WINCHESTER – How and where the kids will be going back to school during this pandemic year has been a hot topic this summer.
Though the health challenges of COVID-19 make this year distinctive, this is hardly the first time that child safety has impacted the school community, including the school building program.
A century ago, the Bureau of Education of the U.S. Department of the Interior reported on its survey of the Winchester school system, undertaken at the request of the local School Committee. The 190-page document covered everything from administration, teacher training, and financing to school building needs and the work and courses of study at all levels.
Among other changes, the study led to an expensive, comprehensive school-building program. Four new, larger elementary buildings, the Building Committee first decided, were to replace the smaller old wooden ones, but soon a fifth had to be added to the plan, since four were not enough to house the growing school population.
The schools were duly constructed during the 1920s. The old ones were torn down or sold and converted to other uses. All except for one. Though the federal survey had advised that Winchester had too many little schools and the Highland School was one of the smallest with just two rooms and an enrollment in the 1920s of about 65 young pupils, a movement arose to save it.
In January 1927, after a substantial and modern new school opened further north on Highland Avenue, children from the old Highland School were reassigned to it. Parents who lived at the Mt. Vernon end of the avenue were not happy.
The old one, in use since 1878, was at Eaton Street. The new building was located at Appalachian Road, about a mile away.
“Protest is being voiced at sending small children over dangerous, icy roads to this far-away location,” The Winchester Star wrote. “It is most dangerous for small children to take the long walk required over this through highway with its speeding automobiles.”
Siding with the parents, the Star continued, “If you are inclined to differ — just WALK from the present Highland School to the new building, any time, on any day.”
The Highland School Committee wrote to the Star that “Highland Avenue is nothing more or less than a race track. There is nothing to prevent automobile drivers from racing and going as fast as they like. A speed of 40 and 50 miles an hour is common on this street.”
And for about half the distance, there was no sidewalk, just a path beside the road.
In addition to traffic concerns, the District Committee declared that “the worst and most sad part of our situation” is that the children could not go home at lunchtime. “Little children should have a warm dinner with vegetables and meat and some kind of desert, with time to eat it….
“It comes very near premeditated murder to send a delicate child away with a cold lunch which we know is a positive injury to their health.”
There were also concerns about the devaluation of property. Reportedly, the loss of the school caused a shrinkage of not less than 20 percent in the value of the residential properties in the neighborhood of the old school.
A former principal, Kate White, observed that nearby properties had been purchased and developed because a school house was near. She agreed about the depreciation in the value of the residential properties with a school more than a mile away.
“Our school building is there and in nearly perfect condition,” the District Committee declared. “The little desks and chairs are in it. The blackboards, piano and everything are there. We shall need two teachers.”
The unhappy parents petitioned for an article at the next Town Meeting. When it came up for consideration in March, about two and a half hours were taken up with the discussion (of which, the Star opined, only the first hour was interesting). The sense of the meeting, voiced by an “aye and nay” vote, was in favor of reopening and continuing the Highland School.
Town Meeting then reopened the question of the education budget and added money for necessary repairs to the building. The school, it was decided, would reopen in the fall.
Later in the meeting, the question of what to call the new school building came up. That building was replacing the old Washington School, but a large number of parents wanted to call it Highland rather than Washington (or George Washington) and had petitioned for a Town Meeting article to make it official.
When Town Meeting took up the discussion of the name, the old Highland School had already been saved. Nevertheless, a motion was made to give the Highland name to the new building, and speakers rose in both support and opposition. The vote lost, though 160 voted in favor against the 268 “no”s.
Until 1943, the old school was kept in use, though only for students in grades 1 through 4. Since grades 5 and 6 already had to go to the Mystic or Washington schools, causing overcrowding there, and since it was becoming increasingly expensive to operate the little building, the 1943 School Committee decided to close it and redistrict the students to a building which had space available, the original Lincoln School (located between Oak and Westley streets). The old building was torn down to make an informal playground which remains to this day.
A few artifacts were saved from the old school. One, a standing teacher’s desk, is in the foyer of the Sanborn House. A child’s desk and chair were rescued by the Daily Times Chronicle’s Bill Ryerson and his father.
The desk, painted green by the Ryersons, is a reminder of how doing school work has changed. In the upper right there is a round opening holding an inkwell where students would dip their pens. Even after the use of inkwells stopped, many of the desks equipped with them remained in use for years afterward (with an empty hole or a dry well) and may be remembered by today’s older residents who sat at those wooden desks during their early school days.