Fi­nal bell rings for Milling­ton, Wor­ton schools

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - BY DANIEL DIVILIO and LEANN SCHENKE ddivilio@thekent­coun­ lschenke@thekent­coun­

CHESTERTOWN — While the start of sum­mer va­ca­tion is gen­er­ally treated as a cel­e­bra­tion, for those con­nected to two of Kent County’s el­e­men­tary schools, the fi­nal dismissal of stu­dents June 8 was bit­ter­sweet.

It marked the last day for Milling­ton and Wor­ton el­e­men­tary schools, as they are slated to close in ad­vance of the next aca­demic year. At Milling­ton, stu­dents were en­cour­aged to take home toys and books that had been in the class­rooms for years.

The Kent County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion voted ear­lier this year to con­sol­i­date the dis­trict’s five el­e­men­tary schools to three in the face of de­clin­ing dis­trict-wide stu­dent en­roll­ment and bud­getary short­falls. The vote to close schools was sev­eral years in the mak­ing.

When it opened in 1969, Wor­ton El­e­men­tary had 480 stu­dents en­rolled. Milling­ton El­e­men­tary opened in 1973, with about 200 stu­dents. In the last year, the stu­dent pop­u­la­tions at Wor­ton and Milling­ton el­e­men­tary schools were 263 and 163 re­spec­tively, ac­cord­ing to the dis­trict’s con­sol­i­da­tion plan.

In re­flect­ing on their time at the schools, ad­min­is­tra­tors, teach­ers and even a for­mer stu­dent, now Board of Ed­u­ca­tion vice pres­i­dent, spoke about how Milling­ton

and Wor­ton el­e­men­tary schools were like big fam­i­lies and how they brought their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties to­gether.

Tracey Rod­ney was the prin­ci­pal at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary for 10 years, from 2006 to 2016 when she was trans­ferred to Rock Hall El­e­men­tary School. She pre­vi­ously served the dis­trict as a speech lan­guage ther­a­pist, spend­ing time at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary in that ca­pac­ity as well.

“It’s al­most like a lit­tle fam­ily school,” Rod­ney said of Milling­ton El­e­men­tary. “Ev­ery­body kind of knew one an­other. It just kind of had a fam­ily feel when you walked in the school, like you were ac­cepted and wel­comed no mat­ter what.”

Dawn VanGrin has been prin­ci­pal at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary School for a year. She spoke about the “cul­ture of care” at the school and the com­mit­ted tight-knit fam­ily that was the staff.

“There were many of us that came this year that were new, but we all seem to jell as a teach­ing staff re­ally well,” VanGrin said. “And I think that re­ally al­lowed us to end the year on a pos­i­tive note so that when peo­ple look back and think of Wor­ton, hope­fully they’ll think of it with fond me­mories.”

Gina Jachi­mow­icz was prin­ci­pal at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary from 1997 to 2006. She nows serves as Kent County Pub­lic Schools su­per­vi­sor of el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion.

“There’s just such a strong sense of com­mu­nity in the school, in terms of staff, stu­dents and par­ents,” she said.

Jachi­mow­icz spoke how the school had nights when lo­cal bands came out to play or held ice cream so­cials. No one put on a field day like Wor­ton El­e­men­tary, she said.

“My hope is now our par­ent com­mu­nity will chan­nel that en­ergy into our other three schools,” Jachi­mow­icz said.

Sit­ting in her class­room June 8 af­ter stu­dents were dis­missed for the last time, Milling­ton El­e­men­tary math teacher Sue Dorsey re­flected on the close­ness of the staff at the school where she taught for more than 20 years.

“We do a lot of things to­gether so­cially. We are very sup­port­ive of each other. We pray for each other. We hang out to­gether. We just have a very good time. And we’re very en­gaged in com­mu­ni­cat­ing about stu­dents and what we taught and what worked and what didn’t work,” she said. “The cul­ture of this school over the years has been very strong.”

Born and raised in Milling­ton, Char­lotte Potts re­tired from Milling­ton El­e­men­tary in 1992, af­ter 31 and a half years teach­ing in Kent County, in­clud­ing time at Gar­net and Galena. She worked with Kathryn Willis, who was prin­ci­pal when the build­ing opened in 1973.

“Ev­ery­one wanted to help one an­other. We had some good teach­ers there. We were just a fam­ily,” Potts said. “And we all worked to­gether, you know. We did things to­gether and we had good rap­port with the par­ents.”

