students next year on compiling their own, more recent memories.

And even though older Roosevelt alums are sad to see the school move on from the scene of their childhood activities, many admit that great moments also came from the warmth of Roosevelt's teachers.

Parker describes certain teachers as though they were her own family, knowing without question when help was needed.

During her third grade year, Parker's mother was recovering from surgery, so "Daddy" would pack her lunch pail with a peanut butter sandwich, marshmallows, an apple, and a hair brush.

"Daddy couldn't attempt to brush through my thick curly hair," she said. "So each day, my teacher would sit me on her desk during the pledge of allegiance and comb out my thick hair for me. She made me feel so special."

Parker is one of many still hoping that the Roosevelt building will be transformed into something other than apartments to continue existing as a linchpin of the community.

"It has always served a wonderful purpose being there as a neighborhood school," Parker said. "I only hope it can be turned into an educational or community center of some kind. It could still serve a purpose there."

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