By MARINA WATERS
There’s one towering pine tree standing next to Fall Branch School, but in a few years, two more will grow roots and stand tall alongside it.
The same could be said for the 25 students who transferred to Fall Branch School this year after West Pines Elementary in Greene County closed. In honor of those new Fall Branch students, the school planted two pine trees during a ceremony on Friday.
“We had the opportunity this year to welcome about 25 students from West Pines in Greene County,” Fall Branch Principal Mark Merriman said. “We’re a community school and we’re sad to hear that West Pines had to close, but it’s our pleasure to welcome 25 students.
“Since the beginning of the school year, we’ve made opportunities for our teachers to get to know them and for other students to welcome them. It’s been a wonderful blending of different school communities.”
To help acclimate the new students, who each took turns shoveling dirt into the holes for the new trees, Merriman said he met the new families and visited West Pines before its closure. That’s when the idea for the tree planting ceremony was born.
“One of the things I recognized when I drove out to West Pines about two months ago when I heard the unfortunate news is out front of West Pines is a whole grove of pine trees,” Merriman said. “I thought it would be really special for our students to drive by Fall Branch in 20 to 30 years and see some pine trees that they planted and remember Fall Branch fondly as a time that, even though their school closed, they started a new journey with us in Cardinal country.”
Each former West Pines student shared what they missed most from their old school with the crowd. Mentions of old friends and teachers were quietly shared into the microphone as the two trees were planted on the Fall Branch campus.
“My biggest hope is that the students understand that even though one journey ends at one school, a new one has begun and they will always have a place at Fall Branch,” Merriman said. “Like all community schools, we’re all in this together. That’s what we wanted to do with planting the pine trees today.”
Small schools such as Fall Branch share that fear of closure, but Merriman said he felt the small but mighty school at the corner of Washington County had enough support from the community and the county to keep its doors open for years to come.
“I’m very fortunate and blessed to be in a school community where we don’t really worry about closure,” Merriman said. “The Washington County Commission invested $90,000 in our beautiful new parking lot a few years ago and we’ve have a $15,000 security update. I welcomed three new teachers to the staff this year due to the influx. I don’t see any future in us closing any time soon.”
Whether a student is born and raised in Washington County or from any of the neighboring counties that are just a short drive from the school, Merriman said the school welcomes any students into the small but supportive Fall Branch community.
“One of the things the parents tell us at Fall Branch is that we’re one of the best kept secrets in Washington County,” Merriman said. “It’s a public school that feels like a private school in that most of our classes are kept at really low student to teacher ratios. We’re also in a beautiful 80-year-old building that’s been well-maintained. And we’ve had 150 years in this community, so we’re one of the most established schools in this area.”