The crowd grew a few at a time, gathering on the steps of South Park High School.
The band played upbeat tunes as students traded hugs and snapped selfies. Principal Theresa Schuta called all of the seniors to the front of the group for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting.
The gathering to welcome a new year is an annual tradition at the South Buffalo high school, but this time there were a few extra South Parkers in attendance. Generations of alumni returned Thursday morning to kick off South Park’s 100th anniversary celebration.
“I don’t normally get up this early, but I figured I’d give them a boost,” said Ginger Parker, who as a graduate of the Class of 1942 is one of the school’s oldest alumni.
Even as other Buffalo schools have opened and closed over the years, South Park continues to be a central part of the community it sits in.
And in an era where educators often struggle to find ways to help students feel connected to their school, Schuta believes South Park offers a lesson in engagement.
“They’re teaching educators to make connections with kids and make them feel like they belong to something,” Schuta said. “That’s what we do at South Park.”
“People assume because it’s a different generation that kids don’t appreciate a tie to their school,” she added. “We want them to have that. And I think South Park alumni know they’re part of it.”
This anniversary year, the school hopes to reinforce that connection.
Schuta knows a few things about school spirit and South Park pride. She graduated in 1978, and her love for the school inspired her to return as principal in 2009.
But even before her tenure as principal, she and teacher Margaret Hannon – the school’s unofficial historian – worked to create a strong network of alumni.
Several decades ago the pair asked the school for a list of alumni and was told that none existed. So they came up with their own, scouring old yearbooks and using public records to track down their classmates.
What started as an effort to find a few hundred people resulted in a 40,000-name directory of past students, with some notable names including baseball player Warren Spahn, opera singer Rose Bampton and actor Joseph Conley.
Since then, those alumni have become a key part of the school community. They finance a “spirit fund” that pays for student recognition prizes and events, such as a post-prom party. Hannon once put out a call for donations to fix up a memorial in front of the school. The dollars poured in.
South Park is also trying to locate and preserve artifacts from its history, including an original blackboard that was salvaged during a recent renovation project.
At that time, staff members had to empty their classrooms before construction could start. Hannon asked everyone to save anything that might be historic.
They found boxes of photos, old yearbooks and other memorabilia, all of which was salvaged and is now stored in an alumni room – a makeshift museum of sorts dedicated to the school’s history.
Someone even located an old photo of Schuta from her days as class president, standing alongside her principal, the superintendent and Jimmy Griffin.
School leaders hope they might instill that same sense of pride in today’s students. Incoming ninth-graders spent part of their freshman orientation researching each year of the school’s history.
“We’re part of history,” senior Deanna Chauby said Thursday, as she waited with her twin sister and other seniors for the ribbon-cutting.
The school is planning a number of events for students and alumni alike, including a homecoming football game and sweetheart dance for couples who met their spouses at South Park.
Alumnus Matthew Parsons is trying to identify graduates who have made notable contributions to society. The school will feature one of them each morning on the announcements and will compile them all into a presentation for the anniversary dinner in May.
“We’re really learning our history through this process,” Schuta said.