By Jillian Kurtz
Sixty-five years after opening in 1956, Orchard Park Elementary welcomed the community a final time Sept. 19 for a tribute celebration of the now-closed school.
Orchard Park Elementary, the oldest campus in Carmel Clay Schools, permanently closed at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Hundreds of former students, parents, teachers and administrators from several generations gathered at the event to celebrate and remember Orchard Park.
Glenda Pilcher was the president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Orchard Park from 1973 to 1974.
“I have always enjoyed this school and all the great memories that my children have experienced — spelling bees, the fall festival, all sorts of things,” Pilcher said. “I feel sad that the building is not going to be housed as a school anymore.”
Pilcher’s second son had open heart surgery while he attended Orchard Park. She recalled how understanding the teachers were during the difficult time for the family.
“The kids sent him cards,” Pilcher said. “That was a good memory.”
Rhonda Turner, the final principal of Orchard Park, held back tears while speaking about the closing of the school.
“I just feel really honored to be a part of the legacy of Orchard Park,” said Turner, who is now principal at Clay Center Elementary.
All three of Turner’s children attended Orchard Park. Her son, Alex, played the guitar during the celebration.
“They all came K-5 here, and I feel really fortunate that got to happen,” Turner said. “I got to bring my kids to work, and they had such an awesome educational experience, but at the same time, the closing of their elementary, we won’t be able to come back and visit and that is sad for our family.”
Dr. Tim Phares started at Orchard Park in 2000 as a kindergarten teacher and left in 2010 after serving as principal for three years.
“I feel like I kind of grew up here, educationally,” Phares said. “The community-feel within this school was a very special thing. Just reflecting back and thinking about all the individuals that helped me along the way is something that I hope to do for younger educators as well.”
The KIndy 500 was one of Orchard Park’s long-standing traditions. Kindergarten students raced small tricycles around the parking lot of the school around the time of the Indy 500 each year.
“Every year at the KIndy 500, we would name a princess,” Phares said. “We would typically name it after someone retiring, and we would do it out back here. It was always a chilling experience seeing the whole school there. It was really cool to see all of us come together for a tradition, really like none other that I experienced at any other school.”
The Carmel school board voted in 2018 to close the building because of its age. A new school, Clay Center Elementary, opened this year 5 miles to the northwest.
The Orchard Park campus is set to be transformed into a park amenity in partnership with Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation. CCPR is conducting a feasibility study and will develop a master plan for the site.