Spirit of Rowan 2023: Woodleaf Elementary to live on as park

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

Schools are more than just institutions for learning, they are institutions for a community.

How many people meet their lifelong friends at school? Or how many parents meet others because their children attended the same place? Or how many teachers build friendships with their co-workers?

When Woodleaf Elementary closed in 2017, it left a void in the Woodleaf community. So many residents had some sort of association with the school, whether it was former students, parents whose children went there, teachers or people who lived next to it.

“Woodleaf Elementary was the heart of Woodleaf,” said Michelle Hastings, a former kindergarten teacher at the school. “They had a caution light, a BP gas station and the school. The school was the center of the community.”

Hastings is still a kindergarten teacher, but moved to West Rowan Elementary, which is the new school the Rowan-Salisbury Schools system built when Woodleaf Elementary merged with Cleveland Elementary. But her connection to the school is more than the fact that she used to teach there. Her husband and both of his brothers are graduates of the school, as are her son-in-law and his grandpa. Hasting’s mother-in-law also used to volunteer at the school.

Hastings said she was nervous on her first day of school so many years ago, but remembers the support from the community really helped her settle in and feel comfortable. The support and involvement from the Woodleaf parents was much greater than her previous school in Ohio, where she is originally from and where she first started her teaching career. She quickly told herself that this was going to be home.

“The people there and the community made you feel like you were home,” Hastings said. “There’s so many connections and I think that’s what was so painful about losing Woodleaf: all those connections that people had there.”

Taking a second to think about it and then laughing to herself, Hastings told a story about her favorite memory: A small, black pig had gotten loose from a neighboring farm and was running around the playground while school was in session. So, Hastings and a few other teachers went into animal control mode. They chased the pig all around the school grounds until they finally captured him.

She also said the irreplaceable friendships she made were among her favorite memories.

“That was hard for Woodleaf to swallow, that their school was being taken away,” Hastings said when the community first heard that the school was being closed. She said the last day before its closing was a tough one. It was a somber atmosphere, but the teachers had a little bit of excitement because of the move to a new school.

“I just miss being in the community,” said Kris Wolfe, the former principal of Woodleaf Elementary from 2014-2019.

Wolfe is now the current principal of West Rowan Elementary. She also said she missed doing activities in the school’s auditorium and gymnasium, which were the oldest buildings in the school and reminded her of the gymnasium that the University of Indiana’s basketball team played in.

“The gym reminded me of the movie ‘Hoosiers’ because it was just that old-time gym,” Wolfe said.

But with sad endings come new beginnings. The county is in the pre-stages of building Woodleaf Community Park on the school’s former site. The park features include a playground for toddlers, a playground for older children, two picnic shelters, a multi-use field, an outdoor exercise area, a memorial orchard, a gazebo, an amphitheater plaza, a 1.2-mile walking trail that loops around the park, two parking lots and restroom facilities. Bids have opened for construction of the park and it is estimated to be completed within the next year or earlier, according to the Rowan County Parks and Recreation Department.

“In so many of our small, unincorporated communities, the schools are a major hub for activity for the residents,” said Rowan County Commissioner Jim Greene, who spearheaded building the park. Bringing that back to Woodleaf was a major part of why the commissioners wanted to build the park.