EMPIRE -- It's the end of another school year, but Friday's goodbyes were more poignant for Teel Middle School's students, staff and parents.
"It's hitting me," said eighth-grader Charvet Faalepo. "When the bell rings, I know a lot of people are going to cry. It's not just the last day for us eighth-graders, but it's the last day for everyone."
Teel Middle is one of many schools across the country whose traditions and history will stop, or at least pause, for a few years. The wave of home foreclosures that led to fewer students and the plummeting economy has forced school districts to make deep budget cuts, including consolidating schools.
Trustees voted in February to close the 542-student campus, which was built in 1952 and renamed in 1980 after the Teels -- Roma, the district's former superintendent, and Dora, a former Empire teacher. Officials hope to reopen Teel but don't have a target date.
Students and staff reminisced Friday about the school's lasts -- graduation, barbecue, teacher lunch and field trip.
Students ate hot dogs and hamburgers, a DJ blared pop and oldie hits, children branched out over campus, dancing or playing basketball. They signed yearbooks and hugged goodbye. Teachers packed up their classrooms.
"Everything you do, you know it's your last time at Teel," seventh-grade science teacher Monica Corriea said through tears. "This week has been much more calm, much more subdued" than the last week of school in past years. Corriea taught at Teel Middle for 32 years and will teach eighth-grade science at the district's other middle school, Glick, next year.
Seventh-graders Erica Cano and Anissa Medina said they've noticed more students and staff with cameras this week than at the end of the last school year.
"More people are bringing snacks for teachers, too," Erica said.
Teel's eighth-grade graduation Wednesday was standing room only, with about 1,200 guests. Many didn't know a graduate, and many alumni and community members attended.
The graduation kept a celebratory tone and focused on its 160 blue-gowned grads. The Trojans cheered one other as they gave speeches, sang, accepted awards and crossed the stage with a diploma.
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"You want to say something, but it gets really emotional. You want to make it through your speech," said Principal Chris Schoeneman, who will lead neighboring Empire Elementary School next year.
The Empire Union School District was dealt a double blow in recent years. As the economy went into a downward spiral, people fled the Northern San Joaquin Valley for cities with a cheaper cost of living or lost their homes to foreclosure. School districts get most of their funding from the state based on daily attendance, so with fewer students, Empire Union had less cash to keep its seven schools open.
From fastest growing to declining
Enrollment has steadily declined from 4,200 students in 2002-03 to 3,160 this school year for the district in southeast Modesto and Empire. When the school's name was changed from Empire Senior Elementary School in 1980, the district was the fastest growing in Stanislaus County, according to Bee articles.
The district will save nearly $1 million a year by shuttering the campus, according to estimates.
The school attracted national attention from "CBS Evening News." The show will air a spot Thursday on Teel's closure to highlight the state's foreclosure and budget crisis and its impact on schools. The attention is for a sad occasion, Schoeneman said, but people are happy about the acknowledgment from media.
"It means a lot for the staff and school, that we've had an impact, that we're important and valued," he said.
Teel Middle and neighboring Empire Elementary are cornerstones of the Empire community, making Teel's closure more devastating to the town, teachers and parents said.
Many community members attended Empire schools as children, and some of those alumni have stopped by the school to share their stories and memories of Teel.
"They just had to tell someone," Schoeneman said.
Schoeneman said that with the school's closing he was losing "people who work together like a family, but not a dysfunctional family."
These colleagues have "contributed so much to each others' lives, and we'll take those gifts with us as we move on," sixth-grade honors teacher Maggie Costa said. "We'll never work together again and that's very hard to comprehend."
Teachers will be reassigned to the district's six other schools.
As Friday's barbecue wound down, the DJ tried to mark the final minutes with meaningful songs. As Vitamin C's "Graduation" filled the campus, students broke down. Tears flowed as students hugged in groups as the song's lyrics played:
"As we go on/we remember/all the times we/had together/and as our lives change/from whatever/we will still be/friends forever."
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.