Transitions and Traditions

Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.”    – JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

We’re moving this year. Every program, every classroom, every teacher, every student, we’ll spend the winter going through old things, the spring packing, and the summer relocating eleven minutes up the road to our temporary digs in an enormous middle school building that has served as a home to a series of schools under construction and has yet to open itself. That’s a role our own campus played back in the 1970s, and as we cash in that good karma some folks are a little nervous.

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Like Bilbo in Tolkien’s epic, we’re challenged to lift our little swords, allow our hearts to pitter patter, and go forward. But read that opening quotation again and you’ll notice that as he does,  that intrepid Hobbit keeps one hand on the wall, feeling his way through the darkness with the help of a familiar support.

For us, that familiar wall is the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has been home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, and Arts & Communication High School before that, ever since our school has been in existence.

Over the past quarter century students have been making art and making meaning in the same classrooms, making friends and making mischief in the same hallways, and making a difference in a thousand different ways after graduating from our little school.

The memories that saturate our walls are as much a part of the building as the murals students have painted on the plaster over the years. The wainscoting hums with stories; the gallery of Mona Lisas look down with enigmatic smiles; and in the courtyard the echoes of decades old laughter  mingle with the shouts of our current students and their almost daily games of Sharks and Minnows.

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Even as the wrecking balls roll onto campus this summer, we’re keeping some of the wainscoting to use for our reception area in the front office of the new building and the circulation desk in the new library. The murals invite a variety of approaches, as we capture images of the paintings that we can take with us and devise ways to honor their spirit, even as 1940s building materials mean we can’t pull the walls out intact. And as we trundle our traditions into the metaphoric bindlestiff we’ll sling over our shoulder in July, we’re also wise to keep a space (both physically and spiritually) for the murals still to be painted on the walls of a building that doesn’t yet exist.

20170930_110547Michelle Young, Saul Roberts, and all the many names signed beneath the student artwork from years gone by will be joined in our school’s history by new names, some current students, some newborns today who will be painting on the walls of an ACMA campus when they graduate in 2037.

That campus hasn’t yet been built, but it will be, and when it is those walls will hold stories as rich as the memories already made in our current home.

Memories from former students like…

Kristen, who told me about the weekend of the junior/senior prom when her Ohana spent the night in the school. “Our group of about twelve people met up at an Italian restaurant in Beaverton — Giovanni’s.  From there, those of us with cars headed to the high school (some people walked), with Mr. Yambouranis chaperoning us. The boys were to stay in the library; the girls in the Ohana classroom, which was the one at the far end of the building, across from the drinking fountain that had a mural of tiles and the office. Of course, no one really followed those rules!  We used the TVs and Laserdiscs to watch a bunch of film, including The Goonies, Rock & Roll High School, and the “new” episodes of “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” that aired on Fox.  Yambo retired for the night in the nurse’s office near midnight.” I can see the smile on her face as she recalled the adventure: “Several of us did some exploring.”

Spencer, who remembered “Mr. Sikking feverishly describing philosophy and the hero’s journey as he asked questions and then ran to overhead to underline the point 3 or 4 times.” And once, “after we had reached some sort of fundraising goal for the school, Mr. Sikking performed Santa Baby in a sexy Mrs. Claus neglige on stage for the whole school.” It was, he remembered, “one of the most ACMA things that comes to mind.”

And Lily, who, when talking about things being so “very ACMA,” told the audience at her graduation that it would be impossible to look back on “Cooper and Will’s concert ­light­show or Brock’s amazing film about cannibalism without feeling like this place is at least a little bit different. I remember hanging cellos up on the curtain rail in Mr. Brandau’s room, scream­ singing “Africa” by Toto at karaoke night, and making a film about a plastic lawn coyote.” So very much in keeping with the spirit of our school.

IMG_9676These stories won’t disappear when the bulldozers arrive in July. As the Quonset Hut that has served as gym and cafeteria, and performance hall is knocked to the ground; the basement that has been a cafeteria, counseling office, day care, and television studio is filled in; and the portables that have been the epicenter of more art, movies, music, and dance than any portables in the history of the world are carted away, the memories will be as alive as they have always been.

