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Teachers reminisce about their time spent at soon-to-close Lincoln Elementary School

Lincoln Elementary School teacher Joan Kuhn was one of a group of teachers who gathered Tuesday to reminisce about their years working at the Willmar school. Thursday was the last day for the teachers, as the school will close this year as part of the district's budget-cutting moves. Kuhn, a longtime kindergarten teacher, will retire next week. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

They laughed as they told stories about teachers and principals they knew and about all the students they'd known over the years. But when they thought about Thursday, the last day of school for students, these Lincoln Elementary School teachers got a little choked up.

Five current and retired teachers gathered in teacher Joan Kuhn's classroom earlier this week to talk about the pending closure of Lincoln after 85 years as an elementary school.

"I've loved being in a little school," said Kuhn, a kindergarten teacher who will retire next week. She had taught at Kennedy Elementary before, she said, "but I've really felt more at home over here."

For Karen Rinke, who taught at Lafayette Elementary before transferring to Lincoln, "this was the big school." A number of teachers transferred to Lincoln in 2000 when the district received state funding to setup a magnet school.

Eventually, the state funding ran out, but the magnet school piloted a number of programs that have spread to the rest of the district, the teachers said. The school had all-day, everyday kindergarten, Spanish instruction, character education and "looping" so students could stay with the same teacher for two years.

In the late 1980s, the district had a sudden influx of Latino students, said Julie Knutson, who will also be retiring next week.

Sixty students registered after the Christmas break, she said.

At that time, the district didn't have interpreters or other programs now available for students with limited English skills. The teachers did their best to help everyone learn.

The close-knit staff "dealt with it in an amazing fashion," Knutson said.

"We always had a sense of humor," said Kay Rauk, a retired Lincoln teacher. Because the teachers were so close, "there was always somebody you could go to" when problems came up, she added.

"It was a special time," said retired teacher Patti Hoaglund.

Teachers tried to make time to have lunch together, she said, and it provided a good support system for them as they coped with changes over the years.

"The staff always did something goofy" at school songfests, Rauk said.

Knutson said retirement parties were legendary, with entertainment provided by the "Lincoln Tabernacle Choir." York Flegel, a tall slender principal, was sometimes decorated as a Christmas tree, Hoaglund said.

Kuhn and Knutson said they passed on having a large staff retirement party this year. "There are so many transitions that everybody's making this year," Knutson said. "We're very, very honored to have spent that long here."

When talk turned to the school closing, the group was a little quieter.

"I didn't have a lump in my throat until today," Hoaglund said.

"I think it's going to be really hard, if I let myself think about it, on Thursday," Kuhn said.

Rinke said she got choked up recently watching a video of her time at Lincoln, and it ended with children singing the school song.

She's taught siblings from several families, but she won't teach in the school they attend after this school year. Some parents have expressed regret that "you won't have our last one," she said.

Those relationships will build again at the district's two remaining elementary schools, she added.

Rauk suggested that "kids end up being more adaptable than parents," and the upcoming change may be harder on the adults involved.

"I bet it's sad for the neighborhood," Kuhn said.

Rinke agreed. Lincoln is close enough that the students have been able to walk on field trips to the Post Office, Fire Hall and Public Library downtown.

They were also close to the Dairy Queen on Highway 12, a good destination for end-of-the-year treats. When she took her class there on Tuesday, Rinke said, "The neighbors were out waving."