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Brenau Academy’s graduation leaves mixed feelings of nostalgia

School will change formats to become an early college institution

POSTED: May 24, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Emily Perry/For The Times

History and social studies teacher Deb Kroll, center, poses for a picture with graduate Kim Huynh, and her mother, Bui Thi Kim Tuyen Saturday after the tearful ceremony.

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On Saturday, amid the bright red roses and flowing white gowns, a tide of emotion flowed among Brenau Academy graduates, old and new.

To many, the 2011 graduation ceremony of the girls’ preparatory school marked the end of an era since the academy has announced its plans to revamp its program.

"I think that today, the hardest part was seeing the underclassmen and knowing that they aren’t going to be able to finish their high school career here," said Austin McCord, a 2007 graduate of the academy who attended the ceremony. "It’s not fair. I think that there are things that could’ve happened to keep it open, to keep the tradition going."

Last December, the board of trustees approved a recommendation that the academy no longer offer students traditional high school-level courses, but instead, allow them to attend Brenau University’s classes in order to graduate.

Lenna Applebee, assistant dean of the academy, said that for the coming school year, most things will remain the same for students. "The dorms are not going away. Graduation will take place at least one more year. We want to maintain the traditions. We’re figuring out how that’s actually going to look."

During its 83 years in existence, Brenau Academy has offered a range of learning opportunities to girls from around the world. One of the advantages it has given to students is a place to perfect language skills.

Kim Huynh, an 18-year-old from Vietnam, and one of the nine members of the graduating class, said she has gained command of English at the academy.

Huynh, who plans to attend Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, said living at the academy extended her family. "I was born in a family of two brothers. I don’t have any sisters and came here. It’s not only one, I have a lot of sisters."

She said that she has seen former seniors visit the academy in previous years, but with the coming changes, "Next year, I will not have that opportunity. I cannot come back here to my classroom, my locker ... I feel sad."

McCord, who came to the academy from Tallahassee, Fla., wanted to go to Brenau from an early age. When she was in elementary school she submitted her first application. "I wrote it myself. I attached my third-grade school picture and sent it in."

"I’m sad to see that other girls aren’t going to be able to experience the same lifestyle that Brenau gives you. There’s something very special about living with 45 girls. Especially when you’re 14 years old," she said. "You just become family."

Since next year’s students will be taking college courses from the university, the academy’s faculty and staff will no longer be a part of the school.

"Change is difficult and it’s kind of bittersweet," said Joye Fuller, the Learning Center director. Fuller, who has been a part of Brenau since 2001, said initially, she was only going to be there one year. "And you see what happens," she said.

"It’s still not real that it’s closing. And it’s too bad. It’s such an offering for the community. I guess times change."

Alumni Olivia Pratt, who graduated as a third-year senior in 1997, said her experience at the boarding school had been a great opportunity for her. Pratt, who came to the academy from Vidalia, said it was her "home away from home."

She learned to be an individual and was well prepared for college. "You’ll hear it over and over; ‘didn’t get along with the parents, came here and had a great experience, started getting along with the parents because of that,’" she said.

"Of course, I’m sad to see Brenau Academy change but I understand finances change."

"To me, the thing that makes Brenau, or made Brenau Academy unique and special was really the relationships and the bonds," said R. Marine Turner, a Hall County resident who attended the academy for three years in the early ’90s.

"The girls that I went to school with truly are sisters. They’re people that even 15 years later, I still call them friends."

Turner said she is concerned about the change in the academy. "They sent us a letter shortly after Christmas, and the way it was phrased it was very vague, very ‘politic.’ You couldn’t understand what they were saying in it," she said. "It took me and another alumnus going over it with a fine-tooth comb to (understand that) it sounds like they’re closing the school.

"I feel like the school let us down, that they didn’t invest in the academy and they didn’t try harder. I’ve never once seen any kind of ad campaign anywhere in this area for the academy," Turner said.

The tremendous impact the academy has had on the individuals who have attended was obvious Saturday.

Julia Grischenko, a 1995 graduate, came from the Ukraine to attend the academy. Her parents wanted to send her to the U.S. to get a better command of the English language.

Grischenko came to Saturday’s graduation, which is known as the Red Rose Ceremony, not only to see fellow alumni, but to take her 16-year-old sister, who is a junior at the academy, home with her. She said her sister will not return for the new program next year.

Deb Kroll, who grew up in Gainesville and whose family has been associated with Brenau since the 1890s, taught all the history, government and economics classes for 15 years.

She said she had hoped to remain at Brenau until she retired. "This is a wonderful school, and this place has always had so much potential. But the university just didn’t put its priorities into the academy.

"The teachers have been really dedicated to teaching these kids as if we were all coming back next year," Kroll said. "We’re losing our colleagues, our friends."

Kroll has connected with some of her former students on Facebook. "They tell me, ‘Ms. Kroll, Brenau changed my life.’"

"It’s hard to know that all the photos and memorabilia are just going to be put away in a storage unit. Those pictures aren’t just pictures, they’re little girls’ lives," McCord said.

"I think that it’s something that shouldn’t be lost. Especially in a great town like Gainesville. Gainesville is Brenau and Brenau is Gainesville. And the academy has been here for years. It’s hard to see it disappear and that one day, no one will even know what Brenau Academy is. Or was."

 



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