Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

TOP STORY>> Last class is set to get diplomas in McRae Friday

Consolidation with Beebe spells the end of small school district

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

The 8 p.m. Friday graduation at McRae High will mark the end of an era. The class of 2005 will be the school’s last.

To highlight the occasion, the senior class pictures dating back to the ’40s that line the high school hallways will be moved to the gym where the ceremony will be held. From now own, McRae students will be Beebe students. The consolidation that has been ru-mored for years will become a reality.

But Jim McMullen, who was school superintendent before the consolidation last year, says the audience should not expect this year’s 23 seniors to provide them with a sentimental walk down memory lane.

Like all graduates, they are looking forward, not backward.

Except for the composite photos that will be on display and perhaps a mention of the change in the school’s status, this graduation will be like all the others that have come before it in recent years, he said. Valedictorian Shelly Crawford and Salutatorian Brooke Cox will give their speeches. The video made during the school year will be shown and all the seniors will present roses to their parents or guardians.

“It’s a graduation,” McMullen said. “It’s all about the seniors. It’s their night.”
Among the guests will likely be Harry and Peggy Holland who together have taught math for about 60 years at McRae.

“I knew all the kids and all their parents,” Peggy Holland said.

And although she says she loved her job, she sees both the good and the bad of the consolidation. On the good side, high achieving students will have more competition and more courses to make them strive even harder.

On the bad side, students who have more trouble learning are losing the advantage of classes with sometimes only three or four students at the least and fewer than 20 at the most.

“We had a little more time to give because our classes were smaller,” she said.
Holland said her grandchildren transferred to Beebe for this school term and the change was good, especially for her oldest grandson who got to take algebra earlier than he could have at McRae and band, which has not even offered there.

But even though the consolidation will benefit the children overall, it is still a blow to the community and to all the former students who are about to lose their alma mater.

“They will have lost part of their heritage because it just won’t be there anymore,” Holland said.

The loss of autonomy was mandated by the state legislature, which said schools with fewer than 350 students had to be consolidated. And Beebe just three miles down Highway 367 was the obvious choice.

That was last year, but Carol Dean Cook, a 1952 graduate and one of the organizers of the annual school reunion, said there was always talk of consolidation.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “The rumors had it that it was going to happen. They told me 50 years ago that I’d never finish here, but I did.”

For almost 30 years, the alumni of McRae High School have converged on their old school for a two-day reunion in June that coincides with the decoration of Lebanon Cemetery where many of their family members are buried.

Every year, the graduates from 50 years earlier take the table of honor on the stage at the cafeteria. Of the 200 to 250 who attend, most are now elderly, Cook says, and the annual event will likely die with them.

Cook, like many of those who attend the reunion, remembers the town in its glory days during the 1940s when it was fed by a bustling farming community. It had cotton gins and two strawberry shipping sheds, he said.

There was also a sawmill, a broom factory and a fishing hoop mill where white oak slats were steamed and bent into hoops to make fishnets, he said.

The old theater was blown away in the tornado of 1999 but by then it had been closed for many years.

Beebe School District has promised to keep the school open. Though the fate of the old high school is uncertain, all the fifth and sixth graders from the consolidated district will attend classes there next year.

Last year, Stanley Shook, a 1954 graduate of McRae High School and a 25-year member of the McRae School Board, got to sit on the stage with his old classmates during the annual reunion.

Shook, father-in-law of Dr. Belinda Shook, Beebe’s new superintendent, said the school was always small.

At its largest, enrollment only reached about 400, he said.

“My graduating class had 18, I believe,” he said.

Shook was in the audience of McRae School Board meetings when the board discussed the inevitable consolidation and which district would be best for McRae to join.

And in the end, he supported the board decision to go with Beebe.

“You just can’t offer enough with 300 students or less,” he said.

Still, the upcoming graduation, the last graduation, will surely go down in the books as the most poignant ever.

“I started teaching here in ’74 and they were talking about consolidation then,” Holland said.

“I guess we had grown so used to listening to it, we thought it would never happen.”