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Woodlawn staff says goodbye to school

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

WOODLAWN — Preparations for the closing of Woodlawn School have been going on for several weeks.
Paintings have come down from the main hallway walls, a little red wagon has carted out boxes of documents as the clearing begins and the staff has started to sort through the items they’ve accumulated on their desks and in their offices over the years.
Much of the electronic equipment will have to wait until after the school year ends to take down, said Principal Bob Martin. The “smart boards” will be removed from the walls and installed in just-built classrooms at the expanded middle school in Hillsville.
The computers and the networks will get reused in new locations, and much of the furnishings will get moved, too.

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This is the end of an era for a school that has operated in one form or another since Isaac Minor gave lessons in a log cabin in 1878, the principal said. One of the most pervasive features of the school can’t be put in a box — the dedication of the staff towards the students.
The teachers of Woodlawn will take that deep-founded dedication with them to their new Carroll County Public Schools classrooms.
From the founding of the school at the heart of the Woodlawn community all the way up to the present day, the teachers and staff have always wanted to give the children the best eduction possible.
“The spirit of Woodlawn Academy ... it will drive over to that school and it will be pulled over to that school,” Martin said. “Carroll County Middle School will have the spirit of Woodlawn Academy — and that is an excellent education for everybody.”

Early Days
Woodlawn School has a rich history, according to Shirley Harmon Steele, a graduate who helped lead an effort to secure a Virginia historic marker to place on Woodlawn Road. Information she gathered credited its founding to Isaac A. Minor in 1878.
Professor George Ivy, who did not attended college, served as the first principal. He taught in the Methodist Church building until the first two rooms of the school were built.
People in the community understood the importance of education and provided money to buy more land on which to build a better facility.
In 1891, they purchased two acres of land and a three-room building was built on one acre. By 1898, it was named Woodlawn Normal Institute and its main focus was to train teachers.  
It was chartered under the laws of the state as a joint stock company, incorporated and owned by the local people, according to Steele.
Elbert M. Cooley and twin brother Elmer purchased the academy in 1905, the school historian wrote. By 1907, Woodlawn citizens again donated funds totaling $3,000, which allowed a brick building to be built on 12 acres,
It became the first public high school in Carroll County, and accepted its first students on Jan. 19, 1909. The first graduating class was in 1910.
Elbert Cooley was the first division superintendent of Carroll schools and served in this capacity for 12 years.
In 1917, Woodlawn School became the first school in the nation to offer classes in vocational agriculture, Steele reports. The opportunity was the result of the actions of Superintendent J. Lee Cox.
“He was concerned that the young men of the county were quitting school and leaving farms to find work and that they could benefit from learning better ways to use land for farming and better animal husbandry, therefore making it profitable to maintain family farms,” she wrote.
Loyal community supporters raised the funds and the agriculture building became an important addition to the campus.
The first teacher of the class was Fred Kirby, who taught from 1917-1921. W.L. Creasy taught 1926-1936. Both were Master Teachers of the South.

Post-Consolidation
A bruising budget battle and a schools consolation that closed six facilities around Carroll County shaped the last 20 years of Woodlawn’s educational efforts, according to Joe Bunn, principal from 1993 to 2001.
The impasse between the school board and the board of supervisors led to a significant reorganization of the Carroll school system as Lambsburg, Mount Bethel, Laurel Fork, Vaughan, Sylvatus, Dugspur were closed and Woodlawn became the location for grades six and seven for most of the county, except Cana.
The budget matter didn’t get resolved until June 1993, but then Woodlawn administrators had to create a curriculum for the 600 students headed for the newly minted K-7 school in a matter of several weeks.
“We had to organize a middle school-structured program that summer,” Bunn recalled.
Considering all the students that would come into Woodlawn from the remaining elementary schools in northern Carroll, school leaders organized several groups of classrooms into pods, he said. Educators mixed together as much as possible students from the different schools into these peer groups to take math and reading classes and to make new friends.
Administrators also made plans to give students new opportunities that they didn’t have at their home schools — exploratory classes like technology and computer labs, keyboarding and band; as well as a workshop where they could build rockets, use a wind tunnel and work with basic tabletop power tools.
“After the first year or two, we stopped hearing the complaints that the kids live too far away ...” Bunn recalled. “Parents recognized there was a more diverse program than they would get at their home schools.”
About this time, school administrators began using computers as a tool for office, attendance and discipline management.
Even as the school received a technology upgrade, the facility itself couldn’t keep from showing its advancing age.
“We really worried all the time and we were so conscious of the risk of fire,” Bunn said.
A brick wall that had been built onto the original section pulled away, he remembered. The wooden structure built decades before had a massive fire risk.
At least one student that Bunn could think of suffered breathing problems and even hospitalization that he attributed to mold at the school.
“When she got out of Woodlawn, she stopped having all these problems — I’m convinced that she came into contact with mold.”
The facility had already been added onto twice and the girls’ locker room settled two or three inches.
Woodlawn may look good at the front door, but you had to go inside to see these issues.
“We had huge maintenance needs all the way back to the 1990s,” Bunn said.
The needs were supposed to have been corrected in the countywide construction program that got off the ground in 1997 and just finished up in 2012 with additions and renovations at Carroll intermediate and high schools, but the improvements never got around to Woodlawn because the expenses had mounted so high.

