Final bell rings for Millington, Worton schools
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.