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Former students, staff say goodbye to Nettleton

The thing about Nettleton is that no one ever wanted to leave. Staff would make sure there was always someone at the elementary school, even on snow days, because they knew students would come pounding on the door to their home away from home.

Larita Green
Larita Green looks through old yearbooks to find her class picture with her daughter, Kassie Roberts, 5, of Duluth during an open house and goodbye celebration Wednesday in the Nettleton Elementary School cafeteria for former staff members, students and families. Guests brought old pictures and memorabilia of their time at Nettleton to share. The school is closing this year as part of the Duluth school district's long-range facilities plan. Students and staff members will move to Myers-Wilkins Elementary...
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The thing about Nettleton is that no one ever wanted to leave. Staff would make sure there was always someone at the elementary school, even on snow days, because they knew students would come pounding on the door to their home away from home.

"Nettleton has always had an aura for the kids," former principal Pete Bergman said as students and staff at Nettleton, past and present, gathered Wednesday afternoon at the school to reminisce and sort through old yearbooks and other memorabilia. The school will close in August and its operations will move to the remodeled Grant school 14 blocks to the north on Eighth Avenue. That school is now called Myers-Wilkins Elementary School.

Current principal Stephanie Heilig said she always tried to beat storms and go to the school to make sure the kids who showed up got a meal and a safe way home.

Teachers also didn't want to leave.

Bergman said he never, not once in his tenure from 1983 to 1998, had to tell teachers when they needed to show up for work.

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"The teachers believed in what they were doing," he said, and made time for each student.

He was there for the transition of Nettleton when it became a magnet school for students from across Duluth. It was a mandate from the state because Nettleton was made up of more than 20 percent minority students in a city with a 9 percent minority population.

Desegregation orders were made and Nettleton was given the money to expand the school and double its student population to 600 in 1988.

It focused on computers, science and math, Bergman said, and the school thrived. And despite the surge in students, class sizes were kept at 20, Bergman said.

"It was magic," he said.

Former staff member Judy Haugen sat next to him and agreed.

"We were so far ahead of the game," she said.

Former fourth-grade teacher Korash Lakhan said Bergman "was good at gathering the best people." He invited staff to make hiring decisions, a novel idea at the time, he said.

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Teachers from the school still meet regularly, Lakhan said.

"When you work in the trenches and sweat together, there is camaraderie," he said.

Nettleton is a Central Hillside school, and its students didn't always have prosperous home lives. It meant there was a lot of struggle on the part of teachers and heartache when they learned just what students had to deal with outside of school, Lakhan said. He taught at Nettleton from 1984 to 1996 and two of his children attended.

"You'd see someone in the lunchroom crying," he said. "A lot of children had difficult circumstances. But that's why the teachers were here. They knew they were needed."

Even before the big change in 1988, Nettleton was a place of ingenuity.

Myrna Matheson, who is 81 and taught at Nettleton from 1972 to 1993, said reading levels weren't good when she arrived. Teachers moved to a phonetic system that wasn't exactly approved by the district but was working on their students.

"We had to kind of smuggle it in," she said with a smile.

She said she learned a lot from the diverse student population. She'd never met an American Indian before moving to Duluth from southern Minnesota and Iowa schools.

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Matheson said she was sad to hear the school was closing, "Neighborhood schools have something to be said about them," she said.

Haugen recalled a parent making a public plea when it was learned that Nettleton would close under the school consolidation plan.

"She said, 'Nobody loves my kids like the teachers here,' " Haugen said.

Teachers lived in the neighborhood and they made strong attachments to Nettleton.

"They either stayed one year or they were a lifer," Haugen said. She served as a speech therapist and reading instructor at Nettleton for 36 years.

Things have changed from those intense magnet days, Haugen said, but she still is upset that the school is closing.

"It drives me crazy," she said. "This is where our heart is."

"It's exceedingly sad," Bergman said. "You'll see tears here today. This is the end of something they built."

Nettleton opened in the fall of 1907 and is named for Duluth pioneer settler William Nettleton. He was one of the first school trustees beginning in 1865 and earlier served in the state's first legislature.

Nettleton was a safe haven for children across school boundaries from the start. It was being finished in August of 1907 when the Franklin school burned down. Students there were shuffled to the new Nettleton.

Principal Heilig said she's been letting students know all year that the move to Myers-Wilkins isn't scary. And on the last day of school, the halls and classrooms were filled with a party atmosphere.

"Kids were afraid they'd never see their teachers again," she said.

"We love being in the Hillside," she said. Efforts will be made to make sure students have safe routes to the new school and parents can be provided transportation to continue the Nettleton team spirit.

The transition is going well, Heilig said.

"The good thing is, we're all going together."

Judy Haugen
Retired Nettleton speech therapist Judy Haugen of Duluth serves punch and cake during an open house and goodbye celebration Wednesday in the Nettleton Elementary School cafeteria for former staff members, students and families. Haugen retired six years ago and returned to the school to help host the celebration. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

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