Ermite Constant cries on the last day of school every year. But this year was different.
This year was Constant’s last year as a first-grade teacher at Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary School, which closed its doors to students for good at the end of the day Thursday.
“Today is just like, ‘Oh, it’s really happening,’” Constant said between sobs in her classroom, as her daughter helped hand out gifts to her last first-grade class amid boxes and boxes of packed materials, representing 14 years of hard work and dedication to young children in Manatee.
Constant worked at Orange Ridge for the past 14 years, six as a paraprofessional and the last eight as a teacher. She’s one of many Orange Ridge staff members who were in tears Thursday as children left for the final time.
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“Today was unbelievably emotional,” Principal Maribeth Mason said through her tears.
Her first tears of the day came when she was on morning duty, and kindergarteners and first-graders broke out of line to give her hugs. They came again when a student said she would miss Mrs. Mason the most next year.
And they came again when Mason spokes over the loudspeaker just before dismissal for the last time.
“We at Orange Ridge know that you will be fantastic wherever you go,” she said, pausing. “I’ve really enjoyed being your principal.”
As 48,000 children headed out of Manatee County schools on Thursday for summer break, it was a bittersweet time for children, families and staff at Orange Ridge. Next year, the majority of children who attended Orange Ridge will go to Rogers Garden Elementary, after the school board voted to shut down Orange Ridge.
I was absolutely heartbroken. I had planned to work my last job here.
Lori Jackson, second-grade teacher at Orange Ridge
Students will also go to Daughtrey, Ballard, Oneco and Samoset next year. Although 10-year-old Mykell Gipson was sad to leave behind some of his friends and his favorite teachers at Orange Ridge, he was excited he would get to spend fifth grade at Samoset, where Mason will be the principal.
“I was sad. I felt like my heart was in a million pieces,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of memories here.”
Mykell said he liked recess and the way his favorite teachers helped him each year.
“They were strict, but they are the ones who helped us get to where we are right now,” he said.
Closing Orange Ridge is the first of several measures to help the growing district better balance enrollment and position itself to build new schools to handle increased growth in other areas of the county. Duette Elementary School, the last functioning one-room schoolhouse in the state of Florida, also closed its doors to students for the last time on Thursday.
This summer will be a quick one for Manatee students. The school district decided to take advantage of a change in Florida law that allows districts more flexibility for August start dates. Students in Manatee return to school on Aug. 10, only 61 days after the schools closed.
The Bullock building, which served some of the neediest students in the district, will still host classes in the building this summer, before transitioning to Rogers Garden in the fall.
During the summer, the Orange Ridge portion of the building will be fenced off and workers will begin moving boxes of materials and furniture to Rogers Garden or the other schools that are picking up some of the excess furniture. District staff estimate the move will start the week of June 20 and take about three weeks.
Packing has been relatively organized, Mason said. As organized as packing can be while still educating students. Color-coded labels and boxes were provided for teachers to pack up their belongings and mark them for a new school.
Mason compared the packing process to packing up a house that you’ve lived in for a really long time.
“It’s been a busy, busy week,” she said.