- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

POCAHONTAS, Va. (AP) - With one broad smile after another, the images start with preschoolers’ antics, proceed through youngsters’ Halloween dress-ups and sporting events and into formal prom attire. By the end, the audience is weeping.

The slideshow is part of an annual send-off for the Pocahontas High School senior class a week before graduation, but the 23 juniors were honored as well this year.

Pocahontas High, total enrollment 186, including middle schoolers is shutting its doors after 99 years. Most students will now travel close to an hour to school on winding roads in this rugged coal-mining region along the West Virginia line.

“It’s like losing my home,” said junior Miranda Grose, still wiping away tears long after her classmates had left the May 30 assembly. “They’re all just like family.”

Closing Pocahontas High may be one more step toward erasing a community that was put on the map for coal miners in the 19th century and once boasted 5,000 residents and a bawdy reputation; the town had 28 saloons and four red-light districts. Its population has dwindled to 440 since the mine closed more than 50 years ago, and signs of neglect mar its aging buildings.

Principal Chris Stacy has watched enrollment figures decline since he took his job three years ago. The Tazewell County school budget for this year listed expenses of more than $11,350 per pupil at Pocahontas, while the next highest figure among the four high schools was less than $6,800.

“It comes down to almost being a no-brainer, even though it’s very, very difficult,” said Cookie Johnson, the school board member who made the motion to close at a March meeting.

School Superintendent Brenda Lawson and Johnson said the students will have more choices in course offerings at other county schools. The tradeoff, besides the commute, is they’ll be in much larger classes.

Research shows that small schools “can benefit students tremendously,” said Alan Richard of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. All 29 Pocahontas seniors graduated last year, with 19 of them accepted to college.

Grose, who wants to be a psychologist, is used to being in classes of 10 or 12 and has had a couple of classes with only one other student. “You learn so much,” she said.

A stream of older students filed into Donna Cornett’s sixth-grade science class during a relaxed afternoon after the assembly, ostensibly to see the newly hatched chicks under warm lights at the back of the room.

Cornett has taught the same students through sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Few people move in or out in the depressed region.

“Once you’ve had them for three years, you know them,” Cornett said.

Next year, she’s been told she’ll be at an elementary school.

Pocahontas’ tenured teachers haven’t lost jobs, but their assignments will change.

Bob McGraw was at a 1,200-student school before he came to Pocahontas as a high school English teacher 15 years ago. He has students with learning disabilities as well as those in Advanced Placement classes.

“I love teaching here,” he said. “It has some qualities of the one-room schoolhouse.”

Students now have a choice of two high schools: Archrival Graham is within 15 minutes, while Tazewell County is farther away. Most are going to Tazewell County High.

The school closing had been rumored for years, but some residents found the timing baffling because it came amid hope for a revival. School board member David Woodard, the lone dissenter, noted that the state opened a prison nearby less than a year ago, creating 340 jobs.

The students’ absence will be felt beyond the darkened building. Their help has been crucial to putting on the annual spring memorial service for 114 miners killed in a 1884 explosion.

“They light the candles. They read off the names,” said Amy Flick, a guide at Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine and Museum.

The loss was on the minds of seniors even as their teachers hosted a celebratory cookout.

“Everybody here comes to homecoming,” said Miles Hagy, a two-way player for the Pocahontas football team who’s headed to Concord University. “I was hoping I could come back.”

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