Ste­fanie Zottarelli has been teach­ing at Wor­ton Ele­men- tary for 24 years. She has one child go­ing into ninth grade at Kent County High School in Wor­ton and two who would have still been at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary next year.

“It’s my sec­ond home. Since I’ve been here for so long now. It’s just home,” she said. “Ev­ery­one em­braces ev­ery­one as a fam­ily and it’s a school I choose to bring my chil­dren to.”

Zottarelli said she and her fam­ily moved to the area out of her love for the school and her job and be­cause of her de­sire for her own chil­dren to at­tend Wor­ton El­e­men­tary.

“It was very much like a fam­ily. And for the first, I bet the first 12 to 15 years of me be­ing here, I was still one of the ‘young ones’ be­cause so many of us loved it here so much that once you started you didn’t want to go any­where else,” Zottarelli said. “We were al­ways the school that fam­i­lies wanted to send their chil­dren to.”

Cathy Clark started teach­ing at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary in 1970, the sec­ond year the school was open. She re­tired in 2011.

Clark said Wor­ton El­e­men­tary re­sulted from clos­ing the com­mu­nity one-room school­houses in places like Still Pond, Fair­lee and Bet­ter­ton. She said it also was an ef­fort to fully in­te­grate schools, bring­ing black and white teach­ers to­gether.

She cred­ited then-prin­ci­pal Joe Duell for Wor­ton El­e­men­tary’s suc­cess from the start.

“Joe Duell is the one who brought ev­ery­one to­gether,” she said. “We were like a fam­ily.”

Farmer Bryan Wil­liams re­mem­bers Duell very well. Wil­liams en­tered kin­der­garten at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary the year the school opened. He vividly re­calls how Duell seemed to tower over him as he walked into the first day of school.

“He seemed like he was 8-foot tall. And he was at the door greet­ing ev­ery­one,” said Wil­liams, who also is a long­time mem­ber of the Kent County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion. “I can still see him, maybe 10-foot tall.”

An­other mem­ory that sticks out for Wil­liams is his third-grade teacher, Judy Seip, reading the chil­dren’s clas­sic “Char­lotte’s Web” by E.B. White.

“Read ‘Char­lotte’s Web’ in third grade. Just things that stick in your head. It was

good times,” Wil­liams said.

Rod­ney felt wel­comed right from the start as prin­ci­pal at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary. She held a meet-and-greet in the weeks lead­ing up to the start of the school year and was sur­prised when about 30 peo­ple at­tended.

“You know, you’re al­ways a lit­tle ner­vous about who is go­ing to show up,” Rod­ney said. “They all came out that day and they were re­ally ex­cited to see me — and they didn’t know me.”

Dorsey like­wise felt wel­comed to the fold quickly at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary, and those re­la­tion­ships grew.

Early in her time at the school, Dorsey co-taught with Camy Ger­stung, who later moved on to be­come a school coun­selor. She said Ger­stung was very friendly, “she just couldn’t have been nicer.”

Dorsey said some years back, when Ger­stung was preg­nant, she told Ger­stung that if she went into la­bor in the mid­dle of the night to call her.

“And that’s ex­actly what hap­pened,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey said Ger­stung’s older chil­dren would retell the story, jok­ing about wak­ing up the next morn­ing with their math teacher mak­ing them break­fast and then tak­ing them to school.

And who did Dorsey have in her class this year? The daugh­ter Ger­stung went into la­bor with in the mid­dle of the night.

The teach­ers at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary wel­comed Jachi­mow­icz from the start, of­fer­ing her ad­vice and en­cour- age­ment. She high­lighted teach­ers like Clark, Sharon Gor­don and Nancy Har­ring­ton.

“The first year I was there, we had a few teach­ers that had been teach­ing in the school for quite a long time. And as a brand-new prin­ci­pal, they not only wel­comed me, but they joined me reg­u­larly for lunches,” Jachi­mow­icz said. “They had so much gen­uine in­ter­est in help­ing me be suc­cess­ful. And if I did any­thing right, it was be­cause I had them right there by my side.”

Clark started pulling Wor­ton El­e­men­tary’s scrap­books last year, when it first looked like the school would be clos­ing. She is putting them back to­gether, hav­ing got­ten from 1969 to 1981 so far. She thinks they stop at 1985.

“The scrap­books were fall­ing apart,” Clark said.

Ques­tions have been raised this year about pre­vi­ous plans to cre­ate a sin­gle, cen­trally lo­cated school cam­pus in Wor­ton. Those plans, Clark said, were first de­scribed to her by Duell in the 1970s.

