“Winchester needs ideal schools and wants ideal teachers. When our wants and needs are fully met, Winchester will be an ideal town.” So wrote Supt. Robert C. Metcalf in 1906.
Once Winchester was incorporated, its history became one of dedication to excellence in education. The precise nature of that ideal and how to attain it, however, has changed from time to time. Examples of differing solutions to a sampling of educational challenges are included below.
A fairly bleak view of education emerges from written reminiscences about the small agrarian village of South Woburn. That changed in the later 19th century. After incorporation, the Town’s first major expenditure was for new schools. A School Committee was appointed right away and began a tradition of striving to address the building needs and meet standards for quality education, which presented a perpetual challenge as the population increased and the culture changed.
When Winchester was incorporated in 1850, one of its first challenges was housing the students. Winchester inherited two schoolhouses from Woburn and one from Medford. Two were kept, and four new ones built. Once the new ones were finished, the schoolhouse from Medford was replaced and one additional building built. Each school had one teacher (as pictured left at the Washington School). The high school used a room in the center schoolhouse and usually had a male master, while women taught the primary schools. There was no superintendent then, rather the School Committee members divided supervision among their members.
As the population grew, so did the need for additional and larger school buildings, leading to a series of school building programs. [Read More: School Building Chronology] In the 1860s, the Town decided to build new buildings for the grammar and high schools. The first building used solely for high school classes was erected on a lot on Church Street running through to Dix Street (as drawn on an 1886 map). It served as a high school for nearly 40 years. When a grand, new high school opened on Mystic Valley Parkway in 1904, it became the Prince Elementary School. [Read More: High School on the Hill; for more on the architect, see Herbert Dudley Hale]
The Grammar School, which once shared the Gifford primary school building, was placed in a new building on a lot at the intersection of Washington and Mt. Vernon Streets in 1865. It was named in 1886 for Edwin Wadleigh and was replaced in 1901 with the Town’s first brick school building. In 1931, Wadleigh was so overcrowded that Town Meeting authorized funding for the first junior high school. The Wadleigh building was closed in 1932 but reopened in 1936 to house the freshman high school class. It was also used as an adult recreational center during the winter of 1940-1941 and as swing space during renovations of both the high school and junior high in the 1950s. In 1961, a second junior high was built, and the old Wadleigh building was demolished in 1962. [Read More: Wadleigh School]
The elementary schools also have a history of being enlarged, replaced, and relocated. The town began with six school districts: Hill, Mystic, Rumford, Central, Washington, and Wyman. By the end of the 19th century, the Hill District was eliminated, and the children were transported to the Wyman School, giving them the name of the “barge kids.”1 At the beginning of the 20th century, the town had eight elementary schools: Chapin, Gifford, Highland (pictured), Mystic, Prince, Rumford, Washington, and Wyman. They were all wooden and housed two to eight rooms.
In 1921, the town embarked on a comprehensive school-building program. Four new, larger buildings were to replace six of the eight old ones. In the end, the result was five new buildings and one old (Highland), since four were not enough to house the growing school population. The plan was not universally popular, given the great expense and the redistricting of children, but Town Meeting approved it. Once this plan was effected, the elementary schools included Highland, Lincoln (pictured, replacing Chapin), Mystic (replacing Mystic and Gifford), Noonan (replacing Rumford), Wyman (Wyman and Prince), and Washington. In 1925, Town Meeting approved selling the Chapin, Gifford, Prince, and Rumford properties.
As the population on the west side hills boomed, new schools were built there including the Parkhurst, which opened in 1949 and was enlarged in 1955 and the Vinson-Owen in 1961. In 1969, the town acquired the Marycliff Academy and converted it to a public school. Named Ambrose, it took in students from Parkhurst and Wyman. It was distinctive in that, after remodeling, it was the first open-space institution in Winchester. The Wyman was closed and sold. The Mystic was closed and has since proved useful as the home of the Recreation Department. Further north, the Highland School was closed in 1943. In 1965, the Muraco School opened, taking students from the old Lincoln, Noonan, and Washington schools. Once the new high school on Skillings Road opened in 1971, the old Lincoln was demolished and the old high school building on the parkway became the Lincoln School. The Noonan and Washington Schools were sold and converted for housing. [Read More: High School on Skillings]
In 1980, the Lynch Jr. High School was converted to elementary use. Since then, though some school buildings have been rebuilt on site, renovated, or expanded, the town has not added another school to its elementary system, which today includes Ambrose, Lincoln, Lynch, Muraco, and Vinson-Owen.