Our school is magical not because of the walls we touch as we lift our little swords and move forward; our school is magical because of the people who inhabit it: those whose daily life on campus was years ago, those who call it home today, and those whose paths will lead our way in the decades to come.

A friend who recently retired from ACMA had told me that she isn’t sure if the new building will ever feel to her like home. It’s an honest response to a big transition, and one that I know is echoed in other hearts as well. “I’m willing to keep an open mind,” she tells me, “but…”

There is a world of worry in that ellipses.

There is also an opportunity. I keep her, and all those creative, sensitive, and fantastic souls of students and staff no longer on campus in mind as I do my best to honor the spirit of our school as we embark on this transition. Knowing that to go back is “No good at all!” To “Go sideways? Impossible!” Going forward is the only thing to do, and we will do so mindfully, courageously, and with a clear sense of who we are.

Bilbo Baggins was not defined by his time in the Shire; he left for adventures, whether he thought himself ready or not, and while he brought himself and his history to every step along the path, he returned to his home in the hill richer and more creative than he could have imagined.

Our school is no less than that adventurous Hobbit.

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I believe that my retired friend will step into the new building that opens in the fall of 2021 and know that this is home, not because of the wainscoting repurposed for the front desk or familiar student artwork in the hallways, but because of the spirit of our school —creative, kind, and accepting— that is as true on our current campus as it would be if we held classes in a circus tent, on a cruise ship, or at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We’ll be no place as exotic for the next two years, but the creativity and curiosity we bring with us to that big empty building on 118th Street will make it feel as if it were.

hobbitAnd then, in August of 2021, we’ll move back. Back to building constructed to be an art school, a structure that honors our school’s past while looking toward its future. There will be familiar faces (Mona Lisa, David Bowie, Leonidas), and plenty of new faces as well. And as we start making art and making meaning, making friends and maybe a little mischief, our new space will (over time) begin feeling simply like our space.

Some will say it’s an aspirational sentiment, but I honestly believe that the next few years will be an adventure that can share the same subtitle as Tolkien’s Hobbit, living up to the reassuring and very real words: “There and back again.”

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Listening Session

The conversations were never light, though we allowed ourselves to laugh together, leaning in to listen as we did the hard work. It was a “Budget Listening Session” and I put the title in quotation marks because it is not my own; every school will host a similar event sometime in December or January, using the district’s presentation to share budget facts with our school communities before diving in to an activity that asks us to prioritize spending in the event we see a gap between our projected expenditures and 2019-2020 revenue. I was the evening’s host, but not its master.

budget 1Knowing how challenging it can be to talk about big issues like budget, particularly when our control over the topic is limited and the impact on our work is profound, I decided early on to enlist some of the best voices I know: students.

I went to our National Honor Society, which at my school does so much service for our students, parents, and school community, and asked if a half dozen or so would join me on the night to be table leaders for our budget activity. I met with them the day before, outlining the information I’d be sharing and giving them a heads up about what we’d be doing. They listened thoughtfully, asked good questions, and said they were happy to have their voices heard.

On the night parents and staff members arrived, curious and (unless I’m projecting) a little nervous. I did my best to share the rows of statistics, the history, and the process of budgeting in Oregon, and then introduced the activity.

We divided into tables, I handed out the materials, and they got to work.

Three things struck me as I walked from table to table listening and answering questions.

First, the students, staff, and parents all seemed comfortable talking to one another. They listened, considered what others had said, and worked together to look at the budget at hand. My student table leaders allowed all voices to be heard, including my staff members whose understanding surpassed most in the room, and my parents, both those who had been through lean budget times and those for whom this was the first discussion of this kind they’d had outside their kitchen table.

budget 2Next, everyone cared so much, and for how the suggestions they were making impacted everyone. Students, some of whom will have graduated before next year’s budget is approved by the state, talked about choices from a point of view that was anything but checked out. They cared deeply, both for their school and for their peers, and as I heard them speak, I could tell that their perspective extended to include those children not yet in school. One teacher of seniors went out of his way to emphasize the importance of early childhood education. One parent talked with her table about the budget’s impact on everyone in the state.

