Dozens of West Elementary School students, parents, staff, alumni and community members gathered for a celebration to mark the permanent closure of the north-end school that has greeted children since the fall of 1949.

At the West Elementary School community picnic on Wednesday, Aug. 18, Superintendent Terry Brenner said the school has been a “cornerstone” for this neighborhood for the past 70 years. The event was a chance for people to “remember, grieve and share memories” of what the school has meant to the neighborhood and the community of Grand Forks.

He cited the “close-knit feeling” of the school and the “passion and connectivity” that people had with this building, but that “it is the people, the culture that makes West special.”

A farewell picnic held for West Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Sydney Mook/Grand Forks Herald)
A farewell picnic held for West Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Sydney Mook/Grand Forks Herald)

In her remarks to the audience, retired West kindergarten teacher Holly Koop called her 25 years of teaching “a career of love.”

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“I’d start with the kindergartener and go through the whole family,” she said.

Recalling the supportive atmosphere and “strong bonds” between teachers at the school, she said, “Everyone was a family. I absolutely loved it.”

"One of the biggest blessings I have is being able to teach kindergarten my entire career in this unbelievable school," she said. "It was a gift."

Former principal Jim Torkelson, who described Koop as “the best kindergarten teacher on the planet,” said West “is one of the unique schools that was built to be part of a neighborhood,” and it became part of the culture, where parents knew their kids would be safe, walking or biking to and from school.

He praised the dedication of the teachers who gave “blood, sweat and tears to make it the best school in Grand Forks.”

“We were a family; I got to know the kids really well. We had some of the best teachers in town and one of the most active PTOs in town,” he said. “West was the center of this little community, and has been for about 70 years.”

Laura Dando, an alum and former paraprofessional at West, said her experience was “memorable and very rewarding.”

She recalled, decades ago, the cigarette smoke that filled the teachers lounge, and her childhood memory of playing King of the Hill on the snow piled high near the school.

In the audience, Myron and Betty Bender, both retired, said they have three kids who attended West. “There were good teachers here,” Myron said.

Their adult children have long since moved far away, and haven’t grasped that West is closing, because closing schools is rare. But when they return for a visit and “once it’s not here, then it’ll hit them,” Betty said.

The closure of West “is somewhat sad, for historical reasons,” said Myron, UND professor emeritus of industrial technology. “It affects the area and could affect the value of homes.”

He recalled how much his son enjoyed playing on the school’s basketball team.

Ali Parkinson, the principal of Discovery Elementary School who served as principal at West from 2008 to 2013, said Wednesday’s event “provided an opportunity for family and staff to get together one last time.”

Katie Zubrod, who taught fifth grade at West for one year about six years ago, said about the closure, “It is sad; it’s an old school.”

She appreciated the atmosphere of the school, the abundance of natural sunlight, and being able to open windows in her classroom, which isn’t generally possible in new schools, she said.

The school has been vacant since February 2020 when unhealthy levels of radon were discovered in parts of the building.

This past March, the Grand Forks School Board voted to close the school permanently due to the problematic radon levels, the cost of repairing or replacing infrastructure and the school district demographer’s forecast of continuing low enrollment for the next several years.

The school district is in the process of selling the West school property, and has advertised a request for proposals due by Sept. 7.