Saving the grove

(First published in the December 19, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Merrill Area Public Schools considers closing Maple Grove Elementary, but supporters say it’s a rare gem and a model other schools should mimic


A little red school house in continual use since 1904 could be closed under a Merrill school district plan.

When children at Maple Grove Charter elementary school go outside to play for recess, they’re outdoors in the most literal way: There’s about 20 acres of woods adjoining the school the kids can roam in. Children collect sap to make maple syrup, grow vegetables in a garden outside and hydroponics inside, and snowshoe around the forest’s trails. There are chickens outside in a coop painted red, just like the school itself.

Now that school system is under threat. The Merrill Area Public School district’s Human Resources and Finance Committee earlier this month recommended closing Maple Grove. The reasons? As enrollments decline, the district has to look at how it allocates resources to its buildings. And a one-room historic schoolhouse in Hamburg, between Merrill and Wausau, doesn’t fit its new plan.

Maple Grove Teaching Principal Dawn Nonn, who spends half of her time teaching special needs children and half her time on principal duties, says the school is about 14 children short of where it should be for the number of teachers and staff it employs. But it also has a steady population. The school, which is open to anyone in the Merrill district through open enrollment and to anyone else as a charter school, has maintained 80-some students for some time.

The MAPS board was slated to consider the recommendation in closed session Wednesday, after City Pages’ press time. A public meeting will be held 6:30 pm Jan. 7 at Merrill High School about the closure.

The idea of closing the school has come up before. Nonn says the idea of closing the school came up two years ago, for the same reasons: enrollment.

Different this time around is now the school has its own foundation. Peter Fromm Wade is the president of the Maple Grove Foundation, a charity formed a year ago to boost the Maple Grove school. Wade’s legacy goes back to his great-great grandfather who helped build the original school/church across the street from Maple Grove’s current location in 1870. His grandfather Edward Fromm was one of six bothers who formed the Fromm Brothers farm in Hamburg that famously raised ginseng and fox fur.

The current building was built in 1904, Wade says, and the school has essentially been continually operating since 1870 since its days as a school for German immigrants in the area. The building is sturdy — even after last year’s record snow, Wade says, the roof remained in good shape.

Even if the district does close the school, there is a possibility it could continue as a private institution. With a foundation formed and strong support in the community — Wade says families have moved to the Merrill area just so their children can attend the school — that’s a real possibility, Nonn says.