Thursday was the last day of school for students of the Tamaqua Area School District.

Like in other school buildings, the teachers and students at Rush Elementary School, Hometown, spent time saying goodbye to each other.

At Rush, however, those farewells had an aura of finality about them. When classes reopen for the 2010-2011 school year, things will be much different there.

The school district is reorganizing its elementary classes. Rush, which currently houses students in kindergarten through grade five, will become a primary learning center this coming autumn for children in kindergarten and first grade.

Meanwhile, grades two through five are being moved from Rush to Tamaqua Elementary School. A third building, West Penn Elementary School, will remain for K-5 students.

While the move has its advantages, particularly in the formation of a safe, nurturing environment for K-1 students, parents of Rush Elementary students were taken aback by the plan, with some opposing it on the grounds that Rush is a close-knit neighborhood school, with its students regularly scoring higher on standardized tests than the district's other elementary schools.

To those who have taught there through the years, Rush remains a special place for its students, faculty and families.

"It is absolutely bittersweet," said Rochelle Evanousky, who has served as Rush's liaison teacher and has taught every grade from K-5 there. Evanousky is retiring after 31 years at Rush and has taught there since the building was remodeled in 1979. "I've enjoyed my time here, and I am looking forward to retirement.

"While this will be the same physical building and I will know the people here, it won't be the same K-5 as it is now. It will be odd to have all the little people here."

Evanousky, who taught at the former Pine Street School for three years before coming to Rush, is a former Tamaqua High School swimming coach and is in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. She still plans to officiate swim meets while she is retired, but she will miss the closeness of her colleagues and the students at Rush.

"There is a season for everything," said Evanousky. "We've had a close group of friends here. Over time, they have been like the brothers and sisters I never had.

"Rush has always been a friendly site and a neighborhood school. By the time they were getting to me in fifth grade, I already knew the students and their families. We also worked closely with RESA (the Rush Elementary School Association) over the years.

"There were some disadvantages to the smallness, such as if there were problems between students, you cannot separate them, but you did have self-contained classrooms. It's the only way I've known it since I was here."

Since Evanousky is retiring and the fifth grade class will move on to Tamaqua Area Middle School for sixth grade next year, this year's fifth grade at Rush will be the last under the current setup.

"It's a final thing for us, because we are going our separate ways," she stated.

Evanousky feels the students are beginning to accept the changes that are ahead for next year,

"The unknown can be really scary, but I feel they are accepting it," she related. "Adjustments take time. People are resistant to change, but over time, they can accept it. There are advantages to having the same grades together."

Evanousky has a lot of good memories from the school, including teaching her own daughter, Joelle, when she was a kindergarten student there.

"I have wonderful stories," she said. "When former students come up to me and tell me that I had them in class here, it's really special."

JoAnn Dobrosky has been teaching at Rush since 1985, previously having worked at the former North Ward School (located where St. Jerome's Church parking lot is now) and at Tamaqua Elementary. Next year, she will return to Tamaqua Elementary to teach third grade.

"It's very bittersweet for me, because the best years of my career have been spent here," said Dobrosky. "I will miss the camaraderie and friendships. We've all considered this to be like a Rush family. You really knew all the students in the school and their families. It was just a strong bond we share.

"These walls were full of great memories. We took care of each other here."

Dobrosky noted that she spotted a fifth grade student heading out to recess who stopped to tie the shoelaces of a first grader.

"That's what we've always tried to do here, help each other," she mentioned.

One good thing about Dobrosky's move back to Tamaqua Elementary is that she is close friends with her fellow third grade teachers there.

"I know I will be embraced down there," she remarked.

Like Evanousky, Dobrosky often hears from former students of hers. In fact, the district has hired some new teachers who were previously students of hers.

One thing Dobrosky will miss is the annual Christmas program put on by the Rush students for the residents of nearby Hometown Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

"I will always treasure my years at Rush," noted Dobrosky. "When I reflect back, it will always be a positive part of my career."

Like Dobrosky, Barb Herring will be teaching at Tamaqua Elementary next year. She remembers teaching in the former Tuscarora School, at a time when all of the district's sixth graders attended classes there. She also taught at West Penn before moving to the remodeled Rush Elementary in September 1979.

Herring recently read Laura Ingalls Wilder's book Little House in the Big Woods to her second grade class at Rush.

"Laura ends the book feeling content with her family and says to herself, 'It could never be a long time ago', said Herring. "I never expected to be leaving Rush Elementary School until I was ready to retire. This has been my family in my 'little school in the oak grove' and I have been content."

Herring has fond memories working with John Klees, who retired as the school's head teacher, as well as working with Evanousky when she took over that position.

"Our principal, Tom Ponting, respected their opinions and had confidence in their decisions," she said. "Mr. Ponting also had respect for his teachers and gave us the freedom to be a valued part of the educational team."

One of Herring's fondest memories was the year she spent teaching first grade with her son Michael in her class.

"I loved having him attend Rush Elementary for seven years," she said. "He was lucky enough to go there from kindergarten through sixth grade. He had wonderful teachers and great experiences.

Herring also recalled having a first-grade class with students Carla Baran and David Vitanovec that continued with her to second grade.

"That September we picked up right where we left off after summer vacation as if we just had a 'little break' like Christmas," she related.

Herring and colleague Cleo Baran also enjoyed the Rush Nature Center behind the school, working with the first- and second-grade students in expanding it beyond a bird feeder. She also worked with the RESA committee for 25 years to bring many enjoyable programs to the school for the children.

"I wish all the former and present students success in life, and I hope they will remember me and Rush Elementary School fondly," said Herring. "To paraphrase Laura Ingalls Wilder: 'this is now, it can never be a long time ago ..."