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Kyle Wendland (left) and Halie Spessard will be among the last seniors to graduate from Round Lake High School tonight. Both represent the fourth generation of their family to graduate from the small-town school. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

The last graduation

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Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

ROUND LAKE -- After 93 years, Round Lake will host its final graduation ceremony this evening.

School officials decided earlier this year to close the high school due to declining enrollments. Brewster, paired with Round Lake for the past 28 years, will continue to operate an elementary school and voters in June will decide on a consolidation plan to offer seventh- and eighth-grade classes at Brewster.

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Twenty-one graduates will accept their diploma tonight -- among them Kyle Wendland and Halie Spessard, each representing the fourth generation of their family to graduate from this small-town school.

Spessard's great-grandmother, Ruth Thorn, graduated from Round Lake High School in 1942. Her son, Jack Spessard, finished in 1963, and her grandson, Steve Spessard, was a Class of 1981 grad. Meanwhile, on her maternal side, Spessard's mom, Janine Jansen, graduated in 1983, and her grandparents, Ardis Nystrom and Vern Jansen, graduated in 1957 and 1955, respectively. Spessard's great-grandma, Georgia Saxon, even taught in the school at one time.

Wendland's great-grandfather, Charles "Chub" Ling, earned his Round Lake High diploma in 1935. His son, Gary Ling, followed suit in 1958; and granddaughter Pam in 1986.

"There aren't many people that can say they've done that," said Wendland, the oldest of Pam and Brad Wendland's two children. "So many people graduate from a small town and then move away."

That, Wendland said, is why the school, offering grades 7-12, has seen enrollment decline.

"There just aren't enough students," he said.

Closure of the school has been difficult for many, from students to teachers and staff. Both Wendland and Spessard sympathize with the underclassmen -- particularly the eight juniors and 18 sophomores.

"You grow up the whole time in your school and then, to not have it be there for you, it's hard," Wendland said. "It's hard on the town, too."

"(The underclassmen) talk about how they all want to graduate together and now they can't," Spessard added. "They're all getting separated."

According to the grads, underclassmen are choosing Harris-Lake Park (Iowa) High, located about 16 miles from Round Lake, as well as Southwest Star Concept in Okabena, a 22-mile drive, or Worthington High, which is 13 miles from Round Lake.

"Most of the students will either go to Lake Park or SSC next year," said Wendland, adding that the junior class is trying to stay together.

His younger sister, Kailey, a sophomore, hasn't yet decided which school she will attend.

Rumors equal demise?

Wendland, whose mom serves as president of the Round Lake School Board, said rumors about the potential closure of the high school have been ongoing for years.

"We've heard for five years that Round Lake is closing 'next year,' so families took their kids out and put them in Worthington or Okabena," Wendland said.

Those same rumors surfaced in the 1980s.

"They had already looked at closing then, but they just decided to wait it out and see how long it could go. They thought five, maybe 10 years," Wendland said. "It's an absolute miracle that it's lasted this long."

With the exception of the junior class, Wendland said enrollment was on the rise in every other grade -- some had as many as 30 students.

Valued education

Spessard served as Student Council vice-president this year. She was active in Partners in Prevention, FCCLA and trap shooting (paired with Worthington), and helped lead the Courage and Respect retreats for underclassmen.

This fall, she will attend Ridgewater College in Hutchinson to pursue a degree in early childhood education. She hopes to one day teach preschool or kindergarten.

Wendland, in addition to being senior class president, is a member of the National Honor Society and school band, and participated in basketball and golf. This fall, he will begin his studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, majoring in engineering physics.

Throughout his high school years, Wendland took advantage of a school partnership with Minnesota West Community and Technical College, enrolling in college-level chemistry, sociology, psychology and physics -- classes taught by his high school teachers.

"I think you just get so much better an education when the student-to-faculty ratio is much smaller like what we have," Wendland said. "I know, easily, every single person's name in the building. You just don't get that intimacy in a big school."

A year of lasts

While high school seniors everywhere experience their last basketball game, their last band concert and their last prom, it has been a "year of lasts" for all of the students at Round Lake's high school.

"It makes it really hard to think of the last of everything happening here," Wendland said.

It's difficult for the parents, too.

"That was my thought when we were at prom with her," said Steve Spessard of his daughter. "This is her last prom dance, the last anything at the school.

"My dad, Jack, was the last Wildcat to graduate, I was the last Thunderbird to graduate, and then they went to the Raiders. Halie will be the last Raider," he added.

"Technically, we're the last Wildcats, since we combined (with Southwest Star Concept for sports)," his daughter corrected.

Halie Spessard will be the last in a long line of Spessards to attend school in Round Lake. In fact, there has been a Spessard enrolled in Round Lake-Brewster schools every year since 1949.

Wendland said, as seniors, they had hoped to come back to the school for future ballgames or to walk the halls and "see what's changed," but that can't happen now.

"No one in this building is going to have that opportunity -- you just have to enjoy it while it lasts," he said.

In late April, the 21-member senior class traveled to Washington, D.C., for a combined educational experience and last hurrah. Many of the students have been in class together since kindergarten. They toured the U.S. Capitol, monuments, Smithsonian exhibits and the Holocaust Museum.

Juniors and sophomores, who saved up for a senior trip of their own, used their funds to visit the Twin Cities.

It isn't yet known what will happen to the high school building in Round Lake. Over the years, the building's gym and fitness center have been opened for community use.

"When people think of a school that's closing, they think of a run-down little junk hole," Wendland said.

That is not the case here.

"We have two PC labs, iPads, smart boards and everything that every other school has -- it's just that there's not enough kids here," he added.

Just as the graduating seniors contemplate their future, the underclassmen are seeking out a new school, and the teachers and staff have to do the same. Some teachers will transition to Brewster, if voters approve a consolidation, and the band teacher has accepted a position with Adrian Public School.

Memories abound

As he put the finishing touches on his graduation speech a week ago, Wendland reflected on his high school career and the memories made.

"I'm just really grateful that I was able to finish my high school career with such great people here," he said. "I think memories are the best things you can have from the school."

Spessard agreed, saying she will miss "all of the fun times we had playing pranks on the teachers and hanging out with friends.

"I'll miss all of the teachers and the good times we had there," she added.

Round Lake's graduation ceremony is at 7 p.m. today in the high school gymnasium. Graduates anticipate seeing a large crowd of former alumni in attendance.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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