Teachers, staff and volunteers rolled out the red carpet - two red carpets, actually - for students as they arrived Wednesday morning for the final first day of school at Farley Elementary.
The 2014-2015 school year will be Farley's last; its teachers and students are set to merge next year with Reidland Elementary (grades K-3) and what will be Reidland Intermediate School (grades 4 and 5).
According to Principal Paula Grubbs, it no longer makes fiscal sense to keep the school open with its dwindling enrollment. This year, Farley will have about 400 students.
"Our theme this year is going to be 'The Best Year Ever,'" Grubbs said. "We're going to strive to make every child's every day of this last year memorable. That's our goal."
Wednesday morning Farley's teachers and staff got to work even earlier than usual to get the school's entrances ready for students. They wore matching blue shirts that read "THE END OF AN ERA The Beginning of Something Bigger" across the back.
Farley's blue-clad staff rolled red carpets from the bus and car-rider drop-off points to the side and front entrances and set up towers of red and black balloons on either side of the front doors. Above the doors hung a blue banner that read, "Our Final Chapter 1897-2015."
As 8 a.m. drew near, everyone grabbed handmade signs and big paper hearts before taking their positions along the sidewalks and red carpets, ready to welcome the students.
"We send them off each year this way," said guidance counselor Kim Street, in her 28th year at the school. "This year we've got to welcome them back, too."
As she started to explain how hard the school's closing will be on parents and teachers who have called the school home for so many years, the 215 bus rolled in and "Lean on Me" started up on the stereo sitting near the front entrance. Street stopped her trip down memory lane to welcome her students, waving and shouting with the rest of the teachers.
"This is what makes us Farley!" she said.
Just about every child who walked along either of Farley's red carpets lit up with a smile, sparked by the overwhelming enthusiasm of their teachers handing out high-fives and compliments. In between hugs and welcomes a few teachers had to pause and collect themselves.
"I figured maybe the last day would be emotional," said Amy Davis, "but not the first." Davis teaches fourth grade and has been with Farley for 25 years.
"The kids are wonderful. The staff is wonderful. We do love our kids, so much," she said, standing in the grass opposite the school's entrance, holding a sign and a tissue. "It's just hard to give up. It's been my second home. This is the beginning of the end, but we're all going to be OK," she said, smiling through her tears and waving her sign that read "Best Year Ever!"
Reading facilitator or "reading guru" Glenda Lafferty said that last year was one of the school's best, with improvements across the board in attendance, homework completion and test scores. The hard work of teachers, staff, parents and the community as a whole paid off, she said, and they plan to work even harder to finish strong for Farley's last year.
"I've worked a lot of places, but Farley is special," Lafferty said.
She, too, has been at the school more than 20 years. "These people will really do whatever to help a child be successful," she said.
The Farley welcome crew stayed outside until the last bus arrived, even though it was behind schedule. They wanted every bus of kids to get the same red carpet treatment. The teachers' mixed emotions were evident, and they helped lift one another's spirits. Lafferty even got Davis to dance with her to "Celebrate Good Times" when she saw Davis was on the sadder end of the bittersweet spectrum.
Once every student was welcomed and accounted for, Grubbs kicked off the morning announcements.
"Welcome!" she said over the speakers, "to the first day of your best school year ever."
Farley's final chapter events
n Oct. 14 block party: A grill-out and movie night on school grounds.
n March 14 all ages talent show: Students, teachers, parents and community members all welcome to enter.
n May 16 homecoming: A celebration of staff, students and parents, past and present.
n Ongoing timeline: Learn about Farley Elementary's history as painted along the school's front hallway.