Many challenges facing the Schools today, like adequate buildings, are not new.
Discipline: Among the more recent policies adapted by the School Committee is the Anti-Bullying Policy, joining other policies on student behavior such as Student Discipline, Student Conduct, and Hazing. Discipline was a major challenge in the Woburn schools, which carried over to Winchester’s Centre School, inherited from Woburn. However, as the right teachers were found, the worst problems of those days were overcome. It was long desired that men, viewed as the better disciplinarians, be hired for the upper levels. Though this sometimes happened, it was more costly due to the established disparity between men’s and women’s wages. [Read More: Old School Days]
Truancy & Drop-Outs: Low attendance was particularly a problem in the 19th century when many young people did not graduate at all, preferring to go to work as soon as feasible. In 1912, for example, 200 students reportedly had left school after the eighth or the following grades. During the early 20th century, as the emphasis shifted to college preparation and a higher percentage of students aimed at going on to college, truancy was not the problem it once was. [Read More: Truancy]
Substance Abuse: That this is not a new problem is evidenced by a section in the 1899 report of Superintendent of Schools Henry Waldradt which addresses temperance. “Teachers can best serve this cause by reaching both the intellect and the souls of children. A man may have full knowledge of the bodily injury wrought by alcohol and narcotics and indulge in the use of both. A boy may receive the most careful moral training and from ignorance of physiology and hygiene venture upon the risky experiment of tampering with stimulants and narcotics. Preaching, brilliant rhetoric, inflamed denunciations, pictures of diseased stomachs and hobnailed livers cannot be relied upon to make a generation of abstainers. Possibly each of these has a limited place in public schools; but the teacher who does the best work is the teacher who wisely adapts it to the nature of the children. He gives them a suitable knowledge of their own bodies and prudent instruction for preserving them in a state of health and purity. He also impresses his own personality upon the children and makes himself an ideal model gladly imitated by the children. The public schools alone cannot banish the curse of alcohol and narcotics; but it has been, is now, and ever will be a powerful ally to the other forces which are perceptibly diminishing the evils of those great foes to the human race.”
The “great foes” never disappeared. For another example, in 1967 a committee appointed by the selectmen became the nucleus of CONCERN (Committee on New Concepts of Educational and Therapeutic Needs), which worked with the Board of Health to get a drug education program doing. Today’s Winchester Coalition for A Safer Community continues to address substance abuse problems.
Curriculum: In the new century, the focus has been on offering a 21st-century education. Over the years, the accepted goals of public school education and the curriculum have undergone many changes. When Winchester was new, there was a divergence of opinion over the type of education offered at the high school. The School Committee’s idea that a classical education be maintained was defeated at the 1862 Town Meeting when a resolve carried that the classical department be abolished and the school be conducted as an English High School. In 1871, the Committee drew up a whole new curriculum, broadening the course of instruction beyond the “three Rs.” (Pictured is an 1862 report card with four subjects, arithmetic, geography, reading, and spelling.)
While the curriculum has continually evolved, change has not always been appreciated. In the early 1940s, a controversy arose over changes introduced by the second Supervisor of Elementary Education and viewed by some parents (possibly influenced by a whispering campaign2) as too progressive. A survey authorized by the superintendent showed the children were doing all right, but dissatisfied members of the School Committee did another survey which was inconclusive. Thus, 1944’s Town Meeting authorized another expert survey, headed by Dr. John Guy Fowlkes. Although the children were found “above average in all facets,” defects were noted, including criticisms of the superintendent. The superintendent answered with a 55-page pamphlet and resigned. Under the new superintendent an effort was made to address the defects on which both sides were agreed.
