This wasn't about the cold numbers of a budget deficit anymore.
As the last day of classes in the history of Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle schools unfolded Friday, the folks affected by the closings focused on the warm relationships they forged and the success they achieved in those buildings.
Edgewood and Marshall supporters have noted their schools met state standards despite the majority of their students coming from low-income families. Muscogee County School District officials, however, noted the schools' enrollments are significantly below capacity and they are near other schools with room to accept transfers. So when the state cut the district's funding, the school board unanimously approved the district administration's recommendation to close the schools after a series of public hearings.
But the schools decided how to bid farewell. Edgewood chose a ceremony; Marshall tried to keep the day routine. Tears flowed and hugs were exchanged at both schools.
Perhaps nobody embodies Edgewood like Janice Fahnestock. She attended Edgewood, her children went there, she still lives in the neighborhood, and she has been a special-education teacher there for 19 years.
"I can't understand why I keep crying all the time, but it's like a mourning, a death," she said as a student held her hand while they waited for the ceremony to start. "But it's also a celebration because I'm proud of everything we have accomplished as educators and teachers. From the administration all the way down to the children, we did what we were supposed to do, and we beat the odds. It's sad too because I don't understand the whole process. It's where business has taken over the teaching of children, and it's not a good thing."
With tears in her eyes, Kelly Thorne said she brought the rose she clutched to her chest to leave as a tribute to the school. Her fourth-grade daughter, Victoria, is a gifted student who "could have gone to any school, but she got such a great education here that I've always kept her here. It absolutely breaks my heart and hers to have to say goodbye to her friends and the teachers we've grown to love as family."
Thorne doesn't want Victoria to go to Brewer Elementary, where she was reassigned, so she applied and was accepted at Hannan Elementary Magnet Academy. But no move was necessary, Thorne insists.
"(District officials) can explain it to me a million ways from Sunday," she said, "but I'm still not going to be able to agree with their decision."
During the ceremony, Edgewood principal Melana Cassell, who is retiring, told the current and former students, staff and supporters, "I've tried to be the strong one. I've tried to be the quiet one. I don't want to say too much because I don't want to cry either, but it is a tough, tough day for all of us. It's been a tough month for all of us. This is my second home, Edgewood Elementary. We are a community.
"The secret of Edgewood, the joy that is here, is contained in one word: excellence. Excellence is not a matter of choice, not a matter of chance; it's making up your mind that you're going to do it. These teachers, this faculty and staff, have made choices that Edgewood would remain a school of excellence."
Cassell urged the crowd to continue that tradition elsewhere.
"You can continue to choose excellence by accepting change and moving forward," she said, "holding the past near to your heart but choosing excellence wherever you go."
Gabrielle Bryant, the teacher of the year at Marshall, cried as she put the school's closing in perspective.
"The students, they all have their struggles and issues," said Bryant, who teaches language arts and coaches girls basketball and girls track and field, "but we've been able to watch them become so much more than people expect, academically and athletically. They've grown as people."
District officials are working on a plan that could mean layoffs for as many as 40 teachers. Bryant doesn't know where or whether she will have a job.
"I just hope I can still be involved with the kids," Bryant said. "I know whatever happens is what God has in store for me. It's not so bad; it's just that the kids are saying they want to go where I'm going, and I have to say I don't know that.
"We encourage them that wherever you go, carry on the same things that Marshall has instilled: Integrity first; service before self; excellence in all we do."
Seventh-grader Iyonhia Washington said she will the miss teachers who showed they care.
"When we get in trouble, they try to tell us how to do stuff right," she said. "They boost us up instead of tearing us down."
"I'm just afraid I'm going to have to prove myself all over," said seventh-grader Kelvin Harris. "I'm not sure if Rothschild will help me like Marshall did."
Marshall principal Michael Forte also is concerned about that transition.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are said that are unfair about these children," Forte said. " So the thing that most concerns me -- I'm going to be realistic here -- is that I want them to receive the same love and attention that we've given them."
Forte, who didn't attend Marshall but grew up and lives in the neighborhood, said he didn't schedule a closing ceremony because he didn't want the last day to be like a funeral.
"Nobody is dying," he said. "Marshall will live on in our hearts forever."