Finally, they recognized the budget box we were working within, but didn’t accept staying there entirely. Yes, they understood the limits an individual, school, or even district could have on the process, and they articulated the importance of each person there had in making their voice heard. They imagined school and community partnerships to help bridge some gaps. They talked about political action they might take to help lawmakers see how much this matters. They connected with one another over a difficult conversation, and left, I believe more bonded than they’d been coming in.

I left with a hope in our future, inspired by those students who care, imagine, and will solve problems in ways few of us can even imagine. I left with resolve, knowing that no one needs to be a passive member of our society, but we all can make a difference if we work together to be heard. And I left with appreciation for the school community I have the privilege to be a part of. These parents, students, and staff members inspired me more than I can say. It was an evening that none of us named, but all of us owned, together.

A Little Like Hogwarts

Every winter we are given a chance to articulate ourselves. As an options school, ACMA is a place without a single geographic attendance area. Other “neighborhood schools” have set boundaries and draw from homes nearby; our little art school sees students from all corners of our district gather at our campus to create art and create community. As a part of the process of telling potential students and families about Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, we host “School Information Nights” in December, and it’s here that we get to share a window into our ACMA world.

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With a student body made up of wildly creative sixth through twelfth graders, who come from all over the area, and who believe in the magically transformative power of art, I like to believe that we’re a little like Hogwarts.

It’s a line I like to use in our Info Nights, when I’m trying to help parents and prospective students understand that we’re more than just a middle and high school pushed together; we’re a seven year academic and artistic adventure, I tell them, and you wouldn’t stop reading Harry Potter after The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Folks usually indulge me with a chuckle.

Those Information Nights begin with student musicians on stage, see me talk with the crowd for a spell, share some pictures of what we do, and end with more kids on stage to answer questions as only students can. We aim for a fun night, filled with music, images, and honesty, and hope to leave our audience satisfied and applauding.

At ACMA we do like applause.

But the night is more than just a chance for entertainment. At its best, Info Night is an opportunity for us to reflect on who we are and who we aspire to be, and think about what steps we are taking to be the community we say we are. It’s a chance for me as the principal, as well as the many students who join me to answer questions from the audience, to put into words the reality we live every day.

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At a school as special as ours, and overwhelmingly those of us who call ACMA home do see it as very, very special, it could be easy to slip into complacency, to take ACMA for granted. Preparing for Info Night is a great opportunity to pause long enough to recognize that what we have, and what we continue to create, is unique.

Along the way, I do my best to help my audience see past the beauty and power of our performances and the art they may have seen displayed. I do my best to celebrate the rehearsals and practices, the editing and revisions, the rough drafts and the hard work that goes into making a final product. That process of making art is as much a part of who we are as any polished work.

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Knowing that not everyone can come to one of our Info Nights (we live in a busy world, I get it), I try each year to bottle some of the magic in a video we can share. Even knowing it’s not up to the task of telling everything about our school, and recognizing that it can’t include the amazing honesty and openness of the students who sit on the lip of the stage and answer audience questions, it’s another way to help focus our thoughts about our school.

That focus, and the many purposeful decisions that focus prompts us to make as we create our community, help to keep our school the special place it is. Certainly we continue to evolve, adding courses like animation and expanding the scope of what we do as we embrace the technological side of the arts, but at our creative heart we are more similar to the original vision of the school than we are different.

We articulate that in a statement I project at Info Night:

Arts & Communication Magnet Academy’s innovative educational community engages all students and staff in achieving academic and artistic excellence. We ignite the human need to create and question by honoring both the unique characteristics and the interdependence of all disciplines of study, while weaving a rich collaborative tapestry of experience.”

As I tell the crowd: we recognize that a phrase like “weaving a rich collaborative tapestry of experience” might sound corny to some, but we believe it. As a school we’re willing to put aside a few folks thinking we’re quirky (we are) or a little cornball (we are) or too artsy by half (we think we’re just artsy enough, and that our sequins look fabulous). We also know that by working together, supporting one another, and honoring the process and power of art, we can create an atmosphere that is magical.

