Folks at Larrabee Elementary turn closure of school into learning lessons

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 20, 2014 

Teachers, students and parents at Larrabee Elementary School are engaged in a history project this year that many of them wish wasn't on their to-do list.

Last spring, the Bellingham School Board voted to close the school as part of the district's 10-year plan. Larrabee will close its doors in June, ending its tenure as a school one year shy of its 125th anniversary.

With the school's fate sealed, Larrabee PTA members are making the best of it by asking community members to share their Larrabee stories, and teachers have students working on projects tied to the school's and neighborhood's history.

"We're trying not to mourn the past, we're trying to celebrate the past," said Laura Johanson, a PTA member and the mother of a current and a recent Larrabee student.

The week of March 17 will be Larrabee history week at the school, with March 20 set aside for a "Now and Then" Story Slam and Art Night that will be open to current and former students, teachers and staff and to other interested community members.

People with connections to Larrabee who want to share their stories are being asked to contact the PTA.

"We're interested in their memories," Johanson said.

Some of what people have to share might become part of the March 20 event, and might become part of other efforts to preserve the school's legacy.

"I don't know what we'll be able to pull together," Johanson said. "Our hope is that we we'll be able to put together something that is permanent."

At the school, some students are working on memory books, and fifth-graders, the oldest students at Larrabee, are putting together a yearbook with an emphasis on history and are also studying how the neighborhood has changed during the school's lifetime, said Kate Baehr, Larrabee's principal.

Later this spring, Larrabee supporters hope to participate in the Ski to Sea Junior Parade, and plan to have students work on a community art project.

In June, students will hold a spring concert, something new for Larrabee, and will mark the last day of school, on June 13 or thereabouts, with a block party with food trucks, music, a photo booth and other activities, Baehr said.

"We want to have a balance of honoring the history, acknowledging the change and transition, and celebrating the community," she said.

STUDENTS TO TRANSFER

After the school closes, Larrabee's approximately 185 students, other than those advancing to middle school, will be split between Lowell and Happy Valley elementaries next fall.

In deciding to close Larrabee, the district said the building was inaccessible for students with disabilities, and lacked space at a time when Happy Valley and Lowell have room to spare.

Happy Valley will be rebuilt as part of a $160 million bond recently approved by district voters, and Lowell will get an elevator and a new gym and cafeteria.

A district committee will develop criteria for possible future uses of the Larrabee building.

The original Larrabee school was built in 1890 at 21st Street and Larrabee Avenue and named after C. X. Larrabee, an early Fairhaven businessman.

That school was demolished soon after the current Larrabee school was built in 1920 on higher ground on 18th Street. Thanks to Jeff Jewell, photo archivist at Whatcom Museum, I learned from a Bellingham Herald story about the new school's dedication that the original school was built on ground so wet that it damaged the structure.

One speaker at the ceremony said the children would "now be able to get rid of their web feet."

COMING UP

What: Larrabee Elementary School's "Now and Then" Story Slam and Art Night.

When: 6:30 p.m. March 20.

Where: School gymnasium, 1409 18th St.

More: People with Larrabee stories to share should contact the Larrabee PTA at larpta@gmail.com or call Laura Johanson at 360-647-0869.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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