“The en­tire ed­u­ca­tion cam­pus would have been out there. But I haven’t heard about that be­ing out there for years and years and years,” she said, not­ing that the prop­erty planned for a mid­dle school was sold for what is now the Clarence Hawkins Com­mu­nity Cen­ter.

The ed­u­ca­tors, cur­rent and re­tired, spoke with pride about the achieve­ments of their re­spec­tive schools and the stu­dents who filled their class­rooms.

Kris Hem­stet­ter was the prin­ci­pal at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary this year, hav­ing served last year as an in­terim prin­ci­pal at Wor­ton Ele­men- tary.

Re­flect­ing on her time at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary, Hem­stet­ter said last year’s fifth­grade pro­mo­tion cer­e­mony at the school was spe­cial for her. It marked the end of her sixth year at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary, mean­ing many of those mov­ing on to the mid­dle school started pre-kin­der­garten her first year there.

Rod­ney knew go­ing into her time as prin­ci­pal that Milling­ton El­e­men­tary had a his­tory of high stu­dent achieve­ment, mean­ing a good ba­sis for in­struc­tion was al­ready present at the school.

“So I knew it would be a good place to start,” she said.

That cou­pled with the close­ness of the staff and the sup­port from the com­mu­nity, Rod­ney said, made for a very good school.

“I en­joyed my time in Milling­ton. You know, the town, the fam­i­lies, ev­ery­one — they’re won­der­ful peo­ple,” she said.

Dorsey lives just across the line in Queen Anne’s County. When she and her fam­ily first moved there from Anne Arun­del County, she heard from her neigh­bors just how good Milling­ton El­e­men­tary was, and how dif­fi­cult it would be to get a job teach­ing there be­cause ev­ery­one wanted to work at the school.

“And sure enough, I got hired at Rock Hall Mid­dle School, and I taught there for three or four years,” Dorsey said.

Milling­ton El­e­men­tary was pre­vi­ously known as the “Coun­try Club School” or the “Lit­tle School on the Prairie,” Dorsey said, and she was fine with that.

She said when the mid­dle schools were con­sol­i­dated and Galena El­e­men­tary School was cre­ated, the staff weath­ered the change of Milling­ton El­e­men­tary’s de­mo­graphic change and des­ig­na­tion as a Ti­tle I school with­out skip­ping a beat.

“We just kept do­ing what we wanted to do to make sure the kids would be suc­cess­ful,” Dorsey said.

Potts spoke with pride about how well so many of her for­mer stu­dents have done. She said some have be­come CEOs and small busi­ness own­ers.

“I’m proud of a lot of the chil­dren that I taught,” she said. “Quite a few of them have done ex­cel­lent. ... It makes you feel good, you know.”

Jachi­mow­icz de­scribed Wor­ton El­e­men­tary as “the school where ev­ery­one shines,” where full ef­forts were made to en­sure the suc­cess of ev­ery­one, from stu­dents with spe­cial needs to those iden­ti­fied as gifted. She hopes to see “that sun­shine” spread through­out the dis­trict as the stu­dents go on to dif­fer­ent schools next year.

Wil­liams voted twice to close Wor­ton and Milling­ton el­e­men­tary schools, last year in a plan ul­ti­mately shelved amid bud­get dis­cus­sions with the Kent County Com­mis­sion­ers and again this year, when it was clear the money was not there to keep the schools open.

Much of the out­cry over this year’s vote came from Milling­ton, which Wil­liams said he sym­pa­thized with. For him, Wor­ton was his school and a cor­ner­stone of his com­mu­nity, just as Milling­ton El­e­men­tary was for its town.

He did not know it when he at­tended school, but he learned later in life that

his grand­fa­ther had been on the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion and was in­stru­men­tal in the plan­ning for Wor­ton El­e­men­tary. That made Wil­liams’ de­ci­sion to close the school even harder.

“Me and my sis­ters went there. My kids went there. We all had great ex­pe­ri­ences there. So it’s very gutwrench­ing,” Wil­liams said.

Dorsey said she is re­tir­ing at the end of the next school year. She was hope­ful that she would get to spend her last year at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary.

While that did not work out, she was happy to see that fel­low teacher Deb­bie Smith was able to fin­ish out her ca­reer in their home school.

“It is my last year next year,” Dorsey said. “So that’s hard for me. I would rather stay with my friends. But it’s fine. We’ll still see each other.”