Pausing every fall to prepare for our winter sharing helps us recognize and embrace that vision for ACMA. Thinking about who we are, as well as the actions we take every day to support that vision, is a healthy exercise for our school, and any school, and one we embrace.

It’s also why by December I should be able to tell you the hundred ways we’re like Hogwarts.

Artisan Dances

This post is in praise of the homespun, the handcrafted, the artisan. I’ve been places where high school dances are elaborate affairs, acres of lights, fog machines (that somehow always set off the fire alarm), and a sense of spectacle that rivals a Hollywood production. I once chaperoned a prom in an affluent Southern California community held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. They brought in a ferris wheel.

DVDWb6sUQAMHBhRThere is certainly something memorable about a spectacle, it’s in the name I suppose, but to tell the truth the best school dances I’ve ever seen have been less about fireworks and more about feeling. These events, the really good ones, aren’t store bought or rented by the hour. They’re built by hand, crafted with creativity, and imagined with an eye to the unexpected.

This fall, one manifestation of the unexpected came in the form of pudding, forty pounds of it.

Being at ACMA means being ready for anything. The unexpected happens so often it can be depended on: a piano in the cafeteria, a visiting llama, a teacher in a kilt? Yep, ACMA. Art everywhere in the hallways, impromptu violin concerts at lunch, and no mascot? ACMA. Silly yearbook photos, the principal in a cannibal movie, kindness as part of the middle school science curriculum? That’s ACMA too.

So on an October morning when my secretary leaned into my office and said: “I’ll be right back. I need to go pick up forty pounds of pudding” I knew enough to simply nod and answer “Great!”

Just outside my door piles of boxes had been accumulating for a couple of weeks: glow sticks, neon paper, and paint splattered posters. This was going to be an ‘80s themed fall dance, and it was going to be, I was assured, totally awesome.

IMG_9044By the end of the week we’d have boxes of apples, bags of popcorn, and enough caramel to satisfy the hundreds of students who would fill our Quonset Hut, courtyard, and hallways that Friday night. Throughout the week I saw rolls of colored paper turn into posters of dancers, checkerboard designs (that I was told would look fantastic underneath the black lights), and a giant boom box.

Every afternoon after the last bell rang, a core of Dance Committee students and a panoply of others spent day after day in the hallways painting, cutting, and preparing for the dance. To the sounds of Duran Duran, Wham, and Madonna they laughed and worked together to come up with what they imagined the 1980s to be.

A week before they’d asked our staff for photos of themselves in the 1980s. The results, which looked like the casting call for a John Hughes movie, were put into a slideshow that ran on a loop on our indoor marquee on the day of the dance.

Decorations continued to emerge: the giant Rubik’s Cube, the banner announcing the GLOW HALLWAY, and the black lights (that the kids were so excited about that the custodian put them in the fixtures outside the library by the Wednesday before the dance).

On Thursday my cafeteria lead came into the office to purchase tickets to the dance for two students who were having some trouble affording them. So very ACMA.

The pudding arrived, in four pound pouches two to a box (for anyone curious how forty pounds of pudding arrives, as I was). I found out that the pudding was destined for dixie cups, to be covered with crumbled Oreos and planted with a gummy worm. I’m not sure how that fit into the ‘80s, but still… homemade fun.

IMG_9049Friday after school the hallways moon walked back in time. The decorations that had been piling up in the office found their proper places around campus, a fleet of tables appeared in the courtyard (to be manned by parent volunteers who would serve caramel apples, popcorn, and worm cups), and the DJ set up in the Quonset Hut.

But dancing at a dance is just one part of the experience at our little school. As those Men Without Hats remind us, “You can dance if you want to…” Some don’t. They’re still friends of mine, and at ACMA we have a quiet room set aside for board games and to serve as a haven for those of us who need an island of quiet on a night of reveling. It’s the Lionel Ritchie to the evening’s Quiet Riot, and at every dance our game room is a popular choice. Some only stay for a round or two of Apples to Apples; some hunker down over an evening of laughter and Jenga.

Then Friday night arrived, and with it students in ‘80s wear that would have made Cindi Lauper proud. Asymmetrical, neon, and bedazzled, the outfits took me back to my own high school years (when an ‘80s dance was simply called a dance). As with the decorations and planning for the dance itself, the students had brought creativity and their own interpretation to what they were wearing, and the results were fantastic.

