Fond farewell: Bittersweet final day at Cheshire Elementary

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PHOTO GALLERY | Cheshire Elementary School's final day

CHESHIRE — Principal Peter Bachli ended the day with an unusual announcement over the school's public address system:

"Thanks for the memories."

Barring a last-minute change of plans, Cheshire Elementary School will not reopen next school year, making Tuesday the final day of classes in a school that has been the center of a small community for nearly a century.

"The word I would use is 'community.' Everybody is so close and takes care of each other, from the kids to the adults," said Robin Poirot, a kindergarten teacher at Cheshire Elementary for 28 years, who attended the school herself and sent her children there.

That sense of community was embraced for the final day of school on Tuesday.

Students and staff wore T-shirts that read "Cheshire Elementary School, 95 years of memories." They lined up every grade for a group photo. And they didn't forget to honor a retiring paraprofessional, Linda Giroux, with a special ceremony.

The day was a reminder of not only the "kind of school we are," Bachli told staff and students, "but the kind of school we will be."

In an effort to make the district more sustainable, the school committee voted earlier this year to close Cheshire Elementary School. The district will be restructured into pre-kindergarten through third grade at C.T. Plunkett Elementary in Adams while fourth and fifth grade students move to the middle school at Hoosac Valley Middle and High School in Cheshire. Bachli will lead the newly-formatted C.T. Plunkett Elementary.

The mood of Cheshire Elementary School on Tuesday was at times somber.

"It really feels like a death," said Administrative Assistant Paula Ciskowski, who has worked a total of nine years at the school. "I know we will get through it because that's what we do."

Head Custodian Dave Richards celebrated his 30th anniversary as an employee of the school earlier this month.

"It's sad, it really is. The school is like a family here. I've met a lot of people here and made a lot of friends," said Richards, who like the vast majority of the staff will continue to work in the district.

Peter Bachli, who has served as the school's principal for eight years, said the accelerated timeline of the closure has been "tough." The School Committee received a consultant's report on the district's sustainability earlier this year and, within a matter of weeks, moved to close Cheshire Elementary.

"I didn't see the writing on the wall, I guess, or this happening," Bachli said.

It's not just current students and staff who are affected by the closure of the school.

Emily Tarjick, a former Cheshire student, still has a sibling there who "will be going into second grade at a completely new place, no longer able to walk to or from school."

"My family moved to this town years ago for the school. We have always lived down the street and Cheshire school, its traditions, teachers and close knit community is something all of my siblings and I have always been able to share," Tarjick said.

Boxes have already been delivered to teachers throughout the district, and Superintendent Robert Putnam hopes to have everyone moved by July 23. About three-quarters of the district's teachers are moving to a new classroom under the restructuring plan, and administrators have ordered more than 1,000 moving boxes and hired a professional moving company to assist.

Putnam acknowledged the "great deal of sadness at the closing of this school."

"Even though I've only been here one year, the love and support of the community for this school is written on the face of every student, parent and teacher," Putnam said.

Though the staff expressed a commitment to providing the same quality of education and service at C.T. Plunkett Elementary, many know that it won't quite be the same. Cheshire Elementary is a school of 256 students, and next year the combined pre-kindergarten through third grades at C.T. Plunkett will have more than 460 students.

"Because we were a little bit smaller we were able to be a little more nurturing," Ciskowski said. "You're not going to see everybody every day [at C.T. Plunkett]."

Still, the staff is ready to take on the move to C.T. Plunkett and Hoosac Valley.

"The more time that goes on, I'm getting excited about the challenge," Poirot said. "I know this district is ready to offer the things we need to make it a success."

The controversy over the School Committee's decision to close Cheshire Elementary isn't likely to disappear with the school closing. And while he acknowledged the "tremendous effort" by many in the community to save the school, Bachli said the transition is moving forward.

"We have to funnel all of the political stuff down into what's best for the kids," Bachli said.

Putnam asks that Cheshire parents — as well as Adams parents concerned about the fourth and fifth grades joining the middle school — give the district a chance.

"We will develop a district that provides a great education," Putnam said. "My profound hope is that parents will give us a chance to prove that we are the district they want to send their children to. And I know we have to earn that."

Kelly Akroman, a former Cheshire student herself, is one of those parents whose children will attend C.T. Plunkett next year.

"[Our daughters] Eva & Emma are excited and that is our main goal; along with getting a proper education, we want them to be happy. The teachers and administrators of Cheshire have always been good to our daughters and I have confidence that they will continue to educate and guide them regardless of what building they are in," Akroman said.

At its annual town meeting last week, Cheshire secured $100,000 to maintain the vacant building next year.

"It's a loss of the heart of the town of Cheshire," said longtime Selectman Carol Francesconi, who said if the school remains closed, the town will form a committee to help determine the building's future.

But on Tuesday, the school was filled with the energy of students and teachers for what will likely be the final time.

"We were so fortunate to have such a close bond here," Ciskowski said. "That's what I'll miss the most."


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