After 60 years, Mesa school closing its doors

By Michelle Reese
Mesa, Arizona (AP) April 2012

In Mesa Junior High School’s 60-year history, the school has seen championships, name changes and thousands of adolescents come through the doors.

A celebration of the school’s history will take place April 28, just weeks before its last students, teachers and principal close the doors one final time.

The school’s leadership team adopted the motto “the last of the best,” for the school year after the Mesa Unified School District governing board voted last fall to close the campus due to declining enrollment and financial issues in the district.

But when you walk on campus, it’s “business as normal,” Principal Cathy McDaniel and other staff said. Students are still learning. There’s no indication that the school is coming to an end.

“We’ve worked through where everyone is going to go” next year, McDaniel said. The district has been supportive and has kept communication open with students and staff about their next steps, she added.

Indeed, as McDaniel walks on campus she’s greeted with hellos by students. She responds, “Hi, sweeties,” as students come up to embrace her or just give her a smile.

Probably the biggest sign of the school’s closing has come from the outside.

“From the moment it came up that this is what was going to happen, we’ve had people calling, wanting to stop by and relive the memories,” McDaniel said.

Carole Young, who worked in the school’s library for 24 years, is helping to organize the 60th anniversary party. Since she was also on the committee for the 40th and 50th birthdays of the school, she’s met hundreds of alumni, gathered photos and other pieces for this next milestone.

And she’s talked to former students about their time at Mesa Junior High.

The first year the school fielded a football team, it won the state championship. That football is still on display in the library, with the scores from each game. The team was undefeated and was scored on only once.

“A fellow came in with his wife to see that football,” Young recalls. “He was not well. They came in to look at the memorabilia . That meant a great deal to him. It gave such joy to me to see people excited about their past.”

Now in her 25th year teaching at the school, Judy Hammann said it’s a bittersweet ending. She had hoped to retire from Mesa Junior High, but now will finish her career as a family and consumer sciences instructor elsewhere.

While the culture and the clientele at Mesa Junior have “changed dramatically,” she said, “kids are kids.”

“They’re the same. I would say we’re much more of an academic culture than in the past to reach higher student achievement.”

That may be true district-wide, she said, as Arizona has changed education standards.

But Mesa Junior has changed, also. Students at the school now wear uniforms, donning yellow shirts and blue pants or skirts.

Hammann said her class is as relevant as ever, with students learning team building, goal setting, career planning and study skills, along with sewing and babysitting. Hammann is a department of one, much different from when she began and there were five home economics teachers, she said.

“I love what I teach. The kids want to be in there. They love that it’s practical, useful, relevant,” Hammann said. “I was real sad (to hear about the closing).”

English teacher Paula Morelli started at Mesa Junior High in 1984. Since then, she said, “the school itself has gotten much stronger.”

“A lot of people who have left our school have said, `I’d come back in a minute,”’ she noted. “As far as the staff, it’s the most wonderful, hardworking group of people who do so much for kids.”

Student Jasmine Betancourt, 13, said Mesa Junior High isn’t a school, but “a second home.”

The student council secretary will attend Mesa High School just a few blocks away next year, but not without taking a lot of memories, she said.

“It’s filled with so much happiness,” she said of Mesa Junior High. “You feel so much caring. It’s sad it has to go because you build so many strong friendships here.”

Several of the clubs she’s involved in are raising funds to help with end-of-school celebrations.

“I want people to remember it’s not only a place to get an education, but a place to enhance other skills you use every day, friendships and bonds needed in life,” she said.

The future of the campus has yet to be finalized (many of the buildings could be demolished because they are in such need of repair), but no one is taking any chances in letting pieces of history disappear.

McDaniel said district crews have already visited the campus to research historic pieces and see how they may be preserved. There’s the 1970s tile mosaic displayed in the cafeteria made by students. It depicts Mesa and Arizona history, complete with icons showing the school’s eagle, Mesa High’s jackrabbit, citrus and Native American signs. Then there’s the enormous needlework in the library, also created in the early 70s, that is showing its age with a bit of fraying.

“We don’t want to destroy all these beautiful pieces,” McDaniel said.

The 60th anniversary celebration will take place noon to 4 p.m. April 28 at the school. There will be displays from each decade, as well as a slideshow going on in the library.

Besides Mesa Junior High, Brimhall Junior High School will also close at the end of the school year as a neighborhood campus. Several Franklin campuses will be merged onto the Brimhall campus so it becomes a back-to-basics K-8 school.

Powell Junior High School was closed in 2010 as a neighborhood campus. It is now the Mesa Education Center, housing community education, a community health clinic and an alternative school.