IMG_9045And occasionally unexpected, like the student who arrived in armor and said: “‘80s dance? You mean 1380s, right?”

Walking around that night I was struck by the overwhelming quality of everything. The ‘80s outfits were put together with care, whimsy, and (it looked to someone who was there during the Reagan administration) historical research. The decorations were thoughtful, well done, and had been formed by the hands of scores of students.

And that was it: the students owned this dance.

As they had with last year’s May the Fourth extravaganza (with a stunning Darth Maul in full makeup) and the epic winter formal (complete with a life size cutout of one of our math teachers dressed as a gondolier), ACMA students had created something marvelous.

Plus, pudding.

A Yellow Bathrobe

Halloween. It’s a tough topic in some quarters in education. I’ve worked at schools where it was one of the worst days of the year for administrators like me, confiscating Jason’s carving knife, counseling pregnant nuns, and persuading the masses that togas might not be a fantastic idea at school.

At one high school I followed a fellow in a full gorilla suit on a merry chase that led through and then off campus, ending in the parking lot of a run down apartment complex. When he was unmasked, like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon, it turned out that he was a senior we’d expelled who was wanted by the police.

Don’t get me started on ninjas.

It doesn’t help that off the shelf costumes marketed to appeal to teens often carry the word “naughty” in their description: nurse, superhero, witch. For the fellows, gore, drag, or innuendo. A principal I once worked for used to say “I’d rather come in and work on Christmas day than deal with this Halloween nonsense.” Behind closed doors he did not use the word “nonsense.”

halloweenvideothumbAs a principal I’ve always tried to appeal to common sense. A student once helped me with a video to underscore the importance of the no mask policy.

I’ve always tried to encourage homemade and clever over store bought raunch, and still, the water polo player covered in Hulk green body paint and wearing only a purple speedo…

Ah, Halloween.

So then I got to ACMA.

Folks told me that at our creative school Halloween was a national holiday.

I found out it is.

And getting ready for this year’s parade of creativity my office staff, my wife, and my kids all told me that as the principal I had to dress up.

As a substitute? I offered. No.

A petty bureaucrat? Nope.

Then one day in September when I’d tweeted some photos of student art, a couple of my staff spotted a painting and said that they had the answer.

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The coffee wielding human staring down the …something fantastic and wild, they said, needed to be my costume.

Halloween arrived, face painted and trailing a cape.

I met it wearing a yellow bathrobe and sipping coffee from a green mug.

IMG_9235We started the day, as we had the year before, with music from Harry Potter, a recognizable and magical theme, played over the intercom. Walking the hallways was an adventure in color and creativity. A giant camera, David Bowie, and an amazing handcrafted wolf laughed alongside Dorothy, Toto, and one of the most elegant green faced witches I’d ever seen.

I started visiting classrooms. In one the Morton Salt Girl, Taako, and Bob Ross sat next to a Royal Guard from the Tower of London, a vampire with real fangs, and Little Red Riding Hood. Incredible.

I spotted two avocados, a giraffe, and a biker in black pleather. More than the usual plush ears and tails giggled through the hallways, rubbing shoulders with pirates, cowboys, and Bilbo Baggins.

Two matching Waldos asked if I wanted to play hide and seek.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Halloween at ACMA is the overwhelming creativity on display. These are wildly artistic students with talent to match their imaginations. The best costumes are always homemade, clever, and rooted in fun. Simple or complicated, big or subtle, this celebration of art is, at its best, a window into our collective soul.

As I strolled my radio crackled and I got the call that a history teacher, who would later arrive as a mummy, was held up in traffic. I had a chance to cover his AP US History class for a few minutes.

I unlocked the door and as students filed in, steampunk, cub scout, and zombie, there was the artist of my inspiration painting herself. It brought me no end of joy that she, and her peers, recognized my costume without explanation.

Magical things happen at our little school, sometimes on Halloween.