While Clark is dis­ap­pointed that Wor­ton El­e­men­tary is clos­ing, she knows the res­i­dents of the com­mu­ni­ties like Bet­ter­ton, Fair­lee and Still Pond were just as sad all those years ago to see their schools shut­tered.

“We’ve had won­der­ful par­ents. We had a lot of kids go through that school. It’s go­ing to be sad to see it close,” she said. “It was like a sec­ond home to me.”

Wor­ton El­e­men­tary’s stu­dents will per­haps be the most split up among the schools next year, prompt- ing Zottarelli to have a talk with her chil­dren about it. She re­minded them that all the stu­dents will be back to­gether just a few years down the road in sixth grade.

“And I think that made some of them feel a lit­tle bit bet­ter,” she said.

VanGrin said stu­dents and teach­ers have been check­ing in with one an­other, to see who is go­ing to be at what school next year. She hopes they will carry “that fam­ily love” felt at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary with them to their new schools.

“I think that this is a re­ally spe­cial place and I feel very hon­ored to be here in its last day,” VanGrin said.

Jachi­mow­icz called the clos­ing of Wor­ton El­e­men­tary bit­ter­sweet.

“There’s a ton of good me­mories,” she said.

As much as she loves the school, Jachi­mow­icz’ cur­rent role with the dis­trict has shown her how con­sol­i­da­tion will ben­e­fit in­struc­tion by giv­ing teach­ers bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties to work to­gether. With the el­e­men­tary stu­dent pop­u­la­tion spread among five schools, some build­ings had one teacher per grade. Class­room and build­ing as­sign­ments would change year to year as teach­ers moved to where the stu­dents were.

Hem­stet­ter aimed to main­tain a pos­i­tive at­mos­phere at Milling­ton El­e­men­tary this year in light of the school’s pend­ing clo­sure. The last day of school was not treated as the end of Milling­ton El­e­men­tary, but as a kick­off to sum­mer.

Hem­stet­ter said it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the past, but look­ing to the fu­ture is what will pro­pel the dis­trict for­ward. Still, she un­der­stands that clos­ing schools hits peo­ple emo­tion­ally first.

“I’m ex­cited for the di­rec­tion that Kent County Pub­lic Schools is mov­ing. I think, al­though in a lot of ways we feel sad about the build­ings clos­ing, to me they’re build­ings. It’s the stu­dents that make the build­ings. It’s the stu­dents that make the school,” Hem­stet­ter said.


Teach­ers and fac­ulty give stu­dents a spe­cial send-off dur­ing the last day of school June 8 at Wor­ton El­e­men­tary School.


Anne Marie Llewellyn, an in­struc­tional as­sis­tant, gives Milling­ton El­e­men­tary School stu­dent Aniyah Fitzger­ald a big hug dur­ing the fi­nal dismissal June 8.


Becca Bigelow fills boxes June 9 for her move to Rock Hall El­e­men­tary School from Wor­ton El­e­men­tary School. Bigelow said she is very ex­cited to be­gin teach­ing third grade at RHES. She said she had al­ready filled 37 boxes with school sup­plies and was not fin­ished.


Prin­ci­pal Joe Duell takes a turn with the trowel to lay the cor­ner­stone of Wor­ton El­e­men­tary School when the build­ing opened in 1969.


Two boys peel name tags off cubby holes out­side a class­room in Milling­ton El­e­men­tary School as stu­dents pre­pare to leave for sum­mer va­ca­tion.


Robert F. Ir­win, pres­i­dent of the Kent County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, ap­plies mor­tar to the Milling­ton El­e­men­tary School cor­ner­stone in 1973. Join­ing him at the cer­e­mony are, from left, Prin­ci­pal Kathryn Willis, Tracy Smith, Su­per­in­ten­dent Richard Holler, State Su­per­in­ten­dent James Sensen­baugh, board Vice Pres­i­dent Mar­garet Dick­er­son and board mem­ber Grover Free­man.


Milling­ton El­e­men­tary School stu­dents spell out the ini­tials of the school’s name dur­ing a “Bub­ble Kick­off to Sum­mer” June 8. As a cel­e­bra­tion of the end of the school year and the start of sum­mer, teach­ers lined the stu­dents up in the lawn out­side of the school while Prin­ci­pal Kris Hem­stet­ter gave di­rec­tions from the roof. Hem­stet­ter said the idea to do a “bub­ble kick­off” came from a col­lab­o­ra­tion of teach­ers and staff.

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