published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Generations learned ABCs at Birchwood School, but this class is its last (with audio slideshow)

Four generations of Birchwood students
The Roarks and Mooreheads are part of a family that has been attending Birchwood School for four generations. The school will close at the end of this school year. By Doug Strickland and Mary Helen Miller.
Birchwood School
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    Three generations of the McCallie family who all attended Birchwood Elementary School in Birchwood, Tenn., sit in front of the school Thursday. Birchwood will be closing this spring because officials say it does not make financial sense to operate.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

BIRCHWOOD THROUGH THE YEARS

* 1915 -- James County erects two-room, white-frame schoolhouse

* 1920 -- James County is disbanded, school folds into Hamilton County

* 1922 -- Eight students comprise Birchwood's first graduating class

* 1929 -- Original school burns from overheated boiler

* 1930 -- Current brick building opens on Highway 60

* 1973 -- Birchwood adds a portable building to accommodate a new kindergarten program

* 1976 -- High school students graduate from Birchwood for the last time, 26 in all, as upper grades are removed

* 1995 -- Birchwood loses the sixth, seventh and eighth grades during countywide transition from junior highs to middle schools

* May 2013 -- Birchwood Elementary will close

Source: Birchwood School archives

Birchwood School is the kind of place where maintenance crews are thanked with biscuits and gravy.

It's a place that has seen only four secretaries in nearly a century.

It's a place where three, four and five generations of families have learned to add and subtract, where graying senior citizens seem to have as much at stake as kindergartners learning their ABCs.

Alumni trace the school's past the way history buffs chart their family trees.

"It is a true community school," said Principal Ronnelle Blankenship. "It's absolutely a central meeting place, a place of memories. It is the anchor of this community."

But soon, Birchwood will be gone.

And its closing this month will mark not only an end to decades of memories for this secluded community, but also the loss of one of the last country schools in Hamilton County. With Birchwood goes a more intimate approach to education, a schoolhouse that functions less like an institution and more like a family.

This isn't an area that can be easily defined as poor or rich, urban or suburban. It's a collection of sparse farmland, working-class families and grand homes on the river. During its early life, the school served mostly descendants of farmers, many of whom went on after Birchwood to become lawyers, doctors and teachers.

Officials don't think small schools like Birchwood make financial sense anymore, especially when schools are being built bigger and bigger. So the 147 students there will be folded into the masses at schools such as Ooltewah Elementary, which could house as many as 1,200 kids when it opens in the fall.

Alumni and neighbors are mourning the loss of their storied institution, while parents of current children wonder what it will be like when their elementary students are transferred from the county's smallest elementary to the largest.

"It's a giant loss to the community," said Eugene McCallie, a former Birchwood student.

His extended family has sent dozens of children through Birchwood. His parents attended. They and two of his three sisters still live in the area. He met his wife at the school. His mother was the second secretary to sit in the office. His wife was the third.

But Birchwood's closing isn't a turning point just for families like the McCallies. It represents America's rich past, McCallie said, a simpler way of life when everyone knew everyone and everyone helped everyone.

"It's an icon for the community that's drawn a lot of families close," he said. "It was your perfect small-town country school."

•••

At 79 years old, Darwin Lane said his many memories of his time at Birchwood in the 1940s and 1950s have faded. But he does remember a close-knit community, where the oldest kids took care of the youngest and the teachers took a genuine interest in students' lives.

During his time, all the high school girls took four years of home economics, while the boys took agriculture classes. But it was academically challenging, Lane said. And many left the farms of their childhoods for college and impressive careers. Of the 12 students who comprised his graduating class of 1951, Lane says five went on to college -- an impressive number given the era.

"I just think about it as a good place for schooling," he said. "It was small. And there's just something about small schools."

Lane went on to work as a school principal in Hamilton County for 37 years. He's been married to the girl he met at Birchwood for 58 years. And up until recently, his graduating class managed to reunite annually, even some 50 years after receiving their diplomas.

But time has taken its toll. The reunions have halted. Of the nine boys and three girls in the class of 1951, four are still living. Now the school that's central to his life story will go, too.

"I'm saddened," Lane said. "Schools and churches have always been centers of communities, especially in rural areas."

•••

For decades, the Birchwood community has braced for the school's demise.

The elimination of the high school grades in the 1970s and later the middle school grades in the 1990s acted as warning shots. Then as an elementary school, Birchwood started to lose enrollment as families migrated south closer to Chattanooga. Even many of those who stayed in Birchwood now send students to other schools such as Snow Hill that are more convenient for commuters and boast before- and after-school programs.

Even with the addition of computers and high-stakes testing, Birchwood retains some of its original charm today.

Except for kindergarten, each grade has only one teacher. Classes are small. Cows graze just across the two-lane highway. And the community's fingerprints are all over the place -- from a renovated faculty dining room to the thick stage curtains. Neighbors and parents have done everything from swing paint buckets to cut high summer grass.

Maintenance crews often receive hearty meals after painting, fixing boilers or laying new tile. And once a year, the community puts on a whole banquet just for them, complete with hams, chicken and dressing and plenty of pie.

Some of Birchwood's quaintness is due to its geography. More than 30 miles from downtown Chattanooga, Birchwood sits closer to Meigs and Bradley counties than the Scenic City. So if you're coming all that way, the people here try to make it worth your while. The school is the crossroads of the community by default.

And some who make the trek here don't want to leave.

•••

Carolyn Roark wasn't from the Birchwood area, but her dad drove a school bus there. He helped find her first teaching job at the school in 1967 fresh out of college.

She never left.

She married a Birchwood graduate and still lives a mile from the school. Though she technically retired in 2000, she has remained active by substitute teaching exclusively at Birchwood. It's the only place she has ever taught or subbed in her 46-year career. So when Birchwood gets out of the education business this month, she will, too.

"I just loved it so much that I had no desire to go anywhere else," Roark said.

But many will move on after Birchwood. They'll have no choice.

A distant relative by marriage, Felicia Roark Moorehead will make the journey with her children and students to Ooltewah Elementary, a megaschool being built about 20 miles south.

Both her parents attended Birchwood, as did her grandparents. Most of the family still lives in the area. After teaching elsewhere, Moorehead moved back to her family's farm. And back to Birchwood School. She likes living where she works.

Now her two kids attend Birchwood and her husband works there, too.

"It feels like I'm going to be with family when I'm going to work," she said.

That probably won't be the case at Ooltewah.

Administrators will work to maintain a personal experience, but with a building big enough for more than 1,000 students, some parents are concerned their children could get lost in the shuffle, disappear in the expansive hallways or crowded buses.

"It's going to be a big adjustment," Moorehead said. "I think all our students, the entire student body, is just going to be in shock."

She's not too worried about the new space. But her 10-year-old daughter, Braley, is concerned about navigating a new social order. Bullying. Making new friends. Losing the friends she has.

It's hard to know what will happen in such a large place, when her one class is broken up among several.

Still, a shiny new school could be fun, she said. Art classes. New computers. iPads?

So much to explore.

"It's honestly really cool."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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