Community CornerstoneMay 22, 2020
Click on the photo above to experience the story with easy-to-read text and additional photos.
Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
As Celestine Elementary’s 81 students sat in the hallway on the afternoon of Friday, March 13, waiting for their school buses to pick them up, fourth-grade teacher Christine Betz grabbed her cellphone and snapped a quick photo.
That photo would be the last image taken of students inside the 78-year-old elementary school, which closed at the end of the school year last week.
“I’ll cherish that photo forever,” Christine said looking back at the moment a couple of months later.
When Christine took the photo, the students were headed home for at least a three-week school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their backpacks were filled with textbooks, workbooks and their school-issued technology devices, along with other supplies they’d need for the weeks of distance learning. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether or not they’d be coming back to the school to finish the school year. Christine felt in her heart they wouldn’t be.
Two weeks later, the news hit. Indiana schools would not reopen during the 2019-20 school year. Celestine Elementary’s last day of school with students in the building had come and gone.
“It was devastating,” Christine said.
Although they never expected the abrupt ending, students, staff and community members knew on the first day of school in August that 2019-20 would be their final year in the building. The school board voted in June 2019 to close Celestine Elementary in an effort to save the corporation money and eliminate the need to place a second property tax referendum on the ballot when the current one — which passed in 2016 — expires in 2024.
The news hit the community hard. When the 2016 referendum passed, many hoped it would alleviate the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation’s financial hardships enough to keep Celestine open. But as enrollment across the corporation continued to fall — resulting in less state funding for the school district — it became clear that Celestine would be shuttered.
“We fought as hard as we could to keep it open,” said Danielle Schnell, who organizes the scrip fundraising program for Celestine Elementary, which allows patrons to purchase gift cards to various retailers with a portion of their purchase donated to the school.
Danielle’s four children — sophomore Corbyn, eighth-grader Maddox, sixth-grader Raynie and fourth-grader Kinley — and husband, Lee, all attended Celestine Elementary.
When Lee attended Celestine Elementary in the late 1980s, the principal was a nun and the school operated under strict rules.
“Almost too strict, I thought,” Lee remembered. “But looking back on it, I’m grateful for it.”
By the time his children entered Celestine, some of the strict rules and Lee’s principal were gone, but a lot of the teachers Lee had were still there, including Jami Gress.
Jami taught Lee when he was in fourth grade, and years later, Lee still remembers the real-world lessons she taught, like how to balance a checkbook. She was also among the first teachers to have a computer in her classroom, so Lee and his classmates learned to type before a lot of their peers.
When the next generation of Schnells came to Celestine, Jami — who now teaches second grade — taught three of the four.
“It’s funny that you talk about the teaching of multiple generations because this year, the majority of my students, I either taught their mom or dad,” Jami said via email. “I think like 10 out of 15.”
This fall, Jami will move to Northeast Dubois Elementary School — currently Dubois Elementary — where she’ll continue to teach second grade, and likely continue to teach the children of former students.
While the knowledge of Celestine’s closing loomed over the school year, teachers and staff worked to make the year just like any other for the students. School days still began with the whole school gathering in the cafeteria for announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, and the days still ended with all the students sitting in the school’s main hallway waiting for their buses or to be picked up. Head Cook Teresa Knebel still drew her weekly illustrations on the whiteboard next to the lunch menu near where students lined up for lunch. And Veterans Day and Grandparents’ Day — treasured traditions for both the school and the town — took place in the fall semester to offer fun educational experiences for the students and unofficial reunions for some of Celestine’s alumni.
As fourth-grader Crystal Summers led her grandmother, Ann, through the school on a tour for Grandparents’ Day, Ann shared memories from her time as a student at Celestine Elementary.
“This was an eighth-grade room when I was here,” Ann told Crystal when they reached the fourth-grade classroom.
Back then, Ann said, the teachers were nuns. Crystal seemed doubtful until Ann assured her that it was the truth. Celestine began as a Catholic school, after all.
Like the history of the town itself, the history of education in Celestine is linked to the Catholic church. Dubois County historian George R. Wilson lists Celestine as one of several county communities with a Catholic school, and records of St. Celestine Catholic Church first mention operating a school in the community in 1852, although there is evidence a school existed in the community prior.
The current school building — which sits on the hill next to St. Celestine Catholic Church — was built in 1942. In 1968, schools across the county consolidated into the four corporations known today, and the school corporation acquired Celestine Elementary from the church around that time. The building will return to the Catholic Diocese of Evansville’s ownership on July 1. It is up to St. Celestine’s church leaders to determine the future of the building. Parish Resource Manager Glenda Reckelhoff said discussions about how to use the building are underway, but no decisions have been made yet.
A lot has changed for Celestine Elementary — and in education as a whole — over its history, but one thing that hasn’t is how much pride students take in their school. That pride was on full display during spirit week in October, which also happened to include the annual field trip to Huber’s Orchard in Borden. That day, the students — clad in this year’s grey and black Celestine Elementary T-shirts — interacted with Eugene the Jeep outside the school, as he waved and offered high-fives. One student tickled Eugene’s tummy as he walked past.
