Hundreds of students at Mesa’s Lowell Elementary School lined up in the campus courtyard Wednesday, standing in the hot sun to receive cupcakes and sing “The Happy Birthday Song.”
But the song wasn’t for a classmate or a teacher. It was for their school, which first opened in the 1956-57 school year.
“It’s for 50 years of learning,” said Nicolas Calderon, 7, his chin speckled with cupcake sprinkles, as he read the phrase that was printed on special T-shirts given to the students.
“The school is the hub of the community. We really wanted to celebrate the difference this school has made in the community over the last 50 years,” said principal Sandi Kuhn.
Nicolas’ first-grade teacher, Emilie Jones, helped organize the celebration, which was full of alumni visits, a talent show, games and an evening science fair.
Jones has a special connection to the school: Her father, Rondal Jones, attended Lowell as a first-grader in 1961. Jones visited some classes Wednesday morning to talk about the things that have changed since he attended the school. It was smaller then, he said, and they didn’t have computers, a library or a cafeteria.
There’s a more fundamental change, too. The students that fill his daughter’s classroom come from a community that has changed much since he grew up in it.
“Our Hispanic clientele has gone up,” said Patty Henry, a second-grade teacher who has worked at Lowell for 22 years. “When I started, we had 80 kids in (English as a Second Language classes). By my fourth year, it was 186. Now we don’t even have pull-out classes for them anymore because there wouldn’t be anyone anywhere else ... It’s still great. I wouldn’t change it. I love the community, I love the parents. We have more kids coming not speaking English, but they’re bright kids. They’re quick to pick things up.”
Data from the Mesa Unified School District shows that, in 1979, 99 percent of Lowell students spoke English as their primary language; now, just 21 percent do.
The school’s health assistant, Pam Jones has seen a lot of changes, too, since she arrived at Lowell 21 years ago.
She explained that the school’s neighborhood used to be a predominantly middleclass neighborhood, but now many children come from lowincome backgrounds.
“The needs of the children have changed. Now there are more children without insurance or without family doctors. They come to the nurse’s office more as a triage, and if there’s a need, we refer them,” Jones said.
As instructional assistants, Nanci Crider and Marla Blum — who were classmates at Lowell in the 1960s — said they’ve noticed the changes in curriculum since the school’s early years. For example, Blum said, today there’s not as much emphasis on penmanship. Crider said math lessons are more in-depth than they used to be, too.
“We didn’t get algebra until junior high back then,” she said. “Now they start to get it in fifth-grade.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, the women said, is the school’s focus.
“It was a family-oriented community then,” Crider said, “and it is now.”