Jeanne Vetter began her teaching career at Clements Elementary School alongside Highway 88 more than 50 years ago — before it ever joined Lodi Unified School District.
The small schoolhouse has been a part of the community for more than twice that length of time, but at the end of this school year, its doors will be forever closed.
The Lodi school board voted 6-0 Tuesday to shutter the tiny rural campus and move its 60 students to Lockeford School. That campus, roughly four miles away, has been upgraded with kindergarten classrooms and a new playground.
The district said the closure will save about $100,000 annually.
Come fall, the school's teachers will be moved with their students to Lockeford School.
Clements teachers have worked there an average of 26 years, compared to the state average of 13 years at one location, according to state data.
Its class sizes, too, have been well below the average.
Although Sandy Hale spent less than a decade teaching kindergarten at the school after moving from Lockeford School, she feels connected to it. She retired, but couldn't stay away. She now volunteers there daily.
She was hired by the district in 1980 to teach a special day class at Victor School. She moved to Lockeford in 1988 and Clements in 2000.
"I have been very fortunate to have taught at several of Lodi Unified's country schools, and you couldn't have gotten me to a town school," she said.
Hale said the small three-room school — perfect for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds to begin their education since there are no older children to intimidate them — hasn't changed much. Even the staff has been the same for several years.
"I guess the biggest change has been the budget issues and not knowing where we would be teaching for the past few years," she said.
The school has twice escaped closure during the last two years of districtwide budget cuts. Last year, a tie vote went to keeping it open at least another year while upgrades to accommodate the smallest students were made at Lockeford.
"The board listened to us for two years, and we were able to keep the school open. I still don't understand how they could find all that money to build two new classrooms and a playground, but not have enough to keep us open," Hale said.
Her fondest memory is being a teacher there in the quiet country atmosphere and working with a "great" team of teachers.
"We all graduated from high school together and (they) were like my second family. We all helped one another and we did whatever was needed at the school," she said.
Many parents also liked the small atmosphere for their young children and are also sad that the school is closing, according to Hale.
"Many of them helped support the staff in keeping the school open the past two years. In fact, the staff wouldn't have been successful without their support," Hale said.
When Vetter started at Clements in 1958, it was not part of Lodi Unified. It was then a three-room school that educated eight grades.
"One teacher taught first through third, I taught fourth through sixth, and the principal taught seventh and eighth grades," she said. "The school was the meeting place for local groups. We didn't have bus service, so the parents brought the students to school each day."
Once the school was unified with the Lodi district, Clements served only grades 4 and 5, with all the other grades at Lockeford.
"Then they decided to put the kindergarten and first grades at Clements. So after 17 years, I moved to Lockeford School, where I taught for the next 19 years," said Vetter, who retired 17 years ago and still lives in the area.
Several years ago, there was a reunion of former teachers and students who attended the school.
"We did a lot of reminiscing and looking at old pictures. By the time I retired, I was teaching the children of children I had taught," she said. "I think that is one of the nicest memories I have."
Vetter said she understands the reasoning behind the board's decision to close the school, since there is now room at Lockeford and the other children in families may already attend that campus.
Former Clements Fire Chief Ray Engel, and his wife, Frankie, both attended Clements from first through eighth grade.
"We're not very happy about the closure," Ray Engel said.
Frankie Engel remembers participating in playground games such as dodgeball with the late Geraldine Steeley, the former principal.
"She played a rousing game of basketball," said Frankie Engel, who graduated from eighth grade in 1954 in a class of eight.
Ray Engel remembers when the local 4-H club dedicated the bell from the old school and mounted it in front of the campus, and was hoping his 4-year-old twin grandchildren would have the same chance his two children did to attend Clements.
"It's so much better being at a small school like that than being thrown into Lockeford, where there's students all the way up to the sixth grade," he said.
As a therapist, Frankie Engel agrees that young children flourish in smaller learning environments.
A third-generation Clements resident, her grandmother taught at the original Clements School site.
Frankie Engel attended Girl Scout meetings inside the current building and went to her first Sunday School class there. It was a community hall where even the Clements Buckaroos used to meet, especially in the winter when it was difficult gathering near the river, she said.
"I'm so sorry to see it close where there were other options. We kind of knew it was going to happen anyway," she said.
In recent years, Ray Engel says he's witnessed a lack of maintenance on the school grounds, and hopes that doesn't increase when the district moves out.
"I'd hate to see it fall apart and crumble away. I don't want to see the building go to waste," he said.
It might have been better if the school had never been unified, the couple agrees.
"I don't think you'll find many oldtime residents happy that Lodi took us over. We didn't have what I've heard referred to as 'a tower of power,'" Ray Engel said.
Boon for business
Cynthia Haynes, president of the Lockeford-Clements Chamber of Commerce, is disappointed to see the school close for different reasons.
"It's sad to see it go. It's sad for business and for the community, too," she said.
The organization works to draw not only businesses to the neighboring towns, but residents as well. Haynes said it will be harder to encourage families to move to Clements when their children will attend school in a completely different community.
"One of the reasons families move into a community is because they have schools that are close to where they live. Every community needs to have local schools so parents can be involved in their schools," she said. "It will affect the economic development that we are trying to build."
Nearby Lay's restaurant and Country Joe to Go, a drive-thru coffee shop formerly owned by trustee Bonnie Cassel, have shut down in recent years.
"Since the Chocolate Factory next door closed, the school kind of sits there by itself. I don't know how much the community uses the school now," said Vetter, who hopes a new use can be found for the campus.
Linda Baker, who has taught kindergarten at Clements for more than 30 years, is among those who deeply care about the campus' future.
"I understand you have built us some buildings at Lockeford to move into," Baker told trustees last Tuesday. "But I want to find something to do with Clements."
The district plans to hold a public forum and create a citizens' committee to decide what to do with the aging building, according to Art Hand, assistant superintendent of facilities and maintenance.
School board president George Neely said he's been contacted by a community member who believes the site is perfect for an elementary-age charter school of the arts.
"Like Linda, I hope they don't just let the school go to pot, but I'm sure they will, just like Alpine School before they finally sold it," Hale said, adding that the school will still be used as a bus hub, which concerns her.
"With no one there, I'm afraid students will vandalize the school. I would like to see a Head Start preschool take over the school. A preschool is a huge need in that area," she said.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.