Saying goodbye to a school in Davenport: ‘It’s like an old friend.’

November 12, 2023 9:30 am

Monroe Elementary School in Davenport (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Over eight decades, thousands of kids from Davenport’s west side got their first taste of schooling at Monroe Elementary.

Opened in 1940, the school was one of six elementaries constructed as part of an ambitious building program in response to a belief that the old elementaries had outlived their usefulness and were no longer strategically located to deal with the city’s shifting population centers.

Now, it’s Monroe’s turn to give way to the future.

Closed after the 2022-23 year and its kids sent to other schools, it now has come time for the fixture on 4th Street between Cedar and Howell to fall to the wrecking ball. It is one of two elementaries being torn down this year; the other, Washington Elementary on Davenport’s east side, was demolished a few weeks ago.

The school district, which has experienced falling enrollment for years, has too many buildings, says TJ Schneckloth, the superintendent.

The district administration has recommended to the school board that a new middle school be built in the area. It would replace Frank L. Smart Intermediate, which is just north of Monroe. It would be demolished, too. The board is scheduled to act on the recommendation Nov. 13, Schneckloth said.

A walking track and other outdoor space would be put where Monroe is now.

The memorial to Breasia Terrell will be preserved, and the district is working with her family to decide a new location for that, Schneckloth said. The 10-year-old girl disappeared in 2020, and her remains were later found in Clinton County.

In recent weeks, fencing has gone up around the school, and traffic is restricted on 4th Street in preparation for the demolition.

None of this is easy for the people of Davenport who know and love Monroe Elementary.

(Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

“It’s hard to see the fence around it. It’s like an old friend, something in my life for a long time,” says Barb Erickson.

Erickson, who was born in 1954, was a student at Monroe. Her brothers and sisters attended the school, too, and so did her kids. Erickson also worked at Monroe for 17 years. She was a para-educator, retiring in 2015.

“It’s always been there,” she said the other day. “There’s so many good memories there.”

Iowans are not unaccustomed to the loss of school buildings. A Des Moines Register series about 10 years ago noted that in 1950, there were 4,600 school districts in Iowa. Now, there are roughly 330, with much of the consolidation in rural Iowa. That has meant a lot of school buildings in Iowa either fell into disuse, were repurposed — or were torn down.

Here in Davenport, at least as long as I have lived here, we’ve been able to put our shuttered schools to reuse. Some of them have been repurposed for businesses; others made into housing.

Some in Davenport’s west end don’t believe enough was done to save Monroe Elementary School, or to keep it open. However, deferred maintenance at the school amounts to $11 million, said Schneckloth, a former Monroe principal. He added this is a part of the city the district wants to invest in, and that he’s heard people are excited about an infusion of something new in the area.

Monroe Elementary, a special place

In the meantime, ex-staff and students at Monroe lament its impending destruction. And they remember the good days.

Terry Cook worked at Monroe for 32 years in a variety of jobs. She started in the cafeteria and later worked in the office as attendance secretary.

She also went to school there, and so did her kids.

“I met my husband at that school,” Cook told me the other day. They were in 2nd grade.

“I’m 66. I figured it up one time. Except for 14 years of my life, I have had something to do with that school,” she said.

Her grandkids went to Monroe, too, even though they lived outside the school’s boundaries. They transferred in.

“I would say it was the most family-oriented place I’ve ever been,” Cook said. “They had good teachers that really cared about their kids.”

That the school is being torn down is difficult for her. “I’m heartsick. I loved that school. It was my life for so many years, and it is very sad,” she said.

This part of Davenport encompasses some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. That meant challenges over the years, former staffers say.

“It was almost like you were called to be there. It was not for the weak. It took a lot of love and a lot of skill to help the students there,” said Cindy Schollaert, who taught at Monroe Elementary from 2009 to 2018.

Schollaert spent 40 years teaching and said Monroe was a good fit for her.

“I just loved the staff there. It was a very tight, close-knit community,” she said, adding there was outreach to parents. “It was a nice partnership between families and kids.”

The building, too, was unique.

Constructed, in part, with the use of federal funds from the New Deal-era Public Works Administration, there were special touches to Monroe and some of the other elementaries built at the time.

There were fireplaces and a play loft.

Among the most notable features were fishponds built into the kindergarten rooms. In recent days, the staff at the Davenport Schools Museum have received a number of calls from people asking about what would happen with the fishponds at Monroe Elementary.

Fishpond at Monroe Elementary. (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

Some of the elements have been salvaged, including unique tiles with nursery rhymes and a frog from one of the ponds that, at one time, shot water from its mouth. They are now housed at the museum.

Schollaert researched the school and said, at the time, builders wanted to make the rooms friendly for kids transitioning from home. Thus, the fireplaces and other touches to make the atmosphere friendlier for young children. The tiles, she said, were made by a company in Pennsylvania.

Tiles from Monroe Elementary, like this one, are kept at the Davenport Schools Museum. (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

Other architectural elements to the building include glass blocks and doors. Schneckloth said some of the doors will be salvaged and made into conference tables.

The district also is saving 500 bricks from the building, which will be sold with the proceeds to go to the Davenport Schools Foundation. The same is being done at Washington Elementary. The school board has already approved plans for a new middle school to be built in that area, to replace Sudlow Intermediate School.

When Monroe opened in the fall of 1940, it and the five other elementaries were heralded as a new day for education in the city. A local bond issue also was required to help finance the schools, and 77% of voters approved. A dozen older elementary schools, including a predecessor Monroe Elementary School four blocks away, were discarded.

The new elementary schools were designed and built to provide for the children who went there a “new and innovative instructional program,” according to a book of newspaper articles about the initiative, which were assembled by the Davenport Schools Museum.

An old photo of a classroom at Monroe Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Davenport Schools Museum)

In the 80-plus years since then, Monroe has been a special place for thousands of kids and their families.

Soon, it will be gone.

That will make a lot of people sad. I am one of them. Both of my kids went to Monroe Elementary School, and I can remember spending a good bit of time there. My son learned to ride a bike on the playground and went to Cub Scouts there. We still live within walking distance.

When the fencing went up, I walked around Monroe and took some pictures. I felt a tug at my heart.

I am interested to see what comes next. I’m interested to see whether the school board approves the administration’s plans for the area. This part of town could certainly use the investment, and the families who live here deserve it.

Still, the memories of Monroe Elementary School will never leave me or my family. Nor, I suppose, will they ever fade for so many other Davenporters who have known and loved this school.

Those memories will always remain.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.