‘A place that never leaves you’: 40 graduating seniors return to Jackson Street elementary for celebration

Staff Writer

Published: 06-02-2023 9:14 AM


NORTHAMPTON — Heeding a call to return to the elementary school they left seven years ago, some 40 graduating high school seniors shared in the annual Jackson Street School graduate assembly Thursday afternoon.

Hosted by the kindergarten class and attended also by the fifth graders, who have their own ceremony later in the month, the tradition was started by former principal Gwen Agna in 2004 with her first fifth grade class. Agna, who retired in 2020 after 24 years as principal, returned to take part this year.

“It’s really a pleasure to be here,” Agna told the assembly. “I’m verklempt.”

Later, she said it was the largest group of seniors she’d ever known to come to the ceremony, and that some had come a distance to attend.

The seniors gathered in the hallway before the kindergartners were brought out and paired up with them for the procession into the gym. Cheers and applause from teachers, parents and others greeted them.

Among the guests were some dozen former teachers familiar to the high schoolers. Three had taught them in fifth grade, and remembrance was shared of a fourth, Paula Welchman, who died in the middle of the seniors’ fifth grade year.

“I know your last year here was impossibly hard,” Principal Lauren Brown said to the seniors in her introduction.

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Kieran Slattery, who still teaches at Jackson Street, co-taught with Welchman that year and shared memories and the things that continue to bring her to mind.

“I feel her presence every day in the classroom,” Slattery said.

That June, at the end of their fifth grade year, the class organized a team, Team Welchman, to walk in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and held a luminary remembrance for her at Look Park.

One by one, the seniors then introduced themselves, spoke of their immediate plans — college for many, the armed forces or a gap year for some — and shared their favorite memories of Jackson Street — the talent show, playing in the woods, soccer during recess, playing four square, watching the World Cup — to cheers and applause.

The kindergartners stood to perform a song, “This Little Light of Mine,” and presented the grads with a rose and 13 Hershey’s Kisses each for each year they were in school.

“This is a place that never leaves you,” Brown told the group. “You’ll always have a home here.”