COLUMBIA — Even before Oakland Junior High School opened in 1971, the Biddles were involved.
"My dad helped pour the concrete in the school when they were building it," a proud Stephen Biddle said.
Biddle was one of the students in the first class at Oakland, in northeast Columbia. His son, Jacob, is now an eighth-grader there.
When Muriel Battle High School opens in Columbia in 2013, Oakland will go from being a junior high, with eighth- and ninth-graders, to an intermediate school, with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
"We'll have to start everything over again," Principal Kim Presko said. "We'll have 100 percent new kids in our building with less than a third of the teaching staff. We have the challenge of restarting the school and building community with a group of new people, so the traditions and rituals and things that we value will have to be reconstituted."
Until then, Oakland will make the most of its 40-year history as a junior high, now one of three in the district. Biddle, his son Jacob and other alumni of the school remember good times, teachers and programs.
The school's early years were marked by funding issues and other problems, according to news reports from the Columbia Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune. The opening was delayed mainly because of problems with the construction company. And when the school finally opened, it did so without a kitchen and a cafeteria. Trailers were used for some classrooms.
Stephen Biddle remembers a spirit of commitment to the school. He was part of the Eagle Staff, a group of students whose job was to welcome the athletes or visitors from other schools.
"We made sure that people who came to the school for any type of activities were comfortable and felt at home," he said. Eagle Staff members wore "nice suits and orange ties."
"There was a high involvement from the parents in that as well," Biddle said, "and I think it’s pretty much that way still."
Jacob, who had been hanging around while his father was talking, appearing not to listen, jumped in to agree.
"People are highly committed," he said. The Eagle Staff still exists, "although it’s not called like that anymore."
Former students share memories
Wendy McGuire Coats said her years at Oakland in the late 1980s had a lasting effect on her professionally and personally. She especially remembers her performing arts experience — a combination of band, musicals, plays, drama tournaments and choir.
McGuire Coats, now an attorney in Lafayette, Calif., said she owes a lot to Oakland, especially to Jim Johnson, Linda Gordon and Melanie Ledbetter, the three faculty members in charge of Oakland's performing arts program when she was a student.
"I learned how to be scared of something and to do it anyway," McGuire Coats said. "I learned how to manage my time. ... I learned how to compete. I also learned how to help and support others when they were nervous or afraid.
"The foundation for much of what I know about myself, such as how I learn and what my talents and skills are, was built in the performing arts program with Jim, Linda and Melanie," said McGuire Coats, who went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before she became a lawyer. "I owe these three a great deal."
Erin LaFond, who was a student at Oakland in the late 1970s, shares similar memories. LaFond was highly influenced by the performing arts program as well, to the extent that she later became a coach at Oakland in performing arts, tech theater design and oral interpretation.
LaFond recalled her friends being surprised when she started taking drama classes at Oakland.
"My peers told me I was good at it and that it was funny," she said.
In addition to being hugely important in her personal life, LaFond said, her experience definitely was a springboard to theater at Hickman High School and MU.
Angela Ess is another graduate still connected to the school. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in January 1986, Ess was sitting in typing class at Oakland. Someone came and told her teacher something the students couldn’t hear.
"We could tell right away that something very bad had happened," Ess said. "Mrs. Ellis came to the front of the room and told us that the shuttle had exploded. She was very shaken up and very sad. I will never forget where I was that day."
Ess is now the attendance secretary at Oakland.
"The building has changed a little," she said. "But I still get that nostalgic feeling when I walk the hallways."
Stephen Biddle finds himself back at Oakland regularly because of his son. The Biddles were interviewed in the parking lot of a soccer field by Oakland before Jacob's practice. There was almost a chemical complicity between them, which allowed Jacob to correct his dad when he thought he was wrong. When that happened, Jacob's exasperation seemed more dramatized than real. Stephen’s response was a frank smile.
"I’m also involved," Jacob said. "I am an Eagle escort. We show the kids that come to the school late in the year where their classes are, so that they can learn where to go and don’t get lost and stuff. I volunteered for that, just like my dad did with the Eagle Staff."
Jacob's soccer coach came over, and the two talked for a moment. The boy put his shin guards on and headed toward the field.
Musing on it, his father said there were no soccer teams when he went to school.
"Our main games were basketball, football, and track and field," he said. "They did have volleyball and that for the girls."
Challenges of the present and future
Today, Oakland has 775 students, and the gender split is close to even — 52 percent girls and 48 percent boys.
Other facts about Oakland today, according to 2009-2010 data from Columbia Public Schools, include:
- Almost 56 percent of students are white, almost 29 percent are black, and a little more than 4 percent are Hispanic.
- Just more than 47 percent of students come from low-income households, as measured by the number eligible for free and discounted lunch.
- The student-to-classroom-teacher ratio is 19-to-1.
- Almost 54 percent of the school's 65 teachers have a master's degree or higher.
Two years ago, Oakland established an English Language Learners program. Until then, students who needed help with language were sent to other schools in the district.
"Now we are saying that you ought to be able to go to school wherever you live," said Presko, who has been principal there for 11 years.
She feels engaged by the changes the school is going to face in the near future, such as having more students overall and more students with special needs, a category including kids who require specific education programs as well as those with social and emotional needs.
"You have to be able to address issues of the whole child versus the academic piece," Presko said.
In the meantime, Presko is conscious of the school's current challenges, including educating students with special needs, raising academic proficiency in line with state standards and reducing the number of trailers (10) that are still being used as classrooms.
"Do we like to have the trailers? Of course not," she said. "Trailers are a temporary solution. We would love to have everybody in the building."
The number of trailer classrooms will drop with the changes of 2013, when the school will have an estimated 150 fewer students, Presko said.
She is most proud of the school's culture, which she describes as "one of learning both from the teachers and students."
"I know it is like a family by helping everyone see their potential and constantly work with each other to achieve it," Presko said.
One of the most innovative of the recent improvements introduced in the school has been the inclusion of eMINTS (Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) classrooms, in which students use new technologies to improve their learning experiences. Eighth-graders, for example, create websites to teach classmates about earth science; they also are using webcams to talk with fourth-graders at an elementary school about science.
It's "cool stuff for students," Presko said.
Biddle can’t help but laugh when asked how he thinks 21st-century technology would have affected his time at school.
"Things would have been a lot different," he said. "I just can’t imagine how."
His son is no fan of computers, but one of the reasons is practical.
"I should probably learn how to type," Jacob said, his expression mischievous. "But I just don’t like it.”