Celebrating a school community

After 57 years, the end comes for Armatage’s community school program

ARMATAGE — With her kindergarten students out of the room for a class period, Armatage Community and Montessori School teacher Nina Anderson took a few minutes one day in mid-April to update her resume.

It had been seven months since the School Board voted to end the 57-year-old community school program at Armatage, home to Anderson and eight other community school teachers. But she’d put off writing the resume as long as she could.

“It’s getting toward the end now, and I think the reality is starting to hit families and staff,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s emotional.”

After a school year that began with a devastating disappointment, Armatage families are determined to welcome the summer on a positive note.

Students planned to plant nine trees — one of each community school classroom — in an April 30 ceremony at their school. And in May community members were expected to gather in Armatage Park in celebration of the community school that, for many, was at the heart of their neighborhood.

Expect some smiles when the official neighborhood band, Armatagious, takes the stage. But expect some tears, too, “like most events for us this year,” said Armatage parent Nikki Lindberg.

Under a district downsizing plan approved by the School Board in September, Armatage will become an all-Montessori program next fall. About one-third of the current community school students will join the Montessori program, but the rest are expected to transfer to other schools, with about half headed to nearby Kenny Community School, said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who is coordinating the district’s transition.

“[The teachers] wanted an opportunity to bring the families together with the wider community and alumni to celebrate the program,” said Armatage parent Jennifer Swanson, who also serves as coordinator for the Armatage Neighborhood Association.

Community ties

That wider community had a critical role in making Armatage what it is today.

In the mid-1990s, as the Armatage Neighborhood Association was planning to use its share of city Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds, the organization surveyed residents on their spending priorities. The school and the park came out on top.

The association eventually contributed $760,000 toward a multimillion-dollar school and park improvement project that added a new gymnasium, classrooms, media center and computer lab to the school, connected it to the Armatage Recreation Center and built a new playground in the park.

“The community has made a huge investment in the Armatage building,” Swanson said.

She said the neighborhood still included a few homeowners who were around when the Armatage building opened in 1952. And several community school families were on their second generation of Armatage students, like Bruce Hillyer’s.

“There’s probably three or four people I actually went to school with who have kids there now,” Hillyer said.

Franks said she was reminded of the school’s strong community ties when, in early April, a couple in their 60s walked into her office out of the blue.

The were alumni, sixth-grade sweethearts who’d met at Armatage and then gone their separate ways for decades. After reuniting on Facebook, they came to walk the halls of their former school together again.

“I would say a lot of what goes on in this community centers around Armatage school, and we don’t want that to change,” Franks said.

Uncertainty to enthusiasm

Despite the loss of the community school program, Armatage is expected to grow next school year. All 19 classrooms will use the Montessori teaching method, and Armatage will add a pre-kindergarten program and several special education classrooms, Franks said.

For some community school parents, enthusiasm has replaced uncertainty over the move to Kenny Community School, thanks to a year of outreach efforts by Kenny parents and Principal Bill Gibbs.

Swanson described Kenny parents as welcoming and sympathetic. In 2004, Kenny was on a list of district schools slated to close, but was saved.

“A lot of the [Kenny] families that are still there remember that threat and what they went through,” she said.

Still, she added, the May picnic will bring some much-needed “closure” after a tumultuous school year.

Reflecting on what she called “a year of lasts,” Franks said she understood why it was a difficult time for so many in the neighborhood.

“It speaks to the value we have for what the community created,” she said. “They created it, and now the Montessori will have an opportunity to continue to build on the great things that happened here.”

The Armatage Community School Celebration is 6 p.m. May 21 at Armatage Recreation Center, 2500 W. 57th St.