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Puma pride forever

Faculty, students, parents and alumni unite to commemorate the closure of Palisades Elementary School for the second time in school history
by: vern uyetake From left, Kate Kohnstamm, Sofie Tomlinson and Clair Engel join hands as they dance at last Wednesday’s commemoration of the closure of Palisades Elementary School.

There was every reason for the halls of Palisades Elementary to feel somber on the afternoon of June 8. After a run of 27 years, the school will close at the end of school today for the second time in its 53-year history. A bittersweet feeling permeated the halls, but the Palisades Pumas have chosen to focus instead on the sweetness of their school.

To commemorate the closure as well as honor retiring teachers Jan Pearce and Kathy Taylor, school officials and Palisades Adult Leadership (PALS) invited current and former Palisades Pumas, their parents, former teachers and staff to celebrate with them. With the usual Puma enthusiasm, several hundred Palisades students, alums and their families came together last Wednesday to celebrate their Puma Pride.

'This is a hard day, a bittersweet day,' principal Mike Esping said. 'We are grieving the loss, and it's been hard to work through this. But celebrating what we are and what we've had helps.'

The event brought many alums and families back into the school. They hugged teachers, visited classrooms and remembered their good old days as students at Palisades.

Lakeridge Class of 2011 graduate Jake Nolton measured his hand against the print he made years ago on the hands-off drugs wall.

'My brother's handprint is up here, and Cole's is over here next to Greg's,' he said as he pointed out primary colored handprints on the wall. ' … It's so freaky that they are closing this school. This was a great school; these were good times.'

Since the announcement was made in April that Palisades would close at the end of the school year, school staff and volunteers have been focusing on the positive, preparing the students for the transition to their new schools. PALS president Dusty Johnson said bridge-building activities between Palisades, Hallinan and Westridge elementary students has been ongoing.

'So much care was put into the transition planning,' said Palisades parent Audrey Monroe. 'The community really stepped up and made it easy. Parents are really helping to make it a positive for all the kids.'

Events such as the closing celebration always a need parent volunteers to set up, clean up and tend to everything else that needs doing.

'We owe a huge thank you to the parents from Forest Hills, Westridge and Lake Grove who came over to man the stations so our parents could enjoy the evening,' Johnson said. 'We really appreciate their support.'

Forest Hills parent David Ewing volunteered to be a greeter at the event.

'I have a lot of compassion for what Palisades families are going through,' he said. 'There is some DNA here … This is a special school and they've sacrificed a lot. This is how I can say thank you in a different way.'

Tania Hunter and Kerry Hinrichs, also parents of Forest Hills students, agreed.

'It's been an emotional thing for the whole community,' Hinrichs said. 'We needed to lend support because we all live, work and play in the same community.'

During the retirement portion of the event, Esping said that it may seem as if he was using the word 'wonderful' too often when talking about Pearce and Taylor.

'But when you are talking about these educators, you can't use the word 'wonderful' enough,' he said. He noted that between them, Pearce and Taylor had spent 67 years - or more than 12,000 instructional days - teaching.

'You are the teacher that so many will never forget, the teacher who made a difference in their lives, the one who made them want to strive for more,' parent Rhonda Zarosinki said of Taylor.

School board member Teri Oerlich presented the teachers with plaques commemorating their service.

The program ended with Palisades staff singing a song to the retirees and physical education teacher Deb Somers leading the whole crowd in the traditional Palisades 'You Are Awesome!' cheer.

And then with full Puma enthusiasm, the party began. Out on the playground, students ran, jumped and laughed as usual. They ate pizza and snowcones and enjoyed the music of Palisades' dad Lesh Brown's band, Meltdown.

'This just brings back so many memories,' said JoAnn Bittner, whose four children all attended Palisades. 'I remember making this track' indicating the barkdust-covered track.

John Foster, who with his wife,Julie, raised three children who attended Palisades, served on the school boundary committee when Palisades was to reopen in 1989.

'This is a painful process. It was painful to go through when we reopened Palisades,' he said. 'People asked me 'Why would you want to be on that committee when you have to adjust the line for your own children?'

'Bill Johnson was a great leader and he handpicked the staff for the school. This is definitely a neighborhood school and I'm sorry to see it close.'

One of Johnson's wise decisions when Palisades was re-opened was bringing Louise McCallum from Westridge as the school secretary.

'She was far more than the secretary,' Bittner said. 'She was just the right touch for the school.'

Since 1998, the Oregon Department of Education has issued a report card on schools. Palisades earned the top ranking during nine of those years and earned a strong rank the other three.

Val Martin, who retired from teaching at Palisades in 2004, summed it up best.

'It's sad. This was a great place to teach,' she said. 'They may close the building but they can't close the Palisades' spirit. So much of what makes Palisades great happened outside of the building.'

A picture of the entire Palisades student body had been taken the morning of the closure celebration event and teachers were presented with framed copies at the closing comments.

When the last bell rings today, Palisades Elementary will close and the doors will be locked. But there will be laughter, hugs and smiles as students, teachers and families wave goodbye - not because they've forgotten so quickly, but because they remember so well.

Randall's sons Dave and Cole are Puma alumni; the family shares in the Puma pride.