North Lawrence’s Woodlawn Elementary, recently facing closure, celebrates 100 years Saturday and looks to the future

photo by: Contributed

Tom Lee, center in suspenders, is pictured with his kindergarten class (1951-52) in front of Woodlawn Elementary.

When educators say that Woodlawn is a school deeply tied to the community of North Lawrence, they mean it. Take the Lee family. Linda Lee and all of her nine siblings attended Woodlawn. It’s where she first met her husband of 58 years, Tom Lee, whose own family has deep North Lawrence roots.

So when Woodlawn gets together on Saturday for the 100-year anniversary of the current school building, it’s also meant to be a community affair. Perhaps Tom Lee, whose family has lived in the neighborhood since his grandfather moved there around 1900 and whose dad attended Woodlawn, says it best.

“It’s the hub of the community, it really is,” he said.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Woodlawn Elementary, 508 Elm St., is pictured Friday, May 17, 2024.

North Lawrence, by its nature of being separated from the rest of the city by the Kansas River, feels distinct geographically, and was initially its own separate community, Jefferson, before becoming part of Lawrence in 1870. But incoming Woodlawn principal Brandon Daley, who currently serves as a learning coach and academic interventionist at the school, said it’s really the people who make the place. Daley, who previously served as a classroom teacher at Woodlawn for seven years, said there are families where multiple generations have attended Woodlawn, those who live in their childhood homes, and even a teacher who teaches in the same classroom her mother taught in.

“It’s multigenerational, so there’s an investment in the community, in that they’ve stayed put here,” Daley said. “It has been a constant in their life. Woodlawn has been that educational cornerstone for North Lawrence.”

That doesn’t mean new families can’t also find a home. Ashley Bloom’s son began going to Woodlawn after the school district closed Pinckney at the end of last school year. Bloom said that although her son was very sad about the closing, he has expressed gratitude for his new school. Since absorbing some of the Pinckney students, Woodlawn has even adopted one of the school’s beloved traditions, the morning opener. As part of the opener, which takes place every Friday, parents gather with their students and school staff in the gym to start the day. The school song is sung, birthdays are noted and students’ academic and other achievements are commended.

“It was nice to have that carryover to help him with that transition, for him to feel that inclusion at Woodlawn,” Bloom said.

Woodlawn was also under consideration for closure last year, a fact that is not far from some people’s minds as the school celebrates its centennial. Tom Lee, for his part, said losing the school would have been devastating for North Lawrence, as he worries new families wouldn’t move there without a school nearby. He said he sees children walking to and from school and can’t imagine sending them across the bridge to another school.

“It’s fun to watch the kids,” he said. “They walk down the sidewalks. One of those kids moved in from California, and he has a little bicycle.”

photo by: Contributed

Linda Lee (formerly Linda Todd), front row center, is pictured with her siblings and parents in this family photo.

photo by: Contributed

Tom and Linda Lee have deep roots in North Lawrence.

Along with recollections of recess softball games, playing marbles during the lunch hour, school carnivals with games such as musical chairs and metal slides too hot to go down in the summer, both Lees particularly remember meeting up with classmates to walk to and from school. Linda Lee recalled her mother sewing doilies for the school carnivals, and she notes that the school remained a hub of activity even during the summer, with art classes and reading programs. Now in their 70s, they both still keep up with their elementary school classmates through the annual Sand Rat Reunion — sand rat being a once derogatory term for North Lawrence residents that they now proudly claim as their own.

Suzie Johannes, whose third-grade son has attended Woodlawn since kindergarten and who advocated against the closure, said that the anniversary will allow both alumni and current students to gather and appreciate what the school has meant to them. As it’s a smaller school, Johannes said, kids get a lot of individual attention and there is a sense of everyone looking out for one another.

“It’s a really great time to celebrate it,” Johannes said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing all the alumni — I think there’s gonna be quite a few who come back for it. I think (the anniversary represents) the transformation that education and a community school like Woodlawn can have on people’s lives.”

Johannes and Bloom are among those who have helped gather old photos, newspaper articles and memories about the school ahead of the upcoming celebration. That includes historical photos dating back to around the time of the school’s opening, written historical accounts, and photos and memories from alumni and staff. Johannes said they continue to collect materials, and former students and staff can contribute via the school’s anniversary website, The public can also view the materials there.

The celebration commemorates the school’s current building at 508 Elm St., but the school dates back to the earliest settlements in the area, according to the anniversary website. Previously known as the Fifth Ward School, it was originally located at the northeast corner of Perry and North Fourth streets. In 1890, its teachers petitioned to change the name to Woodlawn because the building was surrounded by a wooded lawn of elm, birch and walnut trees. That building burned down in 1923, and the current building was built in 1924. In 1955, following the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, Woodlawn integrated with Lincoln School, also known as the Sixth Ward School, which was on the northeast corner of North Seventh and Lincoln streets, according to the district website.

Though the celebration is Saturday, Woodlawn students have been commemorating the anniversary throughout the school year with various activities. That includes lessons, activities and crafts about each of the decades the school has existed. Daley said they began with the 2000s and have been going backward — to the ’90s, the ’80s, the ’70s — by focusing on one decade per month.

photo by: Contributed

Woodlawn Elementary students, in what is believed to be the 1970s, are pictured on a staircase at the school.

“One hundred years to many of our kids is super abstract — it’s not something they can fathom,” he said. “So what’s been fun, in trying to loop the kids in, is to celebrate a decade every month.”

The 100th day of school — a milestone marked by many elementary schools with counting activities and games — also happened to fall on Feb. 5, which coincided with the first day that Woodlawn Elementary opened for classes after it was built. As part of the anniversary celebration on Saturday, different areas of the school will be dedicated to the past, present and future of Woodlawn — including the stories and photos collected from former staff and students as well as artwork and writings from current Woodlawn students. Daley said Lawrence High students also helped create a documentary where they interviewed Woodlawn students and present and former staff. Daley said despite recent challenges, the mood has been optimistic and forward-looking.

“I hope the kids can come and celebrate and see that even through the past couple years, with COVID, the district’s budget challenges and the potential school closure, there’s kind of a sense that we made it through,” he said. “We’ve been through 100 years. We’ve made it to the other side of the tunnel.”

In another nod toward the future, the anniversary celebration will help launch a new scholarship program for former Woodlawn students. The Woodlawn Inspiring the Next Generation scholarship will provide funding for college, vocational training or other post-secondary education for two high school seniors who previously attended Woodlawn.

Alumni, former staff and the entire community are invited to celebrate the school’s centennial from 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 18. The celebration will include food trucks, live music, building tours, student videos and art, and a bounce house. All proceeds will benefit the WING scholarship.

photo by: Contributed

Students pose with their teacher in this Woodlawn class photo from 1926.


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