ST. THOMAS, N.D. — The writing has been on the wall for decades that St. Thomas Public School was destined for closure.

The number of names under the composite photographs of graduating seniors has dwindled from three dozen in 1968 to just three this year, the school’s 2021 — and last — graduating class.

The final day of St. Thomas Public School is May 26. After classes end that day, the school will permanently close May 27 after holding its last graduation ceremony.

St. Thomas Public School District, formed in 1882, rebuilt the school in 1923 after a fire destroyed the original building. At its peak in 1959, the school boasted an enrollment of 325 students. Today, the town — north of Grafton, in northeast North Dakota — has a total population of around 300.

The fate of the 90-year-old school building is undecided. Some of the contents will be sold and the money will be donated to a scholarship fund for students. Other things, such as trophies, will be given to area museums. Meanwhile, a book called "St. Thomas: The Final Curtain Call" will soon be available; it will include the names and pictures of graduating classes, along with a brief history of the school.

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Like many rural schools across the United States, enrollment at St. Thomas Public School dropped as the number of nearby farms declined.

Enrollment gradually declined over the years but dropped sharply during the past five, resulting in the decision in February 2020 to reorganize the school district and shutter the building.

Next semester, most of the students who went to the St. Thomas School during the 2020-21 school year will go to Grafton Public Schools. A few will be enrolled at Valley-Edinburg and Drayton, said Kevin Beaudoin, St. Thomas Public School principal.

Beaudoin, who has worked at the St. Thomas school for the past 11 years and been principal there for the past six, was unsure as recently as four years ago whether closing was the right thing to do, he said. But a recent dramatic drop in enrollment changed his mind.

This year, enrollment is 36, about two-thirds less than it was just four years ago, Beaudoin said. While St Thomas Public School teaches core subjects and students can take classes it doesn’t offer through interactive television or distance education, they do miss out on social interaction, he said.

For example, some students, like his daughter in fifth grade and his son in first grade, don’t have any friends of the same gender in their classrooms, though both are combined with another grade.

This fall, that will change when Beaudoin and his family move to Hatton, N.D., where he will be superintendent at Hatton Eielson Public School.

“My daughter is excited she will have another girl to play with. My son is excited he will have another boy to play with,” Beaudoin said.

St. Thomas elementary teacher Kerri Lopez discusses a lesson with her kindergarten and first graders, May 17, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
St. Thomas elementary teacher Kerri Lopez discusses a lesson with her kindergarten and first graders, May 17, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

On the flip side, the small size of St. Thomas Public School — the "big" classes have as few as six students — also has resulted in opportunities for students that might not be available at larger schools, he said.

For example, small class sizes benefit students because teachers can give individual instruction.

“You can help them when they need help and push when they need to be pushed,” Beaudoin said.

Kerri Lopez teaches two first-graders in a combined classroom that also has four kindergarten students. It's a unique environment, she said.

“It’s really easy to keep their attention because there are so few of them, and you can see every one of them," Lopez said. “I like the smallness of it – it’s more of a family feel. The kids get to know each other like siblings.”

Beaudoin won’t be surprised if there are tears shed by students and staff when the school’s doors permanently close.

However, he said, they have been preparing for that day since the beginning of the school year, when they adopted a motto: “Things end, but moments last forever.”

“It’s bittersweet,” Beaudoin said.