For the better part of Saturday afternoon, ominous dark clouds high above surrounded Satinwood School, not altogether unlike the metaphorical clouds that have long hung over the charming one-hallway rural school with perilously small enrolments.
But though the figurative clouds may have ultimately rained on the school’s parade — it will close in a little over two weeks — the sun shone on the school’s final celebration Saturday as alumnus after alumnus spoke of how Satinwood brought sunshine into their life.
For young Dave Scholing, it was the special attention he received from teachers that helped him learn English from a Grade 1 base of only the word ‘Okay.’
For 86-year-old Frances Littau, who was a student in the 30s and later taught kindergarten for 15 years, it was the teachers who cared so much and putting peanut butter sandwiches into the furnace on a shovel to get the filling to melt.
And for Ted Jardine, principal for the last 16 years, it was the relationships with students, parents, and the small staff that made the difference.
“It’s a gem, it really is. And I’m truthful when I say I’ve had the best gig for 16 years because it’s been a good ride,” said Jardine,
“This is the way education should be for all young students — safe, secure, family-oriented and fun.”
Some of that “fun” came in the form of tales of adventure and mischief that come naturally to a small school in the middle of nowhere.
If not mice in the vents during class, it was students scurrying around.
But skipping class was rarely worth it; with nothing else around, you could walk to the train tracks, and that’s about it.
For years, mice were the biggest threat at the school, necessitating one staffer to rig up a particularly prolific trap. But declining rural populations and ever-tightening budgets proved to be the bigger danger.
Satinwood School, located about 30 km east of Red Deer, peaked in 1962 with an enrolment of 165 students after five other area rural schools closed. The school was established in 1908 and rebuilt in 1920 after a visiting transient in need of some stove warmth inadvertently burned it to the ground.
Under Pat Denis’ principalship from the 70s to the 90s, student numbers slumped. Dedicated parents successfully fought efforts to close the school then, but the junior high grades were taken away from Satinwood, leaving it as a K-Grade 6 operation.
In a 1995 Advocate article, Denis warned that enrolment-based funding left the school in “grave danger.” The school had 90 students then, and the ever-fluctuating enrolment would peak again at 99 in the early 2000s.
But recently there has not been much fluctuating, it has just been going down. In 2008 there were 78 pupils. This year, only 39 enrolled.
“‘Agonizing’ is the best word I can describe (the last few years with),” said Jardine.
Though student performance was great and parents continued to rave about the school, the Wolf Creek School Division board voted in April to close Satinwood at the end of June.
Whereas the per-capita cost of educating a student at Satinwood this year is $14,000, the division average is close to $8,000.
“The financial situation overruled everything else. It just got to the bottom line that it’s costing too much money to educate 40 kids,” said Jardine.
Many at the celebration Saturday lamented the fact that the school will close, but a movement is afoot to somehow save the setting as a community gathering point.
A survey was circulated at the reunion asking whether people would be interested in trying to secure the facility as a private school/recreation centre or a charter school/rec centre with an agricultural specialty.
“I would love to see a school here because I believe in the energy and the idea of having a country school,” said Jackie McPherson, a third generation Satinwood student whose daughter is now in Grade 1 at the school, “It grows really good kids. Country kids are independent and very good leaders.”
Under the regulated school closure process, the Wolf Creek board is to offer the property for sale by public tender unless it can negotiate a deal with a community group or government entity such as Lacombe County.
The board is required to get two appraisals of the property as part of the process.
Wolf Creek secretary-treasurer Joe Henderson said when the board has looked to sell other closed schools, the old buildings have at times been a detriment to the sale of the land. He said any purchaser would likely need to have some sort of societal status.
The board managed to sell the old Mirror School for $25,000 to a community group after it closed in 2010.
It was later bought from that group by a private individual who established a Christian school.
Jardine and about 60 per cent of the current student body will move to Clive School for the next school year, while the rest will head to school in Lacombe.
About 700 people attended Saturday’s celebration.