In 1957, a gallon of gas cost 24 cents, Elvis Presley bought a Tennessee mansion and named it Graceland, Martin Luther King Jr. led a nationwide movement to end racial discrimination and Katharine Lee Bates Elementary School opened in Colorado Springs.

From the beginning, Bates was special.

"It was truly a neighborhood school with so many wonderful families that saw the value of education, which created a strong academic heritage," said John O'Brien, principal from 1976 to 1997.

Although the educational system, technology and pupils have changed, much has remained the same at Bates, which will close on Monday. It's the 11th school that Colorado Springs School District 11 has shut down in recent years, as the district restructured amid declining enrollment.

As students, friends, family, alumni and educators gathered Friday for a farewell ceremony, many emphasized how it's remained a neighborhood school throughout its 56-year lifespan.

Nine children in Dona Bear's family, from her daughter to her great-grandson, have attended Bates.

"That's 41 years of Christmas programs and carnivals," she said. "It's always felt like a family, a close community, a safe place."

Judy McCollum, principal from 1997 to 2010, said the "buy-in, loyalty and support" from the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who sent their children to the school was unlike any other.

"You don't see this so much anymore, what we've had here," she said.

McCollum, then told the students and guests: "The school district can take away Bates Elementary in the physical sense but what they can never take away are the memories we carry in our hearts and our heads. That's what we'll do. We'll share our stories in the oral tradition, and in that sense, Bates Elementary will never go away."

Named for the author of America the Beautiful, the school has been a mainstay in the Cragmor subdivision, now a bustling area for college students but decades ago home to a tuberculosis sanitorium.

With a stellar view of Pikes Peak, which inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write the patriotic song that every American grows up learning, the school is said to have opened with some 600 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, said Priscilla Barsotti, principal for the past three years.

But enrollment has dwindled to 200 preschool through fifth graders. Barsotti said an aging neighborhood, boundary changes, competition from charter and private schools, and nearby property not being used for residential development are responsible for the trend.

D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby said the district has not decided what will be done with Bates.

About half of its students will attend Edison Elementary next year, a mile down the hill. Others have chosen Fremont and Audubon elementary schools.

"I like all the friends I met and how nice the teachers are. I feel sad," said third grader Brady Gossage, who's headed for Edison in the fall.

Second grader Jeremie Pfahl said what's best about Bates is that "the teachers work very hard with students."

One of those teachers is Shelby Givens, who has been at it for 31 years at Bates. Bombarded with hugs from parents and past students, Givens worked hard to contain her tears, but in the end, gave in to the high emotions of the day.

"It's been a wonderful journey; being here has made me become the teacher I am," she said. "A couple didn't like my high expectations and high achievement that's been my trademark, but most didn't mind."

Givens will teach first grade at Edison next year.

As the ceremonies wound down and guests ate cake, flipped through scrapbooks and toured the building, many said they would miss the school.

Cliff Donnelly, who attended Bates from 1961 to 1963, said he vividly remembers the glorious view, the lack of air conditioning in the building and the flagpole. But the recollection he cherishes the most is the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, Nov. 22, 1963.

"I was sitting in the classroom and they took us into this very same gym where there was a practice for a Christmas program and told us, then sent us home," he said. "I wanted to come back to see it one more time."


Staff reporter, education and general news and features

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