A few minutes later, the students and all the school’s staff — lunch ladies included — loaded the buses and left for Huber’s Orchard, where each child picked an apple and a pumpkin to bring home.
Before they left, secretary Judy Haase followed the students out and handed treat bags she made to the bus drivers. Judy plans the field trips at Celestine Elementary, and usually she’d go along, but this year, a broken foot kept her in the office. She watched out the front door as the buses pulled away before returning to clerical work and preparations for the school to close.
“We just do our work normally, and we don’t really notice we’re not going to be here next year,” she said.
But every so often as Judy sorted through the files and prepared the office for the move to Dubois, reality hit. In a matter of months, she’d be leaving Celestine Elementary, one of only a handful of places she has worked. She was a stay-at-home mother for several years, and she worked at Abbey Press in St. Meinrad before coming to Celestine Elementary. During her 36 years at the school, Celestine Elementary became like a second home for her, and leaving it will be difficult. But Judy won’t leave Northeast Dubois behind. She’ll be moving to the high school office part time to help with attendance and other tasks.
“It’ll be a big change,” she said. “I’m so used to the smaller students.”
Although Celestine’s closure seemed harder on the adults than on the students, every once in a while, the kids realized they wouldn’t be back at Celestine next year. On the first day of school, third-grader Josslyn Glendening was excited to be back, but she also felt sad and mad because she knew it was the last first day at Celestine.
“I wanted other kids to go here and experience the awesomeness of Celestine Elementary,” she said.
Out in the community, adults, too, wished future generations of students could experience what the small, tightly knit school offered. In the months since the school board announced the closure, several of the town’s older residents have approached Christine — who lives in Celestine herself — telling her to “make sure she’s still teaching the local history, roots, traditions and values” that create Celestine’s community identity.
“I think they’re really worried that we’re going to lose that when the school closes,” Christine said. “They know the church and the school are the focal point of our community.”
She always promised them that she will and reminded them that Celestine Elementary has educated a lot of students who went on to be good citizens over the years. That won’t stop just because the students attend school in Dubois. The hard work of students, faculty and parents will continue.
Proof of the community’s commitment to hard work and education came in the spring semester when the school had to close its doors due to COVID-19. Overnight, education went from instruction in the classroom to e-learning and distance learning done at home. As a rural school, reliable internet connection at students’ homes can be a challenge, and that exacerbated the already difficult switch to e-learning.
But the school’s staff and parents figured out how to solve the issue. The school offered packets of take-home work that mirrored assignments delivered online, and parents often drove their children to the school or library parking lots to gain access to Wi-Fi. Many parents also devoted their evenings after work to helping their children with the daily assignments.
“Celestine is a hard-working community,” Jami said. “Hard-working parents tend to pass their hard-working style onto their children. That’s the greatest strength of Celestine, in my opinion. It’s something Dubois County, in general, is known for.”
In the craziness that followed Indiana schools closing for the year, thoughts of what the Celestine community lost in the premature closure took second place to adjusting to new learning methods, but as school wound down for the year, the repercussions of the closure came forth. Gone was the chance for teachers to say a heart-felt goodbye to their students. Gone were the traditional year-end activities like field day and the high school seniors’ parade through the halls in cap and gown. Gone was the community open house planned for April that would have included tours, a commemorative video and a meal. Gone was the chance for a final farewell to the school that served as a cornerstone for the community.
“It’s really upsetting because no one gets to go back and revisit the school,” said Northeast Dubois High School senior Adrienne Betz, Christine’s daughter.
She attended Celestine Elementary, as did her older siblings, Lauren and Patrick. She was looking forward to walking the halls of her elementary school in cap and gown, just as senior classes did when she was in elementary school.
When students return to school this fall, Celestine Elementary’s students will be split. Some will attend what will be Northeast Dubois Elementary School — which will include preschool through second grade and be housed in the current Dubois Elementary. The others will attend Northeast Dubois Intermediate School — which will include third through sixth grades and be housed at the current Dubois Middle School. At both schools, students from Celestine will mix with students from Dubois, Haysville and the parts of other communities that make up Northeast Dubois. For the first time, they won’t be surrounded only by peers from their own community.
Celestine’s teachers, too, will move to the new schools. As Christine moves to the intermediate school, she views making sure the students blend into one cohesive student body as a big part of her job.
“We’ve got to work together or we’ll all fail,” she said.
The focus will be on building a strong Northeast Dubois County School Corporation. That’s been school administrators’ — and the community’s — goal since the corporation placed the property tax referendum on the ballot in 2016. Focusing on that goal is also what helped the Celestine community see that closing their school was necessary.
“No one wants to lose Northeast Dubois [County] School Corporation,” Lee said.
He knows there are concerns about what the future of the Celestine community looks like without its school, but he has faith in his community. They still have the church, a post office and core restaurants. The infrastructure of the town is strong, and as long as the town can attract a few more subdivisions and sprawl from Jasper, he’s confident the town will continue to grow while still maintaining its small town roots.
“Celestine is resilient,” he said. “We make do, and we carry on. This is just a little bit of a setback.”
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