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Written on July 20, 2015
Just off a state highway in rural North Carolina, a school that educated elementary-age children for almost 70 years sits vacant more than a decade after its doors were closed for the last time.
In December 2003, Monroeton School’s 500-plus students moved to a new building down the road on U.S. 158 that had been in the works since funds became available to Rockingham County, N.C., seven years earlier. Soon after, the board of education sold the property, but the main building and grounds have not been occupied since the schoolchildren left.
Aging trailers and an outbuilding added when enrollment grew past the school’s original seven classrooms soon crumbled. Vandals have broken the windows, toppled furniture, and lined the walls of the former gymnasium with graffiti. Two years ago, three men from a neighboring county were arrested for stealing copper and metal from the building, the only salvageable scraps with quick resale value.
Today, holes and leaks in the roof have left the wooden floors in the main building saturated, rotting, and dangerous. Layers of paint — the great cover for an aging building’s sins — are peeling away, falling to the floor for good, never to be replaced.
This story is not unique. While many closed facilities are adapted and reused, either by private groups or public entities, more than 1,000 schools have been left abandoned across the United States. The cost to renovate these facilities and bring them up to current building standards is often too high, so they are either demolished or left to slowly disintegrate.
The old Monroeton building, which opened in 1936, was the product of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). Located in an unincorporated portion of Rockingham County, it was one of several schools constructed during a massive expansion program that began three years earlier when the General Assembly voted to take over school funding in an effort to standardize education opportunities for students.
Numerous buildings in the county and its incorporated towns — Reidsville, Eden, Madison, and Mayodan — were built during that era as the state moved away from the traditional one-room schoolhouses. In 1931, North Carolina passed a law cutting teacher pay in schools with less than 22 students, forcing counties to look at consolidation. By decade’s end, the state transported more children to school by bus than any other, according to a report published in 2010 by the North Carolina Museum of History, but kept its average per-student cost at just over $5, easily the lowest in the nation.
Ironically, more than a half century later, it was consolidation of a different sort that led to the closing of Monroeton and other schools built during that era.
In 1993, Rockingham’s four districts — Reidsville, Eden, Western Rockingham, and the county — consolidated into a single school system. The move, driven largely by Reidsville, was controversial because each district had its separate identity and method of operations.
One prime difference was how schools in the districts were configured. Reidsville operated on a grade K-3, 4-5, 6-8, 9-12 model. Eden, which consolidated three small districts (Leaksville, Spray, and Draper) when it incorporated in 1967, used the more common K-5, 6-8, 9-12 model that you see today. Western Rockingham used a combination of grade configurations for the three communities it served, while the county system did as well.
In 1996, district leaders proposed a move to the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 model as part of a long-range facilities plan that focused primarily on building a new middle school and three elementary schools in the former county system, plus one to replace an aging school in Reidsville. Using bond money, the project finally got underway two years later.
In October 1996, the month before the bond referendum, I was hired as the district’s public information officer. One of my first tasks was touring the county’s 25 schools with the superintendent, who discussed the variety of challenges each school faced.
Walking into the former county schools was a step back in time. The two largest (Bethany and Wentworth) were former K-12 campuses that had become K-8’s when the system’s high school — and most recent new building — opened in 1978. Both Bethany and Wentworth had opened in the 1920s.
On the opposite end of the county, two small K-4 WPA-era schools (Happy Home and Sadler) that served less than 400 students between them fed into a grades 5-8 school (Lincoln). The latter school had been the K-12 campus for African-American children prior to integration.
Monroeton, which served grades K-6, was something of an anomaly, even in the old, predominantly white county system. Just 5 to 7 percent of its population was minority, even though it was the county school closest to Reidsville, where the students were split 50-50 black/white. Despite having the highest achievement in the district, Monroeton did not have the same strong community identity as Bethany or Wentworth because its students left after sixth grade; middle schoolers went to Bethany for grades 7-8.
Over the years, Monroeton had greatly outgrown its original building, with the number of portable classrooms exceeding those in the main facility, despite underutilized schools just seven miles away in Reidsville. A redistricting plan failed amid a huge uproar just after consolidation, so the building program was seen as a way to nudge residents in that direction.
And that generally has occurred, though not without its share of bumps and controversy. The Bethany community fought fervently to keep its middle school, and opened the county’s first and only charter to serve grades 6-8 in 2000. The county commissioners, who have final authority over the district’s budget, have refused to increase school funding for almost a decade, forcing Rockingham to drain its fund balance. And as the county has struggled to deal with losses in its two primary industries — tobacco and textiles — its population also is declining, The district has lost 1,000 of the 14,500 students it had in 2000.
Perhaps those declines and economic challenges are why the old Monroeton school could not be saved. Perhaps the cost of upgrading the building to meet current standards was just too great. Either way, as these pictures attest, the school that saw hundreds of thousands of small children come through its doors is a shell of itself, a fading relic of times long past.