As an example of changing views of the mission of public education, the Fowlkes report noted that there were two basic goals of education, preparing youth who would end their education with high school for everyday life and preparing youth intending to go on to college. Winchester was found to be lacking with regard to the former. “Public schools are expected to be more concerned about preparing boys and girls to be parents and home makers, capable money earners, dependable citizens, guardians of their own and other people’s health, appreciators of beauty, and intelligent pursuers of happiness than about making them scholars.” But, at that time, it was observed that the vast majority of graduates had not attended college, a situation which has not existed for many years. Since the 1940s, the curriculum has repeatedly been re-examined and updated.
Education & Religion: In modern times, the Schools have been faced with the challenge of respecting and accommodating students’ varying religious observances, particularly due to the in-migration of Asian families with a wide variety of faiths. The School Committee has addressed this with an Accommodation for Religious and Ethnic Observances Policy.
Landmark Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s made the separation of school and religion a basic principle. However, for over a century after Winchester was incorporated, there was no separation of schools and religion. Winchester was a Christian town, and it was mostly a Protestant town. Nevertheless, the School Committee took a stand for respecting religious diversity in 1854. [Read More: No-Nothings] In 1877, a new School Committee faced another problem involving a minority faith as it affected the character of one of its principals. The outcome unfairly tarnished the Committee’s reputation outside the town among those who heard the bottom line and not the full reasoning. [Read More: Spiritualist Principal]
Administration and Structure: The growth of the school population and the resulting increasing complexity of the school system have presented yet more challenges. By 1882, management of the schools surpassed the capabilities of the School Committee, and the first superintendent was hired. [Read More: First Superintendent] As the school population grew and new school houses were built, additional teachers were hired, generally women since they cost less than men. A major controversy arose in 1893 when kindergarten was introduced; however, though confined originally to one or two buildings, it took hold. (Pictured is the kindergarten class at the Prince School.) [Read More: Kindergarten]
The 1920s saw reform with not only new buildings but also a thorough review of the education system. In light of parent criticisms, a Town Meeting committee investigated school conditions and recommended a federal survey. In 1920, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Education published a 190-page “Survey of the Schools of Winchester Massachusetts.” The study was not limited to a building program but also studied and made recommendations for organization, administration, and financing, kindergarten and primary grades, the courses of study, the high school, and results of educational measurement tests. As new buildings were a key part to realizing changes in instruction, Town Meeting approved the expensive building program. This resulting redistricting disturbed some parents and led to a court case with accusations of racial prejudice, which the Committee denied. [Read more: Discrimination Charge]
Once the elementary building program was set, the administration and Committee were faced with the question of creating a junior high. Once that replaced the grammar school, the junior high model remained in place until 2000 when the middle school model took its place (and necessitated a building enlargement). The last major alteration to the school class structure was the offering of pre-school, formerly confined to private organizations.
Budgeting: Funding the schools has been a perennial challenge. During the 1930s, the School Department experienced more than usual budget problems. The School Committee economized by laying off the high school librarians and several teachers and cutting other expenses. “During the height of the Depression there was very little money around,” Alfred Meurling recalled. “My salary for the first year I was here was the munificent sum of $1,800, and that was a good job. However, after being here a year, when they renewed contracts in April, I was informed that I didn’t have a job for the coming year [because] the town was short of money, and they were cutting back, and I was the last one of four in the Physical Education Department to arrive here…. And Miss [Helen] Niedringhaus who had the girls in that same grade level…said, ‘I’m interested in working with you, and I’m getting $1,800, and I just arrived three months before you did. Would you consider working for half of my salary if Mr. Quinn will hire you back?’ …Well, it didn’t have to take me long to think about it, and I said, ‘Most certainly.’… [The superintendent] hired me back at half of Miss Niedringhaus’s salary. And I recall her saying, ‘Look, Mick, it can’t last forever. In a couple of years we’ll be back to where we started.’ Well, for your information, it took us seven years to get back to $1,800.”3
Language Mix: Schools in the 21st century have programs to deal with students for whom English is a second language. Overcoming language differences is nothing new. At the time of the 1920 Survey, it was reported that “40 percent of the fathers of public-school children in Winchester are foreign born."4 Fowlkes made a similar observation in 1944 and stated, "Furthermore, during the past 10 years there has been a considerable influx of foreign born or first generation families into Winchester.”5
School Choice: Annually presented with concerns over whether there are enough classrooms for Winchester’s children, the School Committee has annually confirmed its policy of not allowing enrollment of children from other communities.
