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Farewell to Kensington

Former students reflect on ‘good old days’ ahead of school’s demolition

Grand Rapids — Windows boarded up, graffiti-marked walls, surfaces caked in dust — none of it dampened the nostalgia during a final tour of the former Kensington school building recently.  

The long-vacant, nearly 100-year-old facility once housed Kensington Elementary School, then Adelante High School. Since closing, it’s become a safety concern after break-ins and vandalism. In May, the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education approved moving forward with the demolition.

Before that happens, the district gave former students and community members a chance to say their goodbyes.

Sharon Fye, who attended Kensington from kindergarten through sixth grade in the ’60s, felt wistful during the walkthrough. 

“It sort of hurts, really,” Fye said. “There’s so many memories. … This is where we all gathered to play baseball, softball, kickball. … We all knew each other, throughout the whole neighborhood.”

Kensington was a formative spot for Fye and her peers, she said, and the school fostered a tight-knit community in the Black Hills neighborhood.

“A lot of our growing up was right here. We just loved it. We couldn’t have found a better place,” she said. “Everyone up on the hill was close.”

Jo Ellen Ford Nickels, who started at Kensington in 1949, said her appreciation for the building itself has blossomed over time.

“As an adult, seeing the architecture on the outside, I go, ‘Oh my word,’” she said. “As a kid, you just don’t think of it.”

Nor did she think, at the time, of the quaintness of the amenities. 

“How simple a playground we had. A swingset, teeter-totters and a sandbox. We played kickball. We didn’t need all of what they’ve got (today).”

She’s not a fan of the graffiti, but she said it was nice to be back, remembering the “good old days.”

What’s Next

GRPS plans to transform the property into a park-like space for the community once the building is demolished. Fye and Nickels both said they’re fine with that, as long as it’s used responsibly.

‘A lot of our growing up was right here. We just loved it. We couldn’t have found a better place.’

— Sharon Fye, former Kensington student

“Once we bring the building down, we’re going to reestablish the grounds here and make it into green space,” said Alex Smart, executive director of facilities and operations at GRPS. “In the spring we’re going to plant some Michigan native wildflowers on the footprint where the building is, toward the back.”

A new basketball court is in the cards, too, Smart said, “for the community, so they can come in and play.”

About 400 people attended the farewell event, according to the statement from GRPS.

“We did not anticipate this number of people,” Smart said.

The process of taking down the former Kensington building will start later this month, according to GRPS.

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Ottawa Hills football team earns grant from Detroit Lions
Making learning ‘as local as we can’

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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