CHARTER OAK, Iowa | The senior year for the Charter Oak-Ute Class of 2017 started with a meeting. In the office of Superintendent Rollie Wiebers.
The topic: Saving Charter Oak-Ute High School.
"Our class voted at the start of the year to keep Charter Oak-Ute," said Madilyn Kessel, one of the top students in the Class of 2017.
School officials had surveyed the community and held discussions about entering a whole-grade sharing agreement with neighboring MVAO High School in Mapleton. It appeared this proverbial train was on the tracks steaming west and north away from Charter Oak, where Charter Oak-Ute High has operated since its formation in 1962.
"Our class wanted to keep our high school," Kissel remembered.
"A bunch of us came to Mr. Wiebers and said, 'What can we do to stop this? We said we'd help fund raise or do whatever we could,'" said Emily Steffen, another top student and, like Kessel, a CO-U graduate come Sunday.
Declining enrollment and state-aid "boosts" of zero to 1.1 percent have forced school administrators and boards of education across Iowa to examine whole-grade sharing and consolidation options. Wiebers noted Charter Oak-Ute educated 850 students when he was hired in 1979. The K-12 enrollment this year totaled 264 students, a loss of 586.
A whole-grade sharing pact was passed unanimously by school boards serving Charter Oak-Ute and MVAO in January. MVAO, incidentally, has seen its enrollment shrink by 178 students in the past decade.
"It (whole-grade sharing) did go through," Kassel said.
"It's the responsible thing to do, we know that," Steffen added.
Still, that meant their class had to be last, hence a motto for this group of 25 students: "Saving the Best for Last."
What's it like being in a class that serves as the closing credits for a 55-year high school institution? For two members, bittersweet. On Wednesday, Steffen and Kessel joined their classmates in graduation rehearsal in a gym where they've played sports, their horns and cheered their Bobcats squads to victory.
They followed that session with the traditional senior class photo in the parking lot, one choreographed by Adam Eggeling, high school principal, who had each student park his or her vehicle in a certain space in his effort to create the number "17."
After the photo was taken by English teacher Michael Kline, who perched atop the fire escape, students presented Eggeling wih a sheet of paper, their "sign-out list" that showed they'd met class requirements from each instructor.
Steffen, the daughter of Randy and Lisa Steffen of Charter Oak, will leave here to attend the University Iowa, as a pre-med major. Kessel, the daughter of Barb and Randy Kessel of Denison, Iowa, departs in three months for Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, where she'll study in biology.
First, though, there is a graduation on Sunday, last time they'll gather with their class in their school.
"I'm not speaking at graduation, because I'd cry," Steffen said.
"Four of us are going to speak," Kessel says. "We'll share memories of each person in the class and then we'll talk about the high expectations we'll have for our class."
The Class of 2017 represents a collection of high-achievers as 20 of the 25 students are ending high school with a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher.
As for these achievers? Kessel plans to become a chiropractor and work in Denison. Steffen hopes to work in anesthesiology, perhaps practicing in Iowa City. She has 33 hours of college credit already.
And while she recalled that fall meeting in Mr. Weibers' office, she credits the superintendent for making good on a pledge that allows her, the fifth member of her immediate family, to join the others in graduating from Charter Oak-Ute.
"My parents graduated from here in 1987 and 1988, and people talked then that they might be the last class," Steffen said. "Mr. Wiebers promised we'd graduate as Bobcats."
And on Sunday, they will. Most likely, the last Bobcats to do so.