Central Elementary School celebrates 60th birthday in Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE – Located in the heart of town, just a few blocks from main street, Central Elementary has been a constant in the lives of many of the people who have lived and grown up in Okeechobee.

On Nov. 30, Central held something of a birthday celebration for the school, which opened 60 years ago in 1958. Students were encouraged to wear their best 1950s attire; the school hosted a “sock hop” in the cafeteria; a hula hoop contest took place and a former school board member, Ms. Gay Carlton, even stopped by to teach the kids how to do the twist.

Central Elementary School Principal Joesph Stanley says he recognizes the “central” role the school has had in the community for all these years.

Students and teachers at Central Elementary form the number 60 to celebrate the school’s 60th anniversary as a drone takes a picture from overhead. Photo by Michael Bast

“I think it’s really a special thing to be at a school that has that kind of status in the community,” Mr. Stanley said. “There’s a rich history here that we’re very proud of.”

The school also re-created a picture that it’s now taken every 10 years starting 30 years ago in 1988. Students, teachers and administrators gathered together and formed the number 60 as an aerial photograph was taken from above. For the 40th and 50th anniversary, the picture was taken by well-known Okeechobee photographer Sandra Pearce from the seat of an airplane. But this year, longtime Central teacher Karen VanBeek decided to reach out to a former student for help taking the anniversary photo.

She had seen her former student Micheal Bast post aerial photography on his Facebook page that he had taken with a drone and decided to reach out and ask if he’d be interested in helping his former school. Mr. Bast had recently started his own commercial drone business during his free time under the name Zane Aerial.

When Mr. Bast said he’d love to take the picture, Mrs. VanBeek asked what his fee would be. Micheal responded that there would be no fee.

“Mrs. VanBeek was my music teacher in elementary school and is one of my favorite teachers,” said Mr. Bast to the Lake Okeechobee News. “I told her I wasn’t going to charge anything. I received a great education from some awesome teachers at Central, and as far as I’m concerned I owe them all.”

The plan is to keep re-creating the aerial photograph every 10 years, which would mean the next time the picture is taken it will be 2028 and many of the students currently in the photo this year will either be in high school or have already graduated.

“There’s a whole slate of events that we’ve planned for the month of December to celebrate,” Mr. Stanley said of the school’s plans for the 60th anniversary.

“Our float this year will be ’50s-themed, and coming up on the 19th we’ll have a student display where we’ll show old memorabilia and that kind of thing. We’re really looking forward to it; should be a fun month.”

Longtime Central Elementary teacher Karen VanBeek, who arranged for the drone, gives a thumbs-up to the choir performing Christmas songs at the annual tree lighting in Okeechobee on Nov. 27. Photo by Richard Marion

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