Saying goodbye to an old friend: Washington Elementary enters its final daysAs the school year winds down, staff members and students at Washington Elementary School (WES) in Alexandria are preparing to say goodbye.
By: Celeste Beam, Alexandria Echo Press
As the school year winds down, staff members and students at Washington Elementary School (WES) in Alexandria are preparing to say goodbye.
But this time, their goodbyes aren’t just to classmates and co-workers, it’s to a building that has been in existence for almost 75 years.
After the 2008-2009 school year comes to a close on June 5, the building will no longer be used as a school. A new school – Woodland Elementary School – is in the process of being constructed and is set to open this fall. It will replace Washington, which sits on Jefferson Street between 5th and 6th Avenues close to downtown Alexandria.
The school was purchased by Washington Square Developers, LLC and will be turned into a housing cooperative for people 55 and older.
To get a glimpse inside Washington, three current staff members – two teachers and a custodian – shared their memories of what it’s been like to teach and work there.
•Rita Vanderwerf – 2nd grade teacher
Rita Vanderwerf, a 2nd grade teacher at WES, is finishing up her 27th year of teaching.
Her first couple years of teaching were in Melrose. When she joined the Alexandria School District 206 team, she first taught in Garfield, where she was in charge of close to 30 1st graders. In the fall of 1985, Vanderwerf began teaching at WES and has been there ever since. Out of her 25 years in District 206, 24 have been at WES.
“I guess I’m a regular ‘dinosaur’ here at Washington,” joked Vanderwerf in her e-mail to the newspaper.
When she looks back over the time spent at WES, Vanderwerf said one thing she’ll remember most are the homecoming skits that the faculty used to perform for the students every year.
“It was such fun to see the kids enjoying our antics,” recalled Vanderwerf.
She’ll also never forget the end-of-the-year picnics on the playground that the “amazing kitchen staff” put on the last week of school; the water balloon fights and other games; and the fond memories attached to individual students. “There are too many to even begin mentioning,” she said.
There are so many “things” that made WES so special to Vanderwerf, including its location, which allowed the staff to do some things that the other elementary schools couldn’t, like attend the homecoming parade, which typically lined up right in front of the school each year before making its way down Broadway.
On occasion, classes of students would walk to the bowling alley, which used to be only a couple blocks away, as part of their phy ed classes. And students would even walk to Noonan Park to eat their afternoon snack and to feed the ducks.
One other item that made WES so special and unique is the charm only an old building has. “It’s a bit like being in an old church,” she said. “The old woodwork, broad staircases, etc. had a certain charm. I guess being in this building is a bit like living in another time period.”
This fall, Vanderwerf will be moving out to Woodland Elementary, which is located on County Road 46, one-half mile south of the intersection of McKay and 6th Avenue.
Even though the new school will have spectacular scenery, she’ll miss being in town because it has been fun getting to know the neighbors over the years. Plus, she said, “I’ve also been pretty spoiled in my classroom’s location at WES. I’m a stone’s throw from the gym, the faculty restrooms and the main office. And being on the first floor, I’ve had quite a few less stairs to climb than some of my colleagues on the third floor!”
•Bill Putnam – Custodian
For the past 20 years, Bill Putnam has worked for School District 206 – three years at Jefferson High School and 17 years at WES.
His fondest memories of WES include special days in the spring when the kids and staff would enjoy time together doing fun activities, such as picnicking on the playground; having a Hawaiian luau; enjoying a carnival with a dunk tank for the teachers and staff; engaging in water balloon fights or games in the gym; and the time when the students and staff dressed up for a back-to-the-50s lunch.
“There have been many good memories of fun and interaction with the kids,” Putnam recalled.
As to what made the school so special or unique, Putnam said a lot of it had to do with the staff. He noted that everyone is so interested in making school not only a place to learn, but also to have fun.
“Learning can be fun,” said Putnam. “And the staff is so great. They are the best!”
Putnam said he’s also worked with great administrators and principals over the years, which has made his job even more rewarding.
Being in the maintenance department, however, has presented some challenges over the years as well. As the school aged, the maintenance staff had to deal with an aging boiler, electrical problems, plumbing problems and several water leaks.
As the last year at WES winds down, Putnam is looking forward to the move to the new school. He said it is going to be a huge undertaking this summer with many hours worth of boxing up, loading and unloading of supplies and equipment.
“It will be very nice to have everything moved into and set up at the new school,” said Putnam. “Best of all, though, I am looking forward to watching all the smiling faces coming to the new school.”
•Steve Gilbertson – 6th grade teacher
Washington Elementary School has always been very special to Steve Gilebrtson, who teaches 6th grade there. “It is the only school I have ever really been associated with here in Alexandria,” Gilbertson said in an e-mail.
Although he did teach at a couple of other schools, including Central, Jefferson and Voyager, his longest teaching job has been at WES. It’s lasted 31 years.
Some of his fondest memories at Washington were of his students and the staff he has worked with over the past three decades. “There were many interesting characters from both areas and hundreds of stories that involved them,” said Gilbertson, adding that there were many stories that concerned the building itself.
He explained that back in the early 1980s, before the windows around the building were fixed, heavy plastic was put over the windows, which were painted for the holidays. The plastic served a dual purpose – it was festive for the holidays and it kept the cold and snow out.
“We had mini snowdrifts on our windowsills more than once,” remembered Gilbertson.
Like Vanderwerf, Gilbertson has fond memories of celebrating homecoming. Because the parade used to start from WES, the school was able to get into the spirit and had memorable pep fests with skits. For a number of years, it even had floats in the parade.
“We also had a number of family nights and carnivals where we grilled brats out on the loading docks or made barbecues for hundreds of people,” recalled Gilbertson. “Those were some great times. I could go on, but neither of us has that much time!”
Although most of his memories are filled with positive moments, Gilbertson said he’s had to work around some obstacles at WES, including very little playground space with virtually no grass and playing football and softball on rocks; having close traffic around the building all day long; holes where there shouldn’t be holes; and hot autumns and springs and cold winters because of the antiquated heating and cooling system.
“But regardless, the staff and students always made the best of every situation no matter how difficult it seemed and we usually had fun doing it,” said Gilbertson. “That is what truly made Washington special.
One thing he’ll miss most about the building is his big room on the third floor. The thing he will miss most about Washington School is everything that made it unique.
“There is something about its history, décor and the people that have passed through that make it a special place.”