Staff, students, families getting ready to say farewell to Union-Sanborn

  • Teacher Carmel Lunt has been at the school for the past 25 years.

  • Reading specialist Tammy Nute stands in the reading room at Union-Sanborn Elementary School.

  • Art teacher Julie Swain stands in her art classroom at Union-Sanborn Elementary School. Eileen O’Grady photos / Monitor staff

  • Union-Sanborn Elementary School teachers watch a slideshow of photos from the history of the school in the gymnasium on May 19. Eileen O’Grady photos / Monitor staff

  • Union-Sanborn Elementary School teachers watch a slideshow of photos from the history of the school in the gymnasium on May 19, 2022. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Teachers pose for a photo in the hallway at Union-Sanborn's open house event on May 19, 2022. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/22/2022 8:02:12 PM

Second-grade teacher Carmel Lunt has been busy this week, preparing to pack up the classroom materials she has accumulated throughout her 25 years of teaching at Union-Sanborn School in Northfield.

Books, folders and student artwork from over the years has to be sorted and packed for the upcoming move to the nearby Southwick School, where Lunt and most of her colleagues will be working after Union-Sanborn School closes at the end of the school year.

For the Union-Sanborn teachers, many of whom have been at the school for decades, these past few weeks have been awash in nostalgia. Lunt has been going through historic photographs from the school’s hundred-plus years and marveling at the black and white photos of students from the early 1900s sitting in rows in classrooms that are still used today.

Reading specialist Tammy Nute has started snapping a cell phone picture of the school building every morning when she steps out of her car, determined to remember how it looks in every season.

“We get teary-eyed walking into the building, knowing that our days here are very numbered,” Lunt said. “It’s gonna be tougher as the weeks go by and we get closer to the end of the year. But there’s a lot of work to do to pack up an entire school to close it.”

The Winnisquam School Board voted in June 2020 to close the elementary school and redistribute its students throughout the district, after a poll of community members at the 2020 annual meeting favored closing the school over renovating it.

In the fall, K-2 students who live in Northfield and in Tilton west of I-93 will attend Southwick School which currently serves grades 3-5, while students who live in Sanbornton and in Tilton east of I-93 will attend Sanbornton Central School, which holds grades K-5. Fifth graders from Southwick and Sanbornton Central will be moved to Winnisquam Regional Middle School to make space for the Union-Sanborn kids, and pre-K will now be housed on Winnisquam Regional High School’s campus.

School Board chair Sean Goodwin said the conversation began back in 2014 as part of the district’s long-range planning, looking at their future expenses. Financial pressures and challenges with state funding combined with the daunting task of addressing Union-Sanborn’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing system led to the eventual decision to close.

“Nobody took this project lightly, everybody recognized the value of schools and peoples’ attachments and memories to it,” Goodwin said. “But as a board, we felt this was the best long-term solution financially for the district and for students.”

While the plan originally involved building an addition on Southwick Elementary to accommodate the new students, the school board decided not to move ahead with the project, saying that declining student enrollment no longer justified the need for an expansion.

On Thursday evening, about 200 people showed up at Union-Sanborn for an open-house event, to tour the school and say goodbye to the building. In the hallways, generations of families who had grown up attending Union-Sanborn enthusiastically greeted former teachers, while parents from out of town showed their children the rooms where they had attended class. In the gymnasium, several teachers sat at cafeteria tables and watched a slideshow cycle through a series of photographs of staff and students from over the years, lost in nostalgia.

“There’s definitely a mixture of emotions,” said Jessica Makris Welch, principal at Union-Sanborn and Southwick. “There’s a lot of sadness, but there’s also a lot of joy in looking back and remembering everything that has happened.”

The Union-Sanborn school is made up of two buildings: the Union side, a late Victorian-style building constructed 1899-1901 and the newer Sanborn part, built in the 1960s. The two halves were joined in 1995.

The school has long been a core feature of the local community. When it’s time to learn about fire safety, staff and students walk down to the Tilton Fire Department for their lesson. On Halloween, the students parade through town in costumes, while police officers stop traffic and parents line the route to cheer them on. When the children are outside on the playground during recess, it’s not uncommon to hear the honk of a car horn and see a parent driving by on the road, waving.

For many teachers, including Lunt, first grade teachers Kelly Horgan and Summer Capra and PE teacher Kathleen Morrill, Union-Sanborn is the only place they’ve ever taught.

“This was my first job,” Morrill said. “I got married while I was here, I had my first child and my second child while I was here. My whole life span has been almost in one place.”

The teachers attribute their long retention to the friendly staff atmosphere and the involvement of the local Northfield and Tilton community that helps to make their jobs enjoyable.

“It’s a true family,” said Capra, who has been at the school 17 years. “Anytime there’s something that comes up, even in your personal life, everybody rallies and supports you and is there. Professionally it’s the same, we can all go to each other if we’re having celebrations within our class or struggles.”

Many teachers remember their time at Union-Sanborn in scenes: Nute guiding students down the Union building’s rickety multi-story wrought-iron fire escape which was used during every fire drill until the ’90s, a bee infestation above Room 19 which caused honey to drip through the ceiling into Kelly Horgan’s classroom, and some unexpected bats that sent Lunt shrieking and running into Horgan’s room, where they pushed towels under the door and sent a frantic email to the School Board. They remember significant historic moments as well: Nute watching with her first-graders as the Challenger space shuttle explode on live TV, and Lunt hearing a teacher rush into her classroom to say an airplane had struck the World Trade Center.

Lunt says that for her second-graders, who would have gone on to Southwick next year anyway, the move doesn’t feel as notable. But the teachers have been preparing the students by reminding them of the exciting new features — a bigger gymnasium, closer proximity to their older siblings — that they’ll get to experience at the new school.

Art teacher Julie Swain has been talking with her students about the history of the school and the surrounding landmarks, like the nearby train station and historic library building that can be seen from the windows of her second-floor art classroom.

“I was talking to them about what the people dressed like, what the school looked like, way back when it was first built,” Swain said. “I tried to plug in other things that were happening in the world that they would identify with, like the Titanic and the big dresses and the neat hats, and they really got into it.”

At the annual school district meeting in March, community members voted to allow the school board to proceed with selling the Union-Sanborn building. According to Goodwin, the board has selected a real estate company and is signing a contract with that company to put the building up on the market.

“I think the spirit of this building is in the people,” Makris Welch said. “I know that we’re afraid to lose this building that we all love so much, but I think the true spirit is coming right with us over to Southwick. And there’s a pretty amazing culture over there as well, so the biggest goal is going to be joining those two cultures.”


Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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