Mineral Elementary closes its doors

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Students and community members ate turkey and cried as they celebrated the last Thanksgiving at Mineral Elementary School, which closed for good on Wednesday.

The five fifth-graders, three third-graders, and four kindergartners now enrolled at the school will split up and join new classes at Morton Elementary after Thanksgiving break ends Monday.

Students said tearful goodbyes to teacher Nikki Johnston, who taught the multi-grade group with only part-time assistance this year. Residents saw the end of an era that began when the school opened in 1944.

Helena Suter, who coached the Mineral Little League baseball team from 1951 to 1980, said that this Thanksgiving, she was thankful her four children had been able to attend the Mineral school.

"It's a good thing there's Kleenex," she said of the last day. "It's very sad."

June Krolczyk was a first-grader in Mineral in 1929, in a different school on the same site as the current one.

That school burned down on Sept. 18, 1944, when a 9-year-old who didn't like his teachers took a match to it.

"Then they had school in the gym, and then he burned that down," Krolczyk explained. Eventually the current school was built, and the boy was sent away to military school.

When Krolczyk was a student, the classrooms and halls were not as empty as they are today.

"(In a combined first- and second-grade class in 1929) there must have been 30, 40 kids," she said. "That was the baby boom era of the first world war."

Watching the student enrollment dwindle over the years, Krolczyk said, she was surprised the school did not close sooner.

"They've been trying to close it for 60 years and they finally did," she said.

JOHNSTON, the teacher, said the decision to close the school was not an easy one, but was obvious after eight of the 20 students who started the school year had left by mid-October.

"It wasn't just the size — we had weird gaps (between age groups)," she said. And with only one girl in the fifth grade, only one girl in the third grade, and only one boy in the kindergarten group, there was not a good balance between the sexes.

"We just had strange social dynamics that weren't helping anybody," she said. "My aide and I had been talking and watching the kids at recess. It was sad watching them play by themselves day after day. … We opened up the discussion about closing (and) went to the board with the recommendation last Monday."

Johnston, too, will move to Morton Elementary, where she will teach a fifth-grade class made up of some of her students and some students from existing Morton classes. The fate of the school building has yet to be decided.

Her students are heartened to know that she will be there with them, but some had a hard time leaving Mineral behind.

"I hate it," said Alicia Ettenhofer, 11, of the closing. "I just like this school."

Ettenhofer said she feared losing the closeness the Mineral school fostered.

"There's so (few) kids you get more one on one, and you get to do more fun stuff here than you get to do in big schools," she said.

But Johnston stressed that Morton Elementary is not all that big.

"We're still looking at frankly private school-size classes," she said.

Jennifer Latson covers rural Lewis County, South Thurston County and East Grays Harbor County for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8245, or by e-mail at jlatson@chronline.com.