WOOG’S WORLD: Westport’s 300 year commitment to education
The Westport Historical Society’s next exhibit — “Westport School Days: 1703-Present” — opens Jan. 29. As with most WHS offerings, there is a lot of history to pack into a small space. This time, however, the scope is particularly broad. If there is one element of life that defines our town, it is education.
We tend to think of our schools — Staples High School, the middle and elementary schools, the private institutions — as relatively unchanging. In fact, the history of education in Westport is flexible and fluid. We did not get where we are without a lot of innovation and change.
I cannot provide a comprehensive summary of our town’s 300-year commitment to education in 800 words, but a brief look at some of its highlights is instructive.
The 1703 referred to in the Historical Society exhibit refers to the year our first schoolhouse was organized, on Green’s Farms Commons. Within 30 years, there were schools in the Muddy Brook, Compo and Long Lots areas. In 1750, William Richards established a boys academy at 8 Myrtle Ave.
As Woody Klein notes in his history of Westport, “The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence,” by the time the town was was officially incorporated in 1835, there were nine school districts: Green’s Farms, Compo, East Saugatuck, West Saugatuck (Shercrow), East Long Lots, West Long Lots, Coleytown, Poplar Plains and Cross Highway.
In 1870, the Westport Union School district united all schools in town. An 1876 census showed 771 Westporters between 4 and 16. Of those, 573 attended school. The average cost of schooling was $7.30 per child. That was a bargain, compared to neighboring towns. Norwalk spent $9.27, Fairfield, $11.07, and Bridgeport a whopping $12.47.
Adams Academy is the early school most of us know. Opened in 1837 on North Morningside Road, it sent hundreds of students to college during its first 30 years. It remained open, in various forms, until Greens Farms Elementary School opened nearby, across the Post Road.
Adams Academy remains one of Westport’s most historic sites. The WHS exhibit will include a bench from the original school.
Staples High School is almost as venerable. It opened in 1884 as a gift from Horace Staples. One of the town’s wealthiest men — he owned sailing vessels, factories, farms, a general store and a bank — Staples grew tired of watching local boys and girls board the trolley near his Riverside Avenue home to go to schools in Norwalk and Bridgeport. That was the genesis of “the Staples High School.”
The old man — he was over 80 — donated nearby vacant land he owned, along with suitable funds. On April 22, 1884, the cornerstone was laid. A crowd of 2,500, including Gov. Thomas M. Waller, celebrated.
The history of Staples High School is long and celebrated (you can read all about it in a book I wrote, on sale conveniently at the Westport Historical Society). Staples’ original building lasted until 1967, although by that time, the school had grown substantially. A second unit was built in 1936; a gymnasium and cafeteria followed 12 years later.
Today, we know that building as Saugatuck Elementary School (the three-story 1884 school was located approximately where the auditorium is now). But the high school — its population growing dramatically — moved in 1958 to a gleaming, California-style campus on North Avenue. Bedford Junior High replaced the high school on Riverside Avenue.
The seventh- through ninth-graders did not have far to move. They had gone to school just across the athletic fields. The original Bedford Junior High became Kings Highway Elementary School, which is why we have two K-6 schools with their backs against each other.
Riverside Avenue is not the original home of Saugatuck Elementary, either. The school traces its roots to 1890, when the wooden Bridge Street School was built. Serious overcrowding led to an addition in 1916. Eventually, the school was renamed Saugatuck El. It was the proud alma mater of generations of Saugatuck residents. Today, it’s an elderly housing complex called simply “The Saugatuck.” Among its residents are former, long-ago students.
As Westport’s population skyrocketed, more schools were built. Long Lots Junior High was constructed in 1955, and Coleytown Junior High was added 12 years later. Coleytown Elementary is still around, but Burr Farms and Hillspoint Elementary Schools are not. One was torn down; the other is a daycare center.
The school district moved to the middle-school model in 1983. Bedford Middle opened in the 1990s, adjacent to Staples on a site previously used as a Nike missile site.
You can’t make this stuff up. But you can learn about it — and much more — at the Westport Historical Society later this month. It should be an A+ exhibit.