Feathers/Wings

IMG_8703We started them on the first day of school, the day when all students new to ACMA came to campus a day before returning students. After a welcome in the auditorium students fanned out across campus in groups, visiting the library, participating in some theatre games, and making art. That art was simple in design, but big in idea. Feathers.

Each student got to choose a bright cardstock strip to draw or write on any way they thought represented them. Faces, quotations, animals, the choices were as different as each individual student. Next, they cut these into the shapes of a feathers, and by the end of the day hundreds were piled on the art studio table.

IMG_8704Over the next couple of weeks we added to the pile of feathers. Staff took turns making their own during our preservice week, parents got to make feathers at my first principal’s coffee, and our intrepid assistant principal set up a table for returning students to make their own at lunch. The feathers filled a wicker basket to overflowing, and then…

On the wall outside my office at the front of the school those feathers became wings. On a rich blue background two swooping collections of feathers reached toward the butchers paper clouds. On those clouds, drifting about the rainbow wings, were written: “Attitude determines altitude” and “Commit to soar, ACMA.”

IMG_8701We figured it would be a nice photo opportunity for any souls willing to stand in front and make the wings their own. It was also a metaphor that captures at least a bit of who we are as a school.

Individually we are creative, divergent, and wildly individualistic. Some of us draw, some of us write, some of us express ourselves in music and movement. Those feathers showed all the colors of our rainbow, gave each person their own personal space to create, and the freedom to be themselves. And…

Together those individual feathers coalesced and created something magical and greater than any one individual. Alone we are feathers; together we are wings.

So too at our little art school. The painter, the poet, the percussionist; the dancer, the director, the dreamer; each left to our own devices can create something marvelous and individual, but how much more when the sculptor and the screenwriter, the filmmaker and the photographer, the actor and the artist support each other?

Art unifies us. Art lifts us up. Art, and each other, helps us soar.

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Safe Haven

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 8.46.13 AMYear after year the kids filed in. Smiling faces, eager learners, tears, scraped knees, victories and defeats on the four square courts. From 1949 through 1974 C.E. Mason Elementary was home to neighborhood kids, a solid foundation for future Beavertonians.

Students at C.E. Mason saw lots of change around them, both nationally as events of the middle of the last century marched, lurched, and scurried this way and that, and closer to home with additions to their campus that included covered walkways and a couple of different colored paint jobs.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 1.32.06 PMLooking back at photos of students from across the years is to see in youth what the country was like through the cold war and into the turbulent 70s. In school pictures, the collars widen, hair lengthens on both boys and girls, and formality gives way to a more colorful world.

By 1973, however, enrollment at C.E. Mason had dropped below 400 students, and in June of 1974 it closed its doors as an elementary school.

That’s not to say that C.E. Mason ceased to exist. In the fall of 1974 the building welcomed students from Five Oaks Intermediate School who stayed for two years as their new campus was being built. It was a new life for an old building, a renewal of sorts that would help to define our campus for the rest of the decade.

Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 9.13.31 AMOn September 4th, 285 students from Five Oaks moved onto campus determined to make it their own. They filled classrooms with music played on record players and doughnuts frying in electric skillets in culinary arts. The Quonset Hut became home to the basketball team, gymnasts, and wrestlers, and outside administrators bundled up to supervise in the rain. (That last one has been constant since Principal Esther Peer in 1949 and on up to today. I’ll be heading out for lunch duty in the rain soon).Screen Shot 2018-10-05 at 9.16.05 AM

Five Oaks students had electives like woodcraft and tie-dying, and students from 1974-1976 remember wearing the brightly colored hand made t-shirts in the hallways.

The Bicentennial year saw students doing pull ups on outdoor metal bars, sampling soup in the courtyard, and studying Spanish while wearing the groovy designs our kids dress up in on 70s day during Spirit Week.

All in all, Five Oaks made C.E. Mason their own for the two years they were here, and the photos from the time suggest it was fabulous! When they moved back to their home campus, I have to imagine that a few missed the place they spent 1974-1976.

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Greenway Elementary School followed Five Oaks, filling C.E. Mason until their school was completed in 1980. In these “in between” years our campus was, as Timberland Middle School will be for ACMA next year, a haven for students in need of a place to learn.