May 23, 2013 Updated: May 23, 2013 at 4:50 pm
At first glance, Thursday seemed like a typical last day of school for the Thunderbirds of Wasson High.
With finals under their belts, students emptied their lockers, hugged teachers, shed some tears, pledged to stay in touch and turned an eye toward summer break.
But not before the elephant in the room trumpeted.
"We often say goodbye as kids move on, but this year, we're saying goodbye to everyone. That adds to the sadness," said Assistant Principal Stacy Bush.
This year's 645 freshmen, sophomores and juniors, 80 teachers and 35 staff members won't return to Wasson when school starts again in the fall.
Colorado Springs School District 11 is closing the 54-year-old school to cut expenses and converting it into a center for alternative education programs.
"I had a kid who was yelling at me today. I said, 'I'm going to miss you, too.' Some kids are moving on, no problem; other kids are really torn up," said Monica McNamara, a special education teacher at Wasson for the past six years.
She and fellow teacher, Laura Grant, tore down a wall display of photos and sentiments students wrote to describe Wasson. "Cool," "Awesome," "Powerful," "Fantastic," "Accepting," "Diverse Culture" and "Closing" were among the words.
It was McNamara's idea.
"I wanted them to have a positive feel toward the end - no one wrote a bad thing about anybody," she said. "It's funny, but when your school is closing you realize what really makes the school. It's us. Wasson is the people."
Grant graduated from Wasson in 1998, then returned to teach.
"It's so sad," she said. "Yes, there will be an alternative education center here. But it's not going to be a high school. Period. It's tough."
It's also not real, she said. Not right now.
"It's like it's just another summer, and we'll all leave and come back," she said.
But that's not the case. About one-third of the 645 displaced students will attend Mitchell High next year, and another third will go to Palmer High, according to D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby. In an "early intent" letter submitted in March, 15 percent of students indicated they will go to Doherty, and 4 percent to Coronado. Ten percent are opting for other choices, such as charter schools.
Wasson student Jacob Salaz will enter Palmer as a junior in the fall.
"I originally was going to go to Palmer but decided to come here and have had a great time," he said. "Today is very emotional for me."
This is the second time junior Katherine Pinto has had to switch schools because of closure. When she was in the seventh grade in 2009, D-11 shuttered Irving Middle School, along with eight other schools.
Katherine said she's had enough. She'll attend Sand Creek High for her senior year, which is in Falcon School District 49.
"I didn't want to stay in District 11 any more. They keep closing schools," she said. "It's really sad because none of my friends will be at my new school."
On their way out of the building, students grabbed free T-shirts, bracelets, old yearbooks, even their athletic uniforms, as mementoes of Wasson days gone by.
Briana Stasik graduated from Wasson on Tuesday but returned Thursday to visit and pick up her softball jersey.
"I keep saying bye to my teachers and bye to my school," she said. "I don't want to be in it when it's not Wasson any more."
Bush, the assistant principal who has been reassigned to Mitchell High, kept a brave face, even playing wiffle ball in the hallway with some students and quoting Dr. Seuss to others: "Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened."
Friday will be even harder, said secretary Kathy Taylor, a 1963 Wasson graduate who has worked at the school for the past 15 years. That's the day teachers will clean out their classrooms and part ways.
"It's been a fabulous school from the beginning right up until now," she said. "We've been so close. We've been there for each other's babies, deaths and weddings. It's heart breaking."