IT’S kind of fitting that Kamebry Wagner would have been one of the first students at Southside Elementary School to notice the building had become a junior high overnight.
The sixth-grader at the school on Road 200S made the discovery last Friday as she was being dropped off for the start of classes by her father, Ben, who is director of the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.
“She nudged me and said, ‘Hey, Dad, check that out,’” her father said. “Sure enough, I looked out and saw this stone sign that said Southside Junior High School.”
Trouble is, Southside hasn’t been a junior high since 1983.
The other problem is that the sign the Wagners were looking at was not the one they’d been seeing since Kamebry started school. That one was a box-like structure with glue-on letters proclaiming it to be Southside Elementary.
The discrepancy was pretty easy to understand. Road construction was proceeding a few feet from where the sign in front of the building is located. Road 200S is being widened. By the time the work is completed, the space where the sign was located will be covered by highway.
Construction workers thought they were removing the sign until they lifted it from the ground. It turns out that was only a hardened skin that previous workers had placed over the more permanent stone years ago.
“Was located” is an accurate term. Hours after the Wagner father and daughter had noticed the new/old sign, it was gone. Right now, the old sign is in safekeeping at a local storage facility until school officials determine what to do with it.
Chances of Southside reverting to its old junior high status (we don’t have that sort of thing around these parts as all junior highs were converted to middle schools several years ago) are extremely unlikely.
However, the Southside Junior High sign is part of local history and as such deserves to be preserved and displayed. Its story is even more fascinating given some of the people who have been involved with it — then and now.
Joel Metzler is the current principal at Southside Elementary School (he’ll be retiring at the end of the school year), and he was one of the first I called when I learned about the sign discovery. He quickly informed me of one irony relating to the story.
“Kamebry is my granddaughter,” he said with a laugh. “Ben is my stepson.”
Given the fact that Southside hasn’t been a junior high school for 30 years, I was pretty sure that Joel didn’t have that many years in as a principal there. However, he does have an early connection with the old junior high.
“My first experience in Columbus was at Southside Junior High back in 1972, when I was doing an in-service activity at the school library,” he said. “I remember it well because when I arrived in town there was a major controversy over the school corporation and some of the educational concepts that were being adopted for the new schools being constructed. It got so heated that I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.”
He was referring to the open classroom project that was promoted here in the late 1960s and early ’70s by Assistant
Superintendent Herbert Reece. The concept was adopted at Mt. Healthy and Fodrea elementary schools and later at Columbus East High School. Some believe that reaction to the concept was so intense that members of a group called the Bartholomew County Taxpayers Association won election to the school board and adopted a policy (for one proposed school building) of not accepting funds from the Cummins Engine Foundation, which had paid the design fees for several BCSC schools.
Another irony emerged out of the decision to move the old sign to another location on a temporary basis.
“We had to get it out of there right away because the road crews are going to be working in that area around June 1,” said Ron Hoskins, manager of maintenance for the school corporation properties. “It was quite an undertaking since the sign is about 20 feet long and required a forklift to get it uprooted and moved. The good news is that it’s intact.”
In some ways the operation was a personal mission for Hoskins. “I was a student at Southside when it was a junior high,” he said.
Admittedly, the sign doesn’t have much of a functional use because Southside no longer is a junior high. On the other hand, it is a building that holds a special place in a lot of people’s minds. The building itself has always been something of an architectural controversy. Some critics have compared the exterior to a fortress or, even worse, a state prison.
However, an entirely different picture emerges inside the building, a sense of warmth and inclusion that’s difficult to put into words. I won’t try. Just ask anyone who taught or learned at Southside.
I have no idea where the old sign could go, but it does deserve a place at Southside, regardless of the kind of school it might be.