CHAPEL HILL — Parents, teachers, children and some old friends gathered Thursday at Frank Porter Graham Elementary to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary.
For many, it was also goodbye. Weeks remain in the school year, but there was a sense of farewell to mark the final year before FPG’s changeover to a magnet school for Spanish-English education.
“There are some people who have been here for 30 years, 20 years – a long time. They’re just part of the fabric of this place,” principal Rita Bongarten said. Planning to retire, she is among many who will not be returning next year.
“There’s a lot of kids and teachers here I’m going to miss,” said Kathy Latta, the cafeteria manager at FPG since 1995. “Everybody was heartbroken when they found out it was going to happen.”
Latta isn’t going anywhere, though. School nurse Janice Anderson, who wore FPG’s mascot lion costume Thursday, is another who will stay.
Even the Fearless Lion will be gone by the start of next school year. District leaders will add wings to the mascot and roll out a new school identity as the Griffins.
On a warm spring evening, families sat on the sloping lawn eating hot dogs while the kids danced to FPG favorites like the “Chicken Dance” and “Macarena.”
Rodolfo Zentella has two children are in the current dual-language program at FPG. His son, José, will go to McDougle Middle School next year. His daughter Andrea will continue in the Spanish-English program at FPG.
“We moved from Durham to Chapel Hill because of the education, the school system,” said Zentella, a Duke University researcher. “And luckily, we ended up in a district and a school that had a dual-language program. Because both of us, the parents, are from Mexico.”
In line for a hot dog behind Zentella was Board of Education member Annetta Streater. She is an FPG parent too, with a second-grader in the dual language program.
“She’s speaking a little Spanish,” Streater said. “She’s learning it every day.”
Streater cast the sole dissenting vote in the Board of Education’s decision to close FPG to most of its neighbors and make it exclusive to participants in the dual language program.
Frank Porter Graham Elementary opened 10 years before its namesake’s death in 1972. Graham served as president of UNC-Chapel Hill from 1930 to 1949 and was also the first president of the consolidated university system.
Retired teacher Vickie Lineberry told the gymnasium audience a story about another former UNC president.
Out of her 30 years teaching at the school, Lineberry recalled the day Bill Friday, whose grandchildren attended FPG, put his hand on her shoulder and told her he thought that Frank Porter Graham would have been proud of the education work that was happening at the school.
“I think it leaves a great legacy,” Lineberry said later. “But I also think there are those children who’ve been disenfranchised, meaning our Karen and Burmese families that live next door.”
During a contentious series of public meetings on the dual language program’s future, Lineberry was vocal in her opposition to making the district’s most diverse elementary school a magnet filled by lottery instead of its surrounding attendance zone.
“I spoke many times, because it did a disservice to families that came from refugee camps. And I just feel sorry, because I think it was about test scores, and bringing up a school that was seen as underperforming – when in reality we were moving mountains.”
Members of the immigrant Karen community from Burma (also called Myanmar) who live in low-cost apartment complexes near FPG have found open arms at the school, and nurse Anderson said staff members worked hard to connect them to needed services.
Grace Htoo, a member of that community, came to America eight years ago with two kids after fleeing persecution in Thailand. Burmese soldiers overran her village, burning Karen buildings.
Next year her 8-year son old will take the bus to his new school, Scroggs Elementary. A third child, 4 years old, will likely begin school at Scroggs.
“We didn’t like to go, but we have no choice, we have to go,” Htoo said. “We like it here.”
Members of the local Karen community won’t be broken up by the redistricting, Htoo indicated, since many families live at nearby Royal Park, Carolina Apartments and the former Abbey Court, which share a school zone.
“This place is like my home. The teachers are all nice. They treat us good, like a family.”