By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Once in a while, Carol Thompson will be walking down the street in Sea Isle City when she’ll hear someone call out, “Hi, Miss T.”
In her Miss T. days, Thompson was a teacher at the Sea Isle City Public School. Even as adults, some of her former students still affectionately call her by that nickname.
Thompson, or Miss T., if you prefer, has many fond memories of her 27-year teaching career at the former elementary school at 4501 Park Road. All she has to do is to look at the school to be transported back in time.
But soon, the building will be gone. Demolition crews are tearing it down to create room for Sea Isle’s proposed $20 million community recreation center that is expected to open in 2025.
“It’s sad, because I have a lot of memories,” Thompson said of the old school’s demolition. “This was a small-town school. There was such a good rapport between the teachers, the students and parents.”
Thompson, now 66, began her teaching career in 1985 and retired in 2012 after the school was closed due to Sea Isle’s declining student enrollment.
She still speaks passionately about teaching, in large part because of her bonds with the students and fellow teachers.
“I would probably still be teaching if it was still open,” she said of the old school.
All these years later, Thompson still vividly remembers the class trips to New York City, Washington, D.C., Williamsburg, Va., and a three-day overnighter to Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, N.J.
“It was such a nice school that you knew all of the students,” she recalled.
The teachers also formed strong friendships, many of them still staying in touch more than 10 years after the school was closed, Thompson noted.
“We did a lot of things together as a faculty. We all got along,” she said. “There were a lot of good vibes.”
Christie Ostrander also fondly remembers her time at the school. She was in fourth grade when the school opened in 1971 as a new centerpiece of the community.
Looking back on those days, she laughed while recounting all of her childhood “firsts” that took place at the school.
“This was, for me, my first school dance and my first kiss. I was on the school’s first girls’ softball team and first girls’ basketball team. So much happened that was a first for me. These are the kinds of memories I have. It will never go away,” Ostrander said.
Ostrander is now 61 and works for Sea Isle as an assistant in the city’s Recreation Office. As a student, she was vice president of the Student Government, was active in sports and gave the eighth-grade graduation speech for the Class of 1976.
“To this day, I’m friends with almost every kid I went to school with. There’s a core group that’s very tight,” she said.
One of Ostrander’s first memories of the school was how plain, almost institutional looking, the building was inside after it opened. The students and teachers, though, transformed the school to create a cozier atmosphere, she noted.
“We changed that. By the time I was in eighth grade, it was totally different. It was a very warm and inviting school,” Ostrander said.
One way the school’s exterior was made more attractive was the planting of new trees on the front lawn overlooking Park Road.
When she was in seventh grade, Ostrander joined with others in the Student Government to plant a holly tree in 1974 or 1975.
“It was a little tree. It came in a pot,” Ostrander said, using her hands to show that the holly was only about a foot tall then.
Nearly 50 years later, the holly has flourished into a towering tree with a sprawling green canopy.
“It just shocks me when I look at it,” Ostrander said, smiling.
On a rainy Friday, Ostrander and Thompson peeked through the chain-link demolition fence that surrounds the school now to marvel over the beauty of the holly tree.
Sea Isle has told the demolition contractor to save the mature trees on the property. The plan is to incorporate the trees in the new landscaping designs for the community recreation center.
The school’s 1971 cornerstone will also be saved. Although it opened in 1971, the formal dedication ceremony for the building took place on Feb. 15, 1972.
The Sea Isle City Historical Museum has a black-and-white photo of the dedication ceremony. It shows then-Board of Education President Frank Fourqurean standing in front of a plaque that includes the school’s crest. Pictured with Fourqurean is Sarah Kate Abrams, who designed the crest.
Barbara McKeefery, curator of the museum, smiled while looking at the old photo. Frank Fourqurean is her late father. McKeefery’s ties to the old school run even deeper. She was second grade teacher in Sea Isle from 1976 to 1984, taking some time off in between those years for maternity leave.
While speaking of their cherished memories of the school, McKeefery, Thompson and Ostrander also mentioned the contributions to the school by Frank Dougherty, the former principal.
Dougherty was credited with reforming the school by creating sports programs and after-school programs for the students, among other achievements. He was also known for his strong support of the teachers.
“He was very hands-on with everybody. He supported the teachers,” Thompson said.
“He was a good man, a fair man,” McKeefery added. “He was a strong presence with the students.”
Dougherty died in 2022 at the age of 78.
Throughout the years, the school went through dramatically different phases. During the 1980s, modular trailers were added to accommodate what was then Sea Isle’s growing student population.
However, student enrollment plummeted in later years, ending in the school’s closure in 2012.
The old school got a second life in late 2012 when it became a temporary City Hall after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the city. The police department and other municipal offices moved into the school following severe damage to the old City Hall.
When Sea Isle’s new City Hall opened in 2015, the old school became largely empty again. Discussions began then about possibly repurposing the building or using the property to build a community recreation facility. Ultimately, the decision was made to demolish the building to create room for a new community center.
Now, giant excavators have begun tearing down the back of the school, methodically working their way to the front of the building.
By April, the building should be completely demolished and all of the rubble will be removed. For McKeefery, there is one consolation so far.
“They haven’t gotten to my old classroom yet,” she said of the demolition crews.