Good and Bad
The best memory that Bunn holds onto was the staff who worked so hard to create a successful education program at Woodlawn.
The most traumatic memory occurred when the school lost one of those teachers, Rebecca Sams.
“On a Sunday, her husband hid in her car,” Bunn recalled. “As they drove off, he killed her and then shot himself — that affected all the kids.”
By that afternoon, Woodlawn staff met to develop a plan about how to get the students through the trauma when the school resumed that Monday.
It involved all guidance counselors from around the school system, plus ministers to give comfort in the aftermath of the sixth grade teacher’s death. The children and the staff got through the next day fairly well, but it had a lasting effect on the whole school, especially the hallway that Sams worked on.
By the time Bunn retired in 2001, most of Sams’ closest co-workers had moved on, as well. “The teachers couldn’t stand to be on that hall  — she was real popular and they were a team,” the former principal recalled. “The pods were a team. It was just devastating.
“In 36 years in the school system, that was the most tragic thing I ever had to deal with.”
While Bunn enjoyed working with the children, during his tenure as principal the outside pressures mounted on educators. Virginia officials began emphasizing the importance of schools performing well on the Standards of Learning tests and other state mandates.
It took the pleasure away from being an educator, so Bunn took early retirement in 2001.

First Nurse
Carroll schools received a health grant that allowed the system to hire its first set of school nurses. Lisa Frost became the first nurse to see students at Woodlawn, as well as several other schools, in 1997 when Bunn still acted as principal.
Using a little red wagon in the moving process evoked old memories for Frost.
“Each year, Mr. Bunn, before school started, he would always buy something to make us all feel we’re a team,” she recalled.
One year the wagon symbolized that philosophy. “The wagon is to help one another to carry their load.”
With the importance of doing well on the SOL tests being critical, Frost and others would take the wagon around at testing times, piled with graham crackers and juice, and pull it around to the classes to fortify the students before the exams and made sure they had enough energy to get through the day.
Frost associated many of her memories of Woodlawn with familiar objects — the landscape painting by students from 1993 on her clinic wall that she’s kept from getting thrown away each year, the rocking chair in the counselor’s office where many a student has relaxed, the coal chute that funnels the fuel to the boiler room under the cafeteria, the rabbit ears that she attached to the television so people could better watch the news coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the “smart board” multimedia displays and white boards that replaced all the chalk boards.
“I do remember the chalk — is that going to make me sound old?” she asked.
When she first began her career as school nurse, the amount of health issues took her by surprise. As a friend had put it, “You’ll be putting on a couple Band-Aids. You won’t have much to do.”
In truth, Frost saw more than 50 kids a day for various reasons. Her position means that different kinds of concerns occur to her during her workday.
The slate steps at Woodlawn caused her no small amount of worry over the years. “When the bell rings, I’m sitting there praying, ‘Oh, I hope nobody falls down the steps,’” she said.
Frost reminds herself of the biggest lesson she’s learned while at Woodlawn — “keep calm.”
The nurse embraces the move to the Carroll Middle School, but will also miss the place she’s worked for the last 16 years.
“I’m just very attached to the school — it would be like my second home,” Frost said. “When I walk in the door of Woodlawn school, it always has a distinct smell of books and the cafeteria.”
Students have asked her if she’s transferring to the new school and express relief that they won’t have to meet a new nurse.
“Of course, I’ll always remember the staff who have come and gone,” Frost said. “I would call Woodlawn a family, and the students, too. I can say something great about every single person I worked with in this building.”

Future Plans
No matter what time of day, no matter what need, the staff has always done its utmost for the students, Martin observed during his year as Woodlawn principal.
Whether it was a health problem or needing assistance with a math problem, the staff always has the time to help.
“If there’s a child in need, the staff will be here to help them,” he said. “It’s a team, but it’s more like a family reunion where everybody rolls in and brings their young’uns.”
The history of Woodlawn School proves the community had the foresight to know that education is the best way to improve children’s lives, he said. That’s why the community has given so much to the school and made it the community’s center.
As a group, the people of Woodlawn have said “we want it better,” and that’s something the staff will carry over to their new assignments.
When Woodlawn is cleared of all educational items needed elsewhere, Martin foresees the building still serving the community in some capacity.
There’s such a demand for gym space among the schools and the recreation department, so Woodlawn will still be needed for athletics. Martin hopes that the Carroll Board of Supervisors, when the property is turned over to them, will convert the building and 14 acres surrounding it for recreation, hosting ball games and putting in a swimming pool with water slide.
“I hope the board of supervisors will come together and are able to see what an asset that we have here for a recreational facility,” said Martin, who’s also the Pine Creek representative on the county board.
As far as schools go, there’s still a need for improvements at Carroll County High School, Martin said. The more than 40-year-old heating and air conditioning system needs replacing (see the related story on page 3) and an auxiliary gym needs to be built for the students and community.
One good thing is that a lot of the expense associated with the school system’s building program has been retired, possibly freeing up funds to take on other improvements needed at CCHS.
“For my part, I hope that the board of supervisors and the school board can soon be meeting to discuss how we can make that kind of thing a reality,” Martin said. “Like Woodlawn Academy, we want something better for the kids.”

Woodlawn Middle School will host an open house for the community and former students to share memories on May 19. The school will be open 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. for self-guided tours. The facility, staff and administration would like to thank the community for their support since the late 1800s.