Last day at Eastgate Elementary in Kennewick

Tri-City HeraldJune 12, 2014 

Students at Eastgate Elementary School said their goodbyes and gave small parting gifts to teachers in the final days of class.

Cheers accompanied the last awards ceremonies of the year, as students with perfect attendance, the best work in math or language arts, and those who were the most helpful, stood beaming, certificate in hand, before their classmates.

The backdrop to many of the Kennewick school's end of the year activities included bare walls and hallways filled with pallets of packed boxes.

Thursday was the last day of school in Kennewick and the last day of school in the 62-year-old Eastgate building.

Come July, everything will be gone. The school will be demolished and hauled away while the desks, books, art supplies and other classroom materials will move with the teachers and students to a temporary location next year as a new Eastgate is built.

"It's sad but it's exciting," said third-grade teacher Kaylee Garner on Wednesday, as she and her mother, retired teacher Belinda Garner, worked on packing up her classroom.

Eastgate needs a bigger school adapted to the demands of education, school officials have said. But memories have come flooding back for those leaving the school and those who left it long ago.

"There's just so much history here," Principal Niki Arnold-Smith said.

The school is the farthest east of all the Kennewick public schools, sitting on 10th Avenue next to Eastgate Park and the Benton County Fairgrounds. It opened in 1952, the same year as Westgate Elementary School and a portion of the Kennewick High School complex.

Kaylee Garner knew her way around the school before she was old enough to attend, much less teach. Her mother, Belinda Garner, who retired in 2007, taught at the school for 33 years and brought her daughter in regularly.

Kennewick School Board President Dawn Adams attended Eastgate for two years when she was a child. Assistant Superintendent Greg Fancher started his teaching career in Room 19 and met his wife when she was a student teacher there.

The school was renovated and had four classrooms added in the early 1980s and the maintenance crews have worked to keep the building in order. But Eastgate's age has shown for years: the leaking roof that caused mold problems, the loud air conditioning unit that drowns out teachers during lessons, the faulty light fixtures.

Classrooms also are bursting at the seams. Eastgate enrolled 562 students this year and it's used portable classrooms for some time. The gym isn't big enough to hold all students and their families for school-wide events, requiring split assemblies. The school also doesn't have a lunchroom -- students ate in their classrooms when Eastgate was built.

The school board agreed more than a year ago to replace Eastgate with money left over from a 2009 bond that renovated several other schools. The new building will be modeled after Cottonwood Elementary School with a few more classrooms added to the two-story design to accommodate growth.

Preparing for the future is easier said than done, though.

One of the school's past principals purchased much of the art that hung throughout the school, Arnold-Smith said, and it's being sent back to him. Volunteers, some of whom have helped at the school for years, have also had to help take apart installations and other projects they helped to create.

"That part's been difficult," Arnold-Smith said.

The school's courtyard, filled with tall sycamores and pines, is the space most teachers and students said they will miss the most.

Bethel Church, which provided the picnic tables to use there, is reclaiming them so they can be redistributed elsewhere in the community. Three rose bushes, planted in memory of three students who died while attending Eastgate over the years, are being transplanted temporarily with the hope of replanting them at the new school in a year.

"I like the courtyard," said fifth-grader Mario Garcia, 11. "I worked in the garden."

Mario and some other fifth-graders will move on to Park Middle School next year but said they are a little jealous that the youngest students will get to attend a new Eastgate. But it also will be weird knowing they can never again visit the school they attended.

"It's going to be different classrooms," said fifth-grader Yaneli Navarro, 10. "It's going to be all modern."

Crews started work on the foundation for the new building in recent weeks. Staff moved quickly after students left late Thursday morning to begin moving all the furniture and boxes to the Fruitland building, an old school a few miles to the west that's used by the district to house students temporarily during rebuilding projects.

Some teachers said they want to be on hand when the old Eastgate is torn down, despite how hard it might be to watch.

Kindergarten teacher Sonya Steel, who attended Eastgate herself, wants to watch it with her sisters as a form of closure, she said.

Kaylee Garner said she has specific idea what that day in July will be like when bulldozer comes calling.

"I have this vision of all the neighborhood kids eating popsicles and watching it all come down," she said.

But it's really just another chapter in the school's history, teachers and staff said. In a year, there will again be students on the playground and the soccer field or maybe, as on Wednesday, kindergartners playing with chalk on the sidewalk out front.

"The most important thing is it's going to be the same faces," said Belinda Garner.

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