Roosevelt school closes in Iowa City after 81 years

Officials opted to build new school instead of repairing old one

Celeste Shoppa
Celeste Shoppa

It’s been a year of lasts at Roosevelt Elementary School.

The last all-school singalong, an annual tradition. The last holiday parties. The last parent/teacher conferences. The last “International Night” for this diverse school in a diverse neighborhood just west of the Iowa River in central Iowa City.

Thursday is the last day of school at 81-year-old Roosevelt Elementary — this year and forever.

“Every time we do something or accomplish something, we realize it’s the last time we’ll do it here in these walls with these kids,” Principal Celeste Shoppa said. “It adds an extra layer of emotion.”

It’s the last day in a nearly lifelong relationship Shoppa, 46, has had with the K-6 school. She and her brothers attended Roosevelt. Her three daughters have too, including a current sixth-grader who will be part of the school’s last graduating class.

Shoppa, of course, will be the school’s last principal. (Story continues below photo gallery)

A controversial decision made three years ago by the school board, following the recommendation of then-Superintendent Lane Plugge, is finally coming to fruition.

School officials said Roosevelt, 611 Greenwood Dr., needed $5.1 million in renovations and it would be a better use of money to build new. Norman Borlaug Elementary will open this summer a few miles west of Roosevelt.

Most of the Roosevelt students — there are about 285 of them this school year — will go to Weber and Horn elementary schools next fall.

Most of the staff, including Shoppa, will move to Borlaug.

Not Peggy Jeffries. It’s the last day of teaching for the reading specialist, who is retiring after 21 years at Roosevelt.

Sitting in her work space on a warm afternoon earlier this month, Jeffries, 55, recalled some of her favorite memories of the school.

Roosevelt sits atop the large Benton Street hill, and students used to be allowed to go snow sledding at school, with the teachers setting up hay bales as a cushioned stop.

There’s “Day 100” in which the younger students have lessons centered around that number on the 100th day of the school year.

Something that especially stands out to Jeffries is the diversity of the school. Roosevelt has a hallway with 36 flags hanging to represent the home countries of students past and present. About 68 percent of the current students are minorities.

“I think this is a slice of real life,” Jeffries said. “Kids here know what it’s like to go out in the real world.”

That diversity comes from the surrounding neighborhood, a mix of working-class families and people affiliated with the nearby University of Iowa.

Three years ago, as they made their case for Roosevelt to stay open, neighbors said it wasn’t just important for students and families but also the vitality of the neighborhood.

People play football, soccer and cricket at Roosevelt, said Mary Knudson, who lives across the street and sent her two children there. Kids have learned to ride bikes on the school’s grounds. The building serves as a meeting place.

“It’s an anchor,” she said. “It attracts families, it gives stability to the neighborhood.”

Neighbors worry what will happen to the area without Roosevelt. They also fear a large apartment complex marketed to college students or something like a gas station will replace the school, which the district is selling. School officials have said they want to prevent that, but they’ve had little luck so far attracting a buyer they find suitable.

Today is the last time Barb Gienapp’s two children will be Roosevelt students. They’ll move on to Horn Elementary next school year.

Gienapp, 52, the president of the Roosevelt parent/teacher organization, said the three years families have had to prepare for the school’s closing has made things easier. But that doesn’t mean they’re not sad.

“While a lot of us obviously don’t think it’s a good thing (for the school to close) ... it’s happening, so we’re just going to make it really special,” she said.

Thursday, on the last day of Roosevelt, the focus will be on having fun.

Students will be asked to share memories. They will walk the ravine that cuts through the property, another tradition. They will gather on the playground and sing Roosevelt songs.In the last hour of the school day, students will return to their classes to say goodbye. Then the annual school carnival, which was pushed back this year, will take place tonight one last time.

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