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Washington Elementary School in Billings hosts emotional last-day celebration

Julie Wilkinson posing for photos with students
Posted at 5:06 PM, May 31, 2024

BILLINGS — The final school bell rang at Washington Elementary School Friday afternoon, signaling the end of an era.

Next fall, the school will turn into the Washington Innovation Center, and two of Billings School District 2’s three new charter high schools will take over the building.

Friday was a day of celebration and mixed emotions at the school.

"It's been special," said Julie Wilkinson, the secretary at Washington, on Friday. "It has been really special with them seeing the growth and what the teachers have done with these kids."

Julie Wilkinson posing for photos with students
Julie Wilkinson posing for photos with students

More than 100 current students will be dispersed to three other nearby schools: Broadwater, Newman and Miles.

"Every school that accepts these kids and the staff that are getting these new schools, all of them are going to be very blessed because these are excellent teachers," said Sue Runkle, a retired School District 2 employee who worked at Washington, on Friday. "It truly was a Washington family. It's really hard when you split up the family, but I can guarantee we'll still all be in touch."

Sue Runkle
Sue Runkle

Students, parents, and staff had a hard time saying goodbye to the school that’s been the bedrock of the neighborhood for 76 years.

"I'm excited for them. I really am. They're going on to their new schools. They'll have new adventures there," Wilkinson said. "They'll make new friends. They'll have some other classmates with them and they'll have new teachers to make those memories with."

Plaque honoring Washington Elementary staff and students
Plaque honoring Washington Elementary staff and students

Wilkinson had been the school’s secretary for the past 26 years. The school planted and dedicated a tree out front to honor her commitment.

"Right now, I've been assigned to Bench (Elementary School), but there could be some changes there," Wilkinson said. "There's some other elementary openings that I might go for. But I'm not leaving yet."

The tree dedicated to Julie Wilkinson
The tree dedicated to Julie Wilkinson

Runkle worked at Washington for 21 years with the staff that became her family.

"It's not only just the staff, it's their families. We have school carnivals and we have all of that. And not only do the staff members show up, but their families do," Runkle said. "We've been invited to weddings and there's been babies and graduations all the time."

As school was dismissed one last time Friday afternoon, parents and families gathered outside with signs of support and farewell.

A sign on the last day at Washington Elementary
A sign on the last day at Washington Elementary

"You just felt welcome. The smaller class sizes were a helpful thing. It's going to be hard leaving the Wolfpack (the school's mascot)," said Azia Huck, whose son attended Washington, on Friday. "I think teachers know that we appreciate them and care for them. They did a lot for us."

Azia Huck holding up her signs
Azia Huck holding up her signs

Wilkinson asked Huck to reach out to other parents and bring the signs to show their appreciation to the staff.

"Hopefully everybody enjoyed it," said Huck. "Best of luck and best wishes to all of you on your new endeavors. And just know that we'll always be a part of the Wolfpack."

It was a way to help students and staff transition to what will soon be a new reality.

Another sign made by a parent at Washington
Another sign made by a parent at Washington

"It's truly been a blessing. I've said that over and over," Wilkinson said. "It has been a blessing to work with them, to be with these kids, the families. It is a community. We have a community here."

To learn more about Washington Elementary's closure, click here.