One of the reasons I like to read obituaries is because I get to see where the deceased went to school. If they were in their 80s or 90s when they passed, it’s a chance to see the names of Iowa schools that no longer exist. In fact, it’s not unusual for some of those towns to no longer exist except in memories.
These were the schools in little bergs all around our state — proud schools like Ridgeway High School, Castana High School, Gravity High School — and the list could go on and on. Since the 1930s, the numbers of school districts in Iowa has declined by 90 percent. In 2013 there were 357 school districts in our state.
Of course, bigger farms and declining rural population eventually meant school enrollments declined, too. Couple that with changing state regulations for schools over the years, and it’s easy to understand why so many of our school districts changed.
Even though I understand all that, it’s still a sad thing for a school building to close. Sometimes I think about how proud the folks in that little town must have been back in the day when that school building was erected and how it was the life for generations of that community.
I remember talking one time with a woman who played high school basketball in the early 1950s, a Vikingette for Stanhope High School. She said a season consisted of the team playing a home game and an away game with each school in the county. Then there was a county tournament, and the season was over. Simple, especially compared to high school teams that now have to travel endless miles just to play regular season games now that school districts are much farther apart.
Usually small schools are forced into consolidation with other small schools in nearby little towns as they all become part of a new district. With the continued decline in our state’s population, you may have noticed that some of the consolidated districts have had to consolidate again–often with another consolidated district — in order to have enough students. And that can result in a new school name that either (A) resembles an alphabet or (B) gives no clue just where the district is located.
It is tough on our little towns when their school closes. Sadly, some of the former school buildings — often square brick structures of several stories — are left to decline, but thankfully some find new life as a community center, perhaps, maybe apartments or a business. I wrote a magazine story once about a township school in such a building in Dallas County that was located out in the country back in the day and was brought back to life as a hub for community events when school alumni gave their support.
Some of the best parts of our lives exist only in memories.