Woog's World: COVID builds on schools' history of adaptability

COVID’s effects on Westport are profound. Every aspect of daily life - commuting, work, shopping, dining, the library and YMCA, even a simple impromptu gathering with neighbors and friends - has been shattered.

Some of the changes are temporary. Others will last a while. A few may be irrevocably altered.

Nowhere is the pandemic felt more greatly than in our schools.

Every student studied remotely for three months; nearly a year later, many have not returned. Desks were removed from classrooms; Plexiglas placed in the cafeterias. Daily schedules look very different. Before-and-after-school activities are severely limited. Visitors are banned from the halls. Most drastically, youngsters and their teachers here, and around the world, now do much of their work online.

Whatever happens in the coming months — and years after — our educational system has been profoundly altered.

The shifts will be seismic, yet they won’t be the first. What we think of as “school” in Westport has not always looked the same. But because our institutional memories are brief, often limited to “our” time there, it seems things were always done a certain way.

Consider Staples High School. It exists because of the foresight and generosity of one man. In the early 1880s, Horace Staples, the wealthiest person in town, got tired of watching boys and girls head off to Norwalk or Bridgeport to study. He put up the money for a high school (actually, seventh through 12th grades) and he provided the land near his home on Riverside Avenue, now the site of Saugatuck Elementary.

It was a noble gesture for someone then in his 80s. But “Staples’ High School,” as it was known at the start, was not the sprawling institution it is now. The first graduating class consisted of just six students — all girls. The boys that age were working on farms or in factories.

Westport, and the high school, grew slowly over the next decades. In 1899, the town took over what had been a private academy. Twenty years later, officials adopted a “6-3-3” plan: grades one through sixth in elementary school, seven through nine in junior high (though housed in the Staples building) and grades 10 through12 in high school.

In 1923, a lunch counter opened, altering the daily rhythm. Previously, students had gone home to eat, or ventured into town, then returned. In 1926, Bedford Junior High opened, across the athletic field (today, it’s Kings Highway Elementary). Slowly, Staples took shape as its own distinct place - and one of the top high schools in the state.

The post-war years brought unprecedented growth to Westport. Young families swarmed to the suburbs, in numbers much greater and in years far longer than the recent coronavirus-fueled migration from New York.

The explosion of students brought a burst of construction. Coleytown Elementary, Burr Farms (now athletic fields off Long Lots Road) and Hillspoint (now a child care center) were built in a matter of months (the town paid for its haste, in terms of learning environments). Two new junior highs, Long Lots and Coleytown, followed in 1955 and 1965 respectively.

Staples burst at its seams. In 1958, a new campus opened far from the old one — on North Avenue, near the outskirts of town. The California-style architecture featured six separate buildings. Within five years, three more were built. All were connected only by walkways. The idea was perfect for great weather, absurd from November through April. It took until 1981 for the nine buildings to be renovated into one.

By that time, Staples’ architects had had a profound — and unintended — consequence on the high school. The open, outdoors-oriented environment, coupled with both the fighting-for-freedom, anything-goes ethos of the ‘60s, and the last-minute appointment of a man named Jim Calkins as principal, created a school unlike any other on the East Coast. Calkins had unbounded faith in teenagers; he enabled the creation of a governing body that gave students nearly as much power as teachers and administrators, and brought a free-wheeling spirit to educational opportunities that lingered long after, inspiring generations of students (while despairing many traditionalists).

By 1983 the school population was shrinking. Ninth graders moved to the high school, giving 14 year olds one more year of “maturity” but depriving them of leadership opportunities they’d had at Bedford, Coleytown and Long Lots. Those schools moved to a fifth (eventually sixth) through eighth grade model. “Middle schools” are more akin to elementary schools than to high schools; “junior highs” were actually just what the name implies.

By the late 1990s, Bedford Middle School had moved from the original high school on Riverside Avenue to a former Nike missile base, just north of Staples. It was large enough to be a refuge for Coleytown, when longstanding mold issues closed it two years ago.

So much has happened since then too. We’ve seen our schools change before our eyes.

Then again, we always have.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.