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Column: Adding a final chapter to Worthington schools' history

Editor’s note: The first portion of this historical account of Worthington’s schools appeared in the March 22 Daily Globe “A Sense of Community” edition. A second portion appeared in the March 26 edition; this is the final segment.

WORTHINGTON —Worthington’s Clary Street high school is “fine, but not distinctive.” District 518’s next project, the community’s first middle school, on the north end of Crailsheim Drive, shares this description, save that it does have a single distinction — it resembles a bunker.

The middle school came with the 1970s and with America’s first great wave of concern for conserving energy. Architects were pressed to recommend buildings having walls with minimum exposure to the air and with as few windows as possible. The middle school was a model for its time. It is thought to be the most energy-efficient of Worthington’s school buildings.

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Within months after settlers began arriving on the Worthington townsite, classes were being conducted. This dedication to educating young people has never waned. The spirit of doing whatever is necessary to educate youths is reflected in the Christian schools Worthington residents have maintained through more than half-a-century.

One thing noteworthy: those who support the Christian schools have always been willing to pay the price. They pay taxes — the same taxes as other residents of the school district. In addition, they pay for the support of their special schools.

St. Mary’s School on 12th Street is a monument to Father Stanley Hale, who believed a Catholic education was a necessary part of education for youths. Father Hale moved his congregants to build and maintain a school.

A now-familiar name recurs. Julia Hyland, Worthington High School Class of 1889. Julia Highland, principal at Worthington’s Normal School in the third floor of the Castle School. Julia Hyland, benefactor of St. Mary’s School. The gymnasium at St. Mary’s school is named Hyland Gymnasium as a memorial to Julia Hyland’s generous bequest and her life of dedication to educating young people at Worthington.

Worthington Christian School was built, to begin with, under the auspices of the Worthington Christian Reformed congregation and it was located, to begin with, on Johnson Avenue in the building now occupied by Kids-R-It child care center and pre-school program.

Enrollment at Worthington Christian swelled. Support broadened. In the passing of years it became necessary to build a new and expanded school, the school that now is located beside a scenic turn-around on Eleanor Street on Worthington’s north side.

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The spirit that created Worthington Junior College amid the Great Depression, the spirit of Worthington area citizens resolved to provide what was needed for the education of their children — that spirit did not die.

The basic, central building in the Worthington Community College complex on the south side of Collegeway — that building was built by citizens of District 518. The 1909 high school, with its WJC wing was coming down. What of the Junior College? Would this be its end?

Focus must turn on W. Donald Olsen, WJC’s longtime dean. Olsen became a skilled lobbyist; he emerged as a leader for Minnesota citizens who were seeking state aid for junior college students all across Minnesota. State government had come to provide aid for K-12 students and for college students at the state-owned schools of higher learning, from the teacher colleges to the university. Junior college students were overlooked. With sturdy resolution, Dean Olsen and his allies returned to legislative sessions again and again and earned support for all those enrolled in the state junior colleges.

Worthington came to a crossroads. It appeared — but this was not certain — it appeared the State of Minnesota would assume responsibility for the support of junior colleges, just as it did for all other colleges in the state. Worthington could not wait for a decision. It was not possible to continue a junior college in a wing of a building that was coming down. It was not possible to continue a junior college with no heating plant. It was urgent that WJC have an expanded library.

What to do? Building a new college would be costly. It was not yet certain this was an expense that would be underwritten by state government. The issue was put on a ballot.

Once again, Worthington voted to build a college facility. If ultimately it became a state facility, fine. Most certainly. But if not, District 518 was committed by ballot to build a college.

As history unrolled, the State of Minnesota did assume District 518’s bonding obligation and make the community college at Worthington a state institution. But voters did not know this for certain when they cast their ballots.

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Southwest Sanatorium, a short distance south of Lake Okabena — Southwest, one of Minnesota’s tuberculosis sanatoriums, was closing, as were TB sanatoriums through all the world. The TB plague had been contained. Methods of treatment had changed.

What to do with Worthington’s San?

It was a time — the 1960s — when education of children with severe physical handicaps was largely neglected. Minnesota had no facility for these children.

Nobles County’s first librarian, Rep. Wayne Bassett, spearheaded a successful effort in the Minnesota Legislature to transform the Worthington sanatorium into — an unfortunate name — The Crippled Children’s School, a resident school. Kids were brought to the remodeled facility from throughout the state. And it came to be called Lakeview School.

The school flourished. It was greatly needed. But public demand was requiring widened efforts for the education of children with handicaps. Both the state itself and school districts throughout the state began to offer programs for students with special needs. Ultimately Lakeview School was closed and the buildings on the campus razed. In its years of operation Lakeview performed a great service for Minnesotans, and it reflected clearly Worthington’s ongoing resolve to provide for the education of young people.

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There have been many of them. Schools at Worthington. After a long, futile effort to find a tenant for Central Elementary school — The Grade School — the building was finally razed.

The new elementary facility — Prairie Elementary, along First Avenue Southwest — is a building set on a distinctive location. Although it is not clear that everyone through Minnesota measured the square feet of their school facilities, it is thought that when Prairie Elementary opened it was Minnesota’s largest elementary school by square feet. The surprise soon was that Prairie Elementary was not large enough. Worthington’s populations bulged to nearly 13,000 — the U.S. Census Bureau created what it terms the Worthington Micropolitan Area, with a population of nearly 21,000. Worthington no longer has a school plant adequate for its (about) 3,000-strong student body. Observers have judged, “It is clear Worthington needs a new school building.”