The end of a school year brings with it the usual — field trips, awards ceremonies, a feeling of excitement as desks are cleaned out and yearbooks are signed. But for the staff and students of Lester Elementary, all of those usual things are coupled this year with something else.
“It really is bittersweet,” said second-grade teacher Melody Crook.
Lester is one of three Raleigh County schools closing at the end of the school year. In the fall, its 138 students will be divided between Fairdale Elementary and the new Ridgeview Elementary. Also attending Ridgeview will be all of the students from Crab Orchard Elementary and some students from Sophia-Soak Creek. The remaining students from Sophia-Soak Creek will attend Coal City Elementary.
“It’s sad to see it closing,” said kindergarten teacher Susan Keen, who has taught at Lester since 1985, “but it’s exciting to see these students have new opportunities at a new state-of-the-art school.”
Plans for Ridgeview, the teachers said, include technological opportunities their students currently don’t have, along with other bonuses, such as multiple age-appropriate playgrounds, an amphitheater and an apple orchard.
Still, there is a sadness. The community of Lester has had a school of its own for more than 150 years. The current building has served students since 1966.
“There’s always been a lot of pride in this school,” Keen said. “A lot of community members tell me they are very sad about the school closing. … This is a place where everyone knows every staff member, and most every staff member knows every student by name. In many cases, we’ve taught not just siblings, but generations from the same family. … The community appreciates that, and they say they will miss having that at a new school.”
As for teachers? They say they haven’t had time yet to be sad.
“There’s still so much going on,” Crook said. “I don’t think it’s really hit us yet. That night, when we do the closing ceremony, that’s when we’re going to feel it.”
That night is Thursday, May 31, at 6 p.m., when alumni and community members are invited to a free hot dog dinner, music, a slide show, a history display, and other activities on the school grounds. The event closes at 9 p.m., with a “School’s Out, Lights Out” ceremony, including the shutting off of the school’s lights classroom by classroom, a flag-lowering with “Taps” played by trumpeters from the Independence High School Band, and fireworks.
“We have such a big history in this school,” Keen said. “It’s something to celebrate.”
In fact, according to state archives, a Lester School history dates back to 1867, when local students attended a log cabin schoolhouse even before the place around it was officially called Lester. But it wouldn’t be long before they would outgrow it.
The early decades of the 20th century brought workers from the mining and lumber industries into Lester, which was chartered May 11, 1910, and named for an early settler. Lester was a popular stop for the C&O and Virginian railroads, and it seemed to flourish as the industrial boom continued. The 1916 West Virginia Geological Survey reported Lester had three churches, nine stores, three restaurants, a saw mill, a planing mill, three hotels, and a population of around 1,200. Records also indicate the booming town was home to a mattress factory, an ice cream factory and a bottling plant. As Lester grew, so did its need for education.
By 1923, Lester had an official school. But its history isn’t so cut and dry, explained area historian Roger Trail, who was also a member of the final (1961) ninth-grade class to attend Lester School. Segregation demanded the town have two schools.
At some point between the days of the 1867 log cabin schoolhouse and the structure that opened in 1923, Lester was home to what locals called the “North Lester School,” a wooden structure which sat along what is now Grandison Avenue and originally educated only white students, Trail explained. African-American students did not have a school until 1922, when the North Lester School became theirs.
“Before 1922, black students were just meeting in people’s homes, at the Odd Fellows, in churches,” Trail said. “They met where they could and when they could find someone who would teach them.” Some of their meeting places included the Levi Cook Storehouse (early 1900s), Norton Hollow School (1915-1922) and the Odd Fellows Hall (1915-1922).
Then, in 1922, the Board of Education began building what locals called the “Upper Lester School” on the same property where the current school sits. But the two-story wooden structure, like modern construction projects, wasn’t quite ready for the 1922-23 school year, Trail said, and the Board of Education had already turned the North Lester School over to African-American students. So, for the 1922-23 school year, white students attended class in downtown Lester’s “tin building,” a former mercantile.
In the fall of 1923, white students relocated from the old downtown tin building up to the new school. African-American students continued to attend the North Lester School until the current Lester Elementary building opened in 1966. (Trail said Lester did not desegregate schools until then because the existing buildings did not have room for all the students.)
The 1923 building had four classrooms, two upstairs for high school and two downstairs for grade school, with three grades per room. In 1925-26, two classrooms were added, plus a library upstairs with a gymnasium downstairs at a cost of $4,550, according to Board of Education records and news articles Trail has collected. It was known as Lester High School from 1923 until 1930, serving grades one through 12. (Some of those years, the school taught only through the eighth, 10th or 11th grades.)
Once Trap Hill High School opened in 1931, the school became Lester Junior High School and kept that name until 1961, when it began sending ninth-grade students to Trap Hill High School. (Fire damaged the school in 1951 or 1952, but repairs and improvements were made.)
From 1961 to 1966, Lester Elementary taught students through eighth grade in the old building. Then, in 1966, Lester Elementary School students entered their current building at 1970 Lester Highway, also known as W.Va. 54/97.
“I remember that day,” said Lou Reid, a Lester resident who attended school in the old structure and served as school secretary at the time the new building opened. “The students carried the stuff right out of their old desks, across that field and into their new classrooms.”
A March 8, 1966, Beckley Post-Herald article indicates 207 grade school students entered the newly constructed $205,000 building the Monday of that week. Construction of it had begun April 1, 1965, as part of a $5,469,000 bond issue of the Raleigh County Board of Education approved in October 1963.
“The new building has eight modern classrooms, one large multipurpose room, and kitchen facilities as well as restrooms and heating unit,” the article states. “Bernard F. Mills, who has been principal of the school since 1962, reports that there are eight full-time and one half-day teachers employed at the school.”
The 1966 article uses information provided by the school’s oldest teacher, Mrs. Lucile B. Noel, who began teaching in Lester at what was then the Trail School in 1919. (Historian Roger Trail clarified that the Trail School was a wooden cabin school technically in nearby Surveyor, but some people may have also referred to Lester’s wooden cabin schoolhouse as the Trail School.) The article states that one of Noel’s first-grade students was Sherman C. Trail, who was at one time principal at Lester School and who, at the time of the article, was superintendent of the Raleigh County Board of Education.
The article states: “The first Lester school building was constructed in 1923-24. It remained a high school until 1929, during which time it graduated only a class of three. It was a junior high until 1961, when it became an eighth-grade school. The first annual of Lester junior high was published in 1954 and was dedicated to Mrs. Noel, who retired from teaching in 1964. During her stay at Lester, Mrs. Noel witnessed the passing of the following principals: Gordon P. Corbett, Barty Wyatt, Edward Bridi, Glenn P. Daniel, Fred Roberts, Clyde Mankin, Branford Wykle, C.M. McKinney, and C.S. McKinney.”
In its new home, Lester Elementary continued teaching students through eighth grade until 1977, when sisth-graders became the oldest students. The school received an addition in 1979. Lester Elementary served students through sixth grade until 2002, when the county adopted the middle school system. Lester Elementary currently serves 138 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
Their school is scheduled to close in June. One-fourth of those students will attend Fairdale Elementary School beginning with the 2018-19 school year. The remaining Lester students will be attending the new Ridgeview Elementary School, along with students from Crab Orchard Elementary and part of Sophia Soak-Creek Elementary.
Local historian Roger Trail, whose extensive collection of newspapers, photographs, documents and oral histories pertaining to the Trap Hill District contributed significantly to this article, is compiling a detailed photographic history of the Trap Hill District on DVD. For additional and pre-order information, visit Roger Trail on Facebook or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.