One of the greatest controversies during the 20th century was METCO, which proposed busing inner city black children to schools in the suburbs to counter racial imbalance. It divided the community so visibly that when the School Committee applied to join, it was rejected. In fact, Winchester had the distinction of being the first community to be turned down twice.
Sexism: See the “Women of Winchester” page. [Read More: Sexism in Education]
Continuing education has been the pursuit of many adult residents from the beginning of the town. The Lyceum Building, built in 1854, offered meeting space for lectures by a number of visiting speakers such as Wendell Philipps, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Frederick Douglass, as well as local professionals and educators. In 1867, a free evening school for adults to learn their “Three Rs” was announced. Lectures and courses were offered by organizations such as the Young Men's Literary Association and the Grand Army of the Republic. The Fortnightly (women’s club) formed member groups which prepared programs in literature, drama, art, social science, economics, government, and more. In the 20th century, several women’s college clubs were formed whose members delivered papers. The Winchester Historical & Genealogical Society, and its successor, the Winchester Historical Society, presented papers and programs on local history. Church groups have long sponsored a variety of speakers.
Adult education classes were introduced into the school buildings in the 20th century. The Fortnightly inaugurated an evening school, in cooperation with the School Committee, during the winter of 1902-1903. It proved popular. In 1912, a class to instruct Italians in English disclosed a need great enough that the Social Service Committee of the Unitarian Church raised the necessary funds to continue the work. In 1912, 125 were enrolled, with 12 teachers. Once it had an evening school, the School Committee decided to offer commercial courses for young people who had dropped out of school.
The evening schools began in the fall of 1913. Initial registration for the English classes included: 106 Italians, 8 Turks, 3 Swedes, and 2 Greeks. In subsequent years, Italians contributed the largest number, though a few Swedes and Germans also attended.
Classes were also offered in the English language, American history, and political traditions. After the General Court of 1919 passed an act to promote Americanization through the education of adult persons to use the English language, the state paid 50% of the cost. Americanization classes for adults and illiterate minors, held at the Chapin School, were attended by Italians.6 In the early 1920s, there was also a class at the high school for Swedish girls engaged in house work to learn English. The language classes continued at least through 1930. Classes to help foreign-born residents obtain citizenship were revived during World War II.
Commercial classes in the 1910s, which were given at the high school, included stenography, book-keeping, typewriting, commercial arithmetic, and applied electricity. The commercial classes were discontinued about 1930 due to inadequate registrations.
While acknowledging some "meager assistance" to foreign-born residents with citizenship training, in 1944 Fowlkes reported that the schools did not offer educational services to adults and encouraged them to do so. "The necessity for extending the educational program to meet the vocational, domestic, esthetic and cultural wants of the post-school age is already very clear.7
In 1956, a new adult education program was offered. From an initial enrollment of 120 residents, the program grew to 827 enrollments in 50 courses in 1973. In the 1980s, the Recreation Department took over adult education, running those classes along with its youth programs.
1. The barge was originally a horse-drawn equipage with seats along the outside wall so that the children sat facing one another.
2. Details may be found in Bruce Winchester Stone, History of Winchester, Vol. II, pp. 142-47.
3. Interview of Alfred Meurling, former assistant principal of McCall Junior High School by Robert Leppzer, Feb. 20, 1974.
4. Survey of the Schools of Winchester, Massachusetts, Department of the Interior, Bulletin, 1920, No. 43.
5. “Winchester Public Schools Survey Presented to Citizens,” The Winchester Star, Dec. 1, 1944.
6. The first program director was M. Jane Davis, a teacher in the Winchester schools since 1901, a teacher of history and later assistant principal at the Wadleigh School. In 1922, the Americanization program was taken over by Mrs. Joseph Ryan. After the Chapin building was replaced by the Lincoln School, the classes moved there.
7. John Guy Fowlkes, "Winchester Looks at its Schools," typescript report, p. 305.