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White Rock Elementary closes its doors

Students will be spread out across district

June 5, 2012

As the Waukesha schools close for the summer this week, one school will not reopen come fall. Its doors are closing for good.

White Rock Elementary, one of 14 elementary schools in the district and the district's main bilingual education center, held its last day of classes this week. Its students and staff will relocate to schools across the district in September.

"It was very sad when everyone heard the news last year," White Rock Principal Grace Hess said. "Some wanted to keep the school open, as it's very much a community school, so it was very difficult to hear that it was closing. We wanted parents to understand that their children will still be receiving the same type of instruction and learning environment."

The decision to close the school was made in December as a cost-saving move. However, it had been in the works for a couple of years. Superintendent Todd Gray said it will save the district about $400,000.

"This was the best method and most efficient, cost-wise, as well," said Gray, who explained that White Rock will now be turned into a center for early childhood learning.

This is the latest Waukesha school in recent years to fall victim to the troubling times districts face statewide. Pleasant Hill and Saratoga elementary schools closed as neighborhood schools in 2010-11. Those were the two smallest schools in the district, putting them on the chopping block.

Proximity is key

That left White Rock, which consists of 90 to 95 percent Hispanic students, with the lowest enrollment of 235 students.

Hess said enrollment has decreased over the last several years; its kindergarten and first-grade classes have shrunk from three classes to two.

So Gray said closing White Rock made the most sense as he and his administration team tried to work around a projected $9.5 million deficit and a growing busing expense.

"We did a study, and we had a lot of excess space around the district," said Gray, who has tried to shore up the district's budget issues by moving sixth-graders into the middle schools a couple of years ago and by making Saratoga a second STEM site. "And strategically, it was best to restructure our bilingual program."

Hess added that of the 235 students at White Rock, only 90 live in the White Rock area, meaning that next fall, the other 145 will actually be going to their neighborhood school or a school that could be closer - and that will offer the same services.

"We're trying to do a regional approach, where if a student uses the bilingual services, then they can go to a normal neighborhood school," Gray said. "We're looking at a neighborhood community-approach with our dual-language program."

The program spreads out its bilingual/ESL services at four schools within the district, instead of having just one central hub.

Gray said each of these schools (Blair, Banting, Bethesda and Heyer) are in a different quadrant of the city.

Hess said Heyer, Blair and Banting recently started offering bilingual programs but will now add to their programs. Bethesda will be new to these programs in the fall.

Blair Elementary, in the northwest part of the city, will offer a Dual Language One-Way Program for kindergarten through fifth grade; Banting Elementary, in the northeast, will have a Dual Language Two-Way Program for kindergartners through third-graders and a Dual Language One-Way Program for fourth- and fifth-graders.

Bethesda Elementary, in the southwest, will offer a Dual Language Two-Way Program for kindergartners and first graders, while Heyer Elementary, in the southeast, will offer a Dual Language One-Way Program for kindergarten through fifth grade.

The One-Way Language Program allows Spanish-speaking students to learn English, while the Two-Way Program is when Spanish and English speakers learn the opposite language in addition to their native language.

Many of the programs will be taught by White Rock teachers, Gray said, explaining that the district is reassigning them. Hess, who will become principal at Hadfield Elementary, said that all of the White Rock teachers have been assigned to a school.

Not an easy decision

Leading up to the closing, Gray said transition teams were set up to make the move as smooth as possible and to keep the new schools from being overloaded. Hess said field trips were even organized so parents could talk with principals at their incoming schools.

"When we first started out, there was a lot of fear," Gray said. "But then they realized we're not letting students go. We're trying to do what's best for each and every student."

"Any time you close a school, it's always a tough decision. But in the long-term, it should make for a better educational plan," he said.

Teachers say farewell

But that doesn't mean saying goodbye to White Rock is easy for its staff.

One of these individuals is Anne Salinas, a school clinical aid who has been with the school for more than 20 years.

"When parents come back and see that she's still here, it's a pleasant surprise to still see someone involved with the school that they went to," Hess said.

Hess said White Rock's history dates to 1891, though the current location, 1150 White Rock Ave., was built in the 1950s.

"There's a lot of history here," Hess said. "We have a neat showcase with trophies from the 1920s. We're a huge part of the community and the city's history."

Although the teachers and staff have had months to prepare to clean out their desks for a final time, closing this door hasn't been easy for some.

"They're very sad," Hess said. "(Sarah Olson, a third-grade teacher) was asking the other day if it's just a dream because she doesn't want to move. She's been here her whole professional career and can't believe it's happening.

"Our school has been a rock to the community."

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