- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - In an emotional speech during a ceremony at the soon-to-close Somerville Road Elementary on Monday, retired teacher Maxine Ellison reminded the more than 600 in attendance that buildings don’t educate.

Decatur City Schools always has constructed buildings and will continue to do so, she said.

“But you can’t build children,” Ellison said from the auditorium stage that has been part of the school since it opened in 1941. “You have to meet them where they are and teach them to live and be productive.”

Her speech highlighted an hour-long program as former and current students, teachers and administrators said goodbye to the school, which will be razed when classes end to make way for a new Decatur High School.

The district plans to construct Decatur High’s new academic buildings on the Somerville Road site and connect them, through an enclosed bridge over Somerville Road, to a new arena-style gymnasium.

Somerville Road students will attend class in a wing of Brookhaven Middle next year, Superintendent Ed Nichols said. Oak Park students eventually will move to a part of the existing Decatur High, and Oak Park will become Somerville Road’s permanent home.

Monday’s ceremony, however, focused more on the past than the future. And the consensus among speakers was that Somerville Road always has been about the students, even when the school’s demographics shifted.

“My heart is in my throat,” said Joyce Johnston, who was principal 12 years and led the school through a $1 million renovation that took three years to complete.

“We’d renovate one wing, box all our stuff up and move to another wing,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but we had a lot of fine teachers who did what we had to do for our students.”

The renovation, which started in 1998, modernized the school, but Johnston said her most cherished memories are the students. She remembers a painful day when one of her special needs students died over the weekend and “the entire faculty was so upset.”

“All the teachers met in the library early Monday before school started, and Sandra Locke-Godbey counseled us,” Johnston said. “We had it together for the students when they arrived.”

Sandra Jarman Calvin, who is retiring this year as director of the school system’s after-school programs, got her first teaching job at Somerville Road in 1983. She was at the school nine years and twice was teacher of the year.

“The students were always first, and I sense that’s still the case,” Calvin said. “My time at Somerville Road helped make me the teacher I became. We had a loving administration, faculty and everything was about students.”

Calvin also was at the school when the mysterious time capsule was buried.

Students in Ellison’s third-grade classroom made the time capsule while they were learning about how Christopher Columbus sent messages in bottles. They filled a capsule with letters, pictures and souvenirs in 1991. Willie Swope, a maintenance employee at the school, agreed to bury the capsule.

Ellison said the students had planned to dig up the capsule when they graduated elementary school. Swope tried to tell Ellison where he buried the items, but she didn’t want to know because she feared her students would convince her to unearth them sooner than planned.

Before the students graduated from Somerville Road, Ellison transferred to the central office, and a year later, in May 1993, Swope died. Several have tried, but the capsule has not been found.

“We’re holding to hope,” Ellison said Monday. “I still run into my former students and they ask me about it.”

Principal Teddi Jackson said Swope’s spirit can be heard in three upper-level storage rooms that show the school’s original wooden floors and walls.

“We say that’s where Willie’s ghost lives,” she said.

Decatur City Schools leaders said they are aware of the time capsule and will try to find it when workers dismantle the school.

Retired Judge David Breland was a student before integration. He joked that the different color tile in the school was really oil seeping from the wood floors that were polished every summer before school.

Breland talked about a play when his mother forgot to buy him a George Washington costume.

“She used a paper bag and cotton balls to make me a wig like Washington’s hair,” he said.

Breland also lauded Ellison for starting an after-school tutoring program at Somerville Road. He helped raise money for the program and didn’t expect Ellison to get more than “three or four students to come after school hours.”

Ellison got 75 students in the class. She said the program was successful because she met students where they were and looked at where they could be in 20 years.

“Don’t look at where they are. Look at where they can be,” Ellison said.

She said the current student body has doctors and lawyers. Ellison said she can’t remember the buildings she attended classes in, but she remembers the third-grade teacher who told her she could become anything she wanted.

“This is just a building,” she said about the current Somerville Road School. “You’ve got to prepare kids and give them what they need.”

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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