Aaron Shoemaker doesn't have to look.
His feet know where to fall, where to lead. Down the well-worn footpaths, up the old concrete stairs, through the gate and the open field, and finally to the paths that lead to the football field. Decades of kids before him have known these paths, too. They have traced them to attend football games or practices, or to head back to class after PE.
But when school lets out this summer, Wasson High School will begin a new path. And kids like 17-year-old Aaron won't be there.
Under the direction of the Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education, Wasson High School will close at the end of the year, and be reborn next school year as a hub for the district's alternative, early college and tech programs.
Aaron likely would have been captain of the football team next year. Now he and his classmates will have to find other schools.
"Some things [have] been difficult," Aaron says. "I wish they'd have kept Wasson open, just because it is the right size of classrooms, there's not too many students in them. And as far as athletics go, a lot of fun happened and a lot of camaraderie with the people you meet."
Leaving Wasson as he's heading into his senior year means that Aaron won't get a chance to beat rival Mitchell High School in his senior-year football game. He won't know the other kids on his track team. And he may lose the Navy ROTC scholarship he was hoping would put him through college.
D-11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich, who led the charge to close three schools, including Wasson and two elementary schools, will now have to decide how to help uprooted kids like Aaron. "Imagine how difficult that is for a student right now to swallow," Gledich says. "It's not easy."
Aaron says he always knew Wasson was in danger of closing. He came anyway.
Going to Wasson, and playing Wasson football, is a family tradition. Aaron's older brother played, as did his father. Their pictures and trophies are still scattered around the school.
That may be part of why Aaron stayed at Wasson this year, even though he was beginning to feel that the school would certainly close soon. The other reason was that he believed the district had made a commitment.
"They've talked about [closing] for several years, [but] they also talked about the five-year plan," Aaron says. "I would have already graduated [by the time Wasson closed] if they'd have stuck to that plan."
Gledich says the record clearly shows that no promise was made to keep Wasson open for a specific length of time. But there's also no doubt that the board discussed a five-year plan for Wasson in 2009. And Aaron says a lot of his classmates counted on that.
Now, Aaron's not sure where he's going to school. He may go to whatever D-11 school ends up hosting the Navy ROTC program — that would allow him to possibly get that scholarship and pursue an engineering degree in college. Eventually, he hopes to be a Navy SEAL.
"All you can really do is find your best option and just act on it," he says.
While Aaron, a quiet and serious boy, seems to have accepted that Wasson will soon be gone, his mother, Elaine, is still cringing.
"Wasson is a different kind of school," she says. "The kids are so accepting of each other. And you hear testimony after testimony of kids saying, 'You know what? I would have been to jail, but I came to Wasson.'"
Under Gledich's instruction, the district's remaining four high school principals have been meeting to decide how best to welcome Wasson's kids, as well as kids who may have to switch high schools when D-11 changes boundaries later this month.
The district plans to offer Wasson kids individualized attention from staff and counselors to aid in their transition. Other ideas include leaving spots open on sports teams, in school clubs, and in student government. There's talk of allowing Wasson kids to graduate with a Wasson diploma and cap and gown, and finding a way to honor those who would have been Wasson's Class of 2014 valedictorian and salutatorian. Spring meet-and-greets, open houses and special welcoming days are also in the works.
"When you close a school or you re-boundary a school, what you're doing is you're merging cultures together," Gledich says. "And you have to have a plan in place so that new cultures are accepted."
One of the principals who's been planning for the change is Dennis Vigil, principal of Doherty High School. He says he also had to switch high schools as a teen, so he understands how Wasson's kids feel. The district, he says, is working to make sure Wasson kids get their first choice of the remaining high schools, and that they feel comfortable.
"We're going to do what we can to make sure all of those kids are welcomed," he says.
Aaron says he thinks the district can help with the adjustment, and he hopes it follows through on all the things that have been talked about. But after watching what happened with Wasson, he's skeptical: "I'll believe it when I see it."