McRae graduates last class tonight

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McRae sophomore Ashley Cummings, right, passes Kevin Smith his yearbook after signing it in the McRae gym on Wednesday. Tonight, the McRae senior class will be the final graduating class for the century-old school. (Greg Benenati/The Daily Citizen)

McRae High School will graduate its final class of students tonight at 8 p.m.

Senior Jessica Holt, a third generation McRae Trojan, said she is very proud to be part of the last class at McRae, which has been an independent school since 1895.

The McRae School District, which opens in August as a grades five and six campus within the Beebe School District, was the only one in White County affected by the state consolidation amendment requiring the state's smallest school districts to merge with neighboring ones.

"I think it will be good for the education but it's sad they have to leave the school they've went to all their life," Holt said, adding what she liked best about the small school atmosphere was knowing classmates and the close relationships with the teachers.

Salutatorian Brooke Cox said she is trying not to think about the change but is glad to have made it out of school before the consolidation took effect.

"I really didn't want to go," Cox said, adding that her graduating class of 23 is a close knit group. "Everybody says this is the closest [class of students] they've ever seen."

The transition may be most difficult for this year's junior class. Many of the students have gone through the McRae school system since grade school but will finish their last year in the public school system in a new atmosphere with new peers, teachers and classrooms.

Chelsea Tidwell, a junior who will finish her last year in Beebe, said that she has mixed feelings towards the consolidation. Tidwell said a bigger school will mean more opportunities in education and making friends but it is difficult to leave the place they grew up.

"We have to leave our home," Tidwell said. "It's going to be hard on a lot of us."

Junior Ryan Goodman said that the consolidation will mean the end of a capable institution.

"This school does just fine," Goodman said. "But we've got to do what we've got to do."

Principal Jim McMullen said students are adjusting to the impending move and the school has spent their last year together preparing for the transition.

"It's just something that's happened - I'm sure there are some that look forward to the opportunities and I'm sure there are some that are afraid," McMullen said. "Change is scary."

McMullen said the consolidation means more course offerings for students including AP classes and electives like choir, band and several different athletics McRae was not able to offer.

Junior April Moss, said she is looking forward to the Beebe curriculum.

"I think it's a good thing because it will give us [more opportunity]," Moss said.

The students aren't the only ones cleaning out their desks for the last time at the school. Many teachers, who also have deep roots in the town, are preparing to either move to the Beebe District as well or find employment elsewhere.

Girls' Basketball Coach Janet Pankey is set to move with her teammates to the new school district, but said the downside of moving to a bigger environment is that every girl who played McRae basketball might not be picked for the Beebe team.

"They seem to be doing well," Pankey said, adding the Beebe coaches have been open to their new athletes. "They understand the situation and know everybody might not make the team - they're really positive about it."

Pankey, who taught at McRae for five years, will also no longer coach high school basketball but in Beebe will be the seventh grade basketball coach and assistant to the junior high team.

"It will be different, but here I can focus on one age group," Pankey said.

Boys' Basketball Coach Logan Foster said he too has been recruited to work for Beebe Schools. He will coach the seventh and eighth grade boys' basketball team.

Foster said the boys' teams already had tryouts and out of three senior high players vying for places on the team, one made the cut, and out of three junior high players, two made it.

"Some people that are used to playing aren't getting to play," Foster said. "I think most of them understand that's what [happens with] consolidation - to go to a bigger school, you've got to compete with more kids."

Paula Estes, a special education teacher, said the consolidation itself is sad because not only did she and her husband graduate from McRae - but also her entire family including her two children and her own parents.

"It's a sad experience but I'm sure good things are going to come of it," Estes said, adding she has seen many positive attitudes among students. "I think it may be difficult for some of them but they're going to be OK."