Part I: The Establishment of a 20th Century School District
Inspired by the International Herald Tribune’s “100, 75, 50 Years Ago” column, I decided to take a walk through some of our school district history to see what it revealed about our schools and community. Many of our biggest issues have been surprisingly constant. Well before the establishment of the modern district, in the days of one-room village schoolhouses, there were concerns about salaries, parental involvement, and facilities.
The storied James Ricalton had to take a pay cut one year, as did an assistant teacher, and in an ongoing dispute about the janitor’s wage, one school trustee suggested (as Newt Gingrich did famously last year) that students should clean their own classrooms. Another long term schoolmaster, Andrew Van Ness, noted in an annual report that while there had been some progress in “the intellectual attainment of the school,” he still faced several obstacles to success: irregular attendance owing to “the unpardonable lack of interest of all of the parents;” “a perpetual querulousness and meddling by a portion of the parents;” and the poor condition of the school building.
100 Years Ago:
In 1912, the current school district was in a period of rapid development after consolidation in 1894 of the original village districts of Maplewood, South Orange, and Hilton. Enrollment had doubled in a decade to 1400 and Columbia High School, which had sometimes graduated only one or two students around the turn of the century, was now graduating dozens in a building that was an overcrowded fire hazard. In 1910 proposals had been made to mitigate the fire risks, or spend 10 times more money in a substantial renovation and expansion. The latter was approved, the expenditures provoking backlash in that year’s Board of Education election. As one (“a rather intelligent man and a good citizen”) summed up the complaints in a remark to the superintendent: “You’ve got too many notions, and have put in a lot of things we don’t need and we don’t want.”
Other notable developments at this time were the founding of the Home and School Association, and significant revisions to state education law under then governor Woodrow Wilson. Changes included requirements for teacher licensing, a minimum course of study, and set assessments, including the first statewide test for elementary students in June 1912.
Finally, the district began the turbulent process of acquiring land for new buildings in preparation for anticipated growth—and before suitable sites were no longer available. While the land for Seth Boyden was acquired in 1912 (and the building built in 1913), it took 10 more years of struggle to get funding for Tuscan, and more than 15 for Marshall.
The next 50 years saw the construction of most of our houses, two wars, and a fourfold increase in the student population, along with the introduction of differentiated instruction, the junior high school model, vocational education and the Board of School Estimate.
50 Years Ago:
1962 was a pretty good year for the SO-M school district. Ongoing postwar growth had increased enrollments and brought with it familiar problems statewide: overcrowded and inadequate school buildings, rising debt, and rising taxes. That fall the district had a near record enrollment of 7090 students. Maplewood and South Orange were then, as now, relatively affluent towns and, as that year’s Middle States Accreditation report for Columbia High School noted: “Good schools are not accidents. They reflect the value judgments of a community and a willingness to pay for that desired value, plus thinking, planning, and hard work on the part of an educational staff.”
Evidence of success was demonstrated in standardized test scores, with students, on average, performing well above national norms on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford Achievement Test. A more detailed internal analysis compared accelerated 9th grade math students (who at that time completed Algebra I) to a private school sample and elementary students to a similar socio-economic group on the Iowa Basic Skills test. Both showed SOMSD students to be very strong compared to those reference groups as well. The Middle States Report found Columbia High School to be “one of the best in the middle states area. “
Along with many commendations were some weaknesses. One area of concern was cheating, seen as a result of both weak values and “the pressure surrounding the problem of college admissions.” The other systemic weakness noted was in the education of non-college bound students. They recommended improvements in the math program for “able but mathematically shy” students and students of “modest ability.” Likewise, “ a concerted effort” was called for in English to “stimulate and interest less able and discouraged students.” Overall, they noted: “Your school is recognized as a fine academic high school. Your reputation would be further enhanced if you could make a real breakthrough on this front that has resisted the advance of the force of education.” This ongoing challenge is embodied in our current district goals and mission.
Despite general community support, financial pressures were salient. The school district struggled to bring in an acceptable budget, noting then (as now) that the large majority of the budget (78%) was salaries, and an even larger percentage (93%) was non-discretionary spending. There had also been discussion and approval of a 5 year Adjustment Plan to increase teachers’ salaries to the level of peer districts in order to remain competitive. The proposed budget topped $5 million for the first time. While the CBAC (Citizen’s Budget Advisory Committee) supported the proposal, the Board of School Estimate did not, though the stakes were never very high—as an editorial noted, the choice was “whether the figure will be approved as is . . . or be cut by a few thousand.” In the end, it was trimmed by $15k.
Although the community had been quiescent, with light attendance at public meetings and an uncontested Board of Education election, an issue did erupt at the start of the fall of ‘62. In June, two parents at one school had complained about “combination” classes (what we now call multi-age classrooms) and district officials had explained the program and policy. “Combination” classes at that time were less for pedagogical reasons than to maintain average class size (and keep staffing levels down) and had been used successfully that way, as needed, for 30 years.
Even with that explanation, by September the issue had caught fire and 50 upset parents from two other schools came to a Board of Education meeting in two waves. (Many of them came en masse after a PTA meeting and reiterated the complaints the first group had already made.) The meeting was uncommonly long and heated. One observer noted that it seemed the opposed parents had “made a studied effort to disregard the problem and the solution to it.”
One parent did acknowledge after discussion that combination classes were “adequate” but added that “people moved here because they wanted the best,” and maintained that parents of affected children should have been notified in advance. The superintendent allowed that “liaison with the parents” could have been better, but also noted that because combination classes had been used for such a long time, it was assumed that the information would not be “shocking” to parents. Then, as now, communication between the Board, the district and the community, was not always a simple matter.
Next — Part II: The Turn of Another Century in Public Education
Bates, Helen, Ed. Maplewood Past and Present, 1948
Foster, Henry W. The Evolution of a School District, 1930
The News-Record, 1962.