The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 13, 2006


The Highland School reaches for the century mark

Students in Miss LaFleur's first, second and third grades in the Highland School pose for their school photo in 1910. Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins is third in the second row; Guy Clark is first in the last row.(Photo courtesy of Carlisle Historical Society)

Has the Highland School reached the end of its usefulness? Or should it continue to stand at the top of "Schoolhouse Hill" on School Street, historical and utilitarian, a tribute to Carlisle's ability to meet the needs of the community?

It is significant that the fate of the school should hang in the balance now, when it is just two years shy of the century mark. The building, modern and efficient when it was built, will be one hundred years old in December 2008. Its construction signified a new era in education in Carlisle, when a centralized, graded school replaced the one-room schoolhouse, a remnant of the nineteenth century. It was also symbolic of Carlisle's willingness, in a new century, to turn its face to the future to meet the needs of its children. But now, at the beginning of yet another new century, there are questions as to whether the old wooden building still has a place in the civic or educational life of the community.

Building a school for all Carlisle's children

Students began attending the Highland School in mid-December 1908, the same year it was built. It was constructed in response to the painfully obvious need for more classroom space to accommodate Carlisle's growing school-age population and to modernize the entire educational system. The five district schoolhouses in use prior to the construction of the Highland School had been built between 1818 and 1840. (Before district schools, classes were held in homes and education was largely unregulated.) By 1848, the Center School was considered antiquated and was replaced with the present Brick Schoolhouse, also on School Street.

The 1890s saw the first tentative steps towards updating Carlisle's public schools, steps that would culminate in the construction of the Highland School. In 1890 Carlisle entered into an agreement with several surrounding towns to engage the services of a professional superintendent of schools. As Superintendent, George M. Wadsworth recommended consolidating the district schools, a growing trend in education. The distribution of students in Carlisle was uneven: some of the schools were overcrowded, while others had only a handful of pupils. The Center School sometimes had as many 55 students in a class, while the North and South Schools had so few students that the atmosphere was seen as lacking sufficient stimulation for learning. Consolidation would mean one central, graded school and teachers who were retained instead of teaching by the term. They would also receive higher salaries. Lewis T. McKenney, who in 1891 replaced Superintendent Wadsworth, continued to push for consolidation, and began to outline a transportation plan that was necessary for the elimination of district schools.

Two articles addressing school consolidation appeared on the 1892 Town Meeting Warrant. One, asking if Carlisle's district schools should be consolidated, was dismissed; but a second, less provocative article, asking for a committee to explore the possibility of establishing a school in the center of town, was passed. The committee took no conclusive action toward a solution, and between 1892 and February 1908, Town Meeting sessions continued to address the issue of building a new school. In the process, four times committees were chosen, and three times they voted to build, but the two-thirds vote necessary to appropriate funds failed.

Finally, at a Special Town Meeting on February 10, 1908, a committee presented evidence that the district school buildings did not conform to state laws regarding temperature and ventilation. It also presented plans for a new school building and had four of the prospective architects on hand at the meeting. Thus armed, the committee's report was accepted, and on a separate vote, the funds were appropriated. The construction of a central school, to be known as the Highland School, was underway.

The entire project was accomplished efficiently — ten months from the Town Meeting vote to over 100 students sitting at their desks, and nearly within budget; $8,000 had been appropriated and the final cost was $8,325. By December 1908 Carlisle had consolidated its scattered district schools into one attractive, modern building consisting of four classrooms, playrooms, and a teachers' room, with central heating and adequate ventilation, ready to accommodate the needs of Carlisle's schoolchildren for the next 40 years.

The 1909 Annual Report enthusiastically stated: "Carlisle now has a new school building of which it has good reason to be proud. The eight thousand dollars voted last spring for the erection of a schoolhouse has been well and carefully expended for the handsome structure that now adorns the crown of what might be called "Schoolhouse Hill."

The School Census of September 1, 1910, listed 94 students townwide between the ages of five and 15. Waldo Wilson, who became Carlisle's Fire Chief, is named on this last page. (Courtesy of Carlisle Historical Society.)

Halcyon days at Highland School

Until the late 1940s, nearly everything associated with the Highland School suggested progress, achievement, and quality education. The faculty consisted of well-qualified, devoted teachers, and with the advent of standardized testing in the 1930s, came a quantifiable affirmation that Carlisle students were indeed above average. Both teachers and students early on established the reputation for a commitment to excellence that remains a hallmark of the Carlisle School system today.

During the 1920s recommendations for enriching the curriculum with art, music, and physical education courses began to surface, and by the 1930s they were in place. The 1930s also brought the installation of electric lights, rather tardily, as wiring began in the center of Carlisle as early as 1911. This development was appreciated by both teachers and students, as "light was very poor in the schoolrooms," in spite of the ample fenestration for light as well as ventilation. Indoor plumbing was also installed, eliminating the inconvenience of outhouses. The 1930s also saw the introduction of the P.T.A. to Carlisle, with its ability to draw parents into taking a more active role in their children's education.

The Highland School in 1908 sports a new coat of paint and a youthful appearance. (Photo courtesy of Carlisle Historical Society) See Tom Raftery's comment

The post-war generation fills the classrooms

By the late 1940s, the space crunch began. School enrollment increased from 88 students in 1941 to 139 in 1951. By 1949 the Highland School had already exceeded its capacity by 21 students, roughly a full classroom. Tackling the problem began with creative thinking: the reuse of the old Brick Schoolhouse. Though it had been used as a community meeting space, it had not been used for its original purpose since the early 1900s. To relieve overcrowding at the Highland School, seventh and eighth graders were moved into the 100-year-old structure, and in 1952 a School Facilities Investigating Committee was formed to explore overcrowding issues.

By 1954 students were housed at the Highland, the Brick Schoolhouse, and Union Hall and in 1956, one of the unpleasant basement rooms at the Highland was pressed into service. The construction of the Spalding School in 1956-57 eased overcrowding, but it was just a stopgap measure. To meet the needs of the ever-growing number of baby boomers who continued to swell enrollment numbers, the Wilkins School was built in 1963. The Carlisle School now had two new school buildings on its campus, but the Highland School would continue to provide vitally needed classroom space.

In 1975, when fourth and fifth graders were housed at the Highland, a group of parents, led by Maria Conley of Cross Street, gave the dark, dingy classrooms a facelift. Classrooms were treated to new coats of bright paint, while the more artistically inclined parents decorated the walls with whimsical murals.

Old school, new uses

One of the overarching issues in Carlisle during the 1980s was the lack of municipal space, not just in the schools, but for town offices, the police, and the fire department. It's hard to imagine now that everything library services, town offices, and the dispatcher — was housed at the Gleason Library, and that was long before the present renovation with its added space and light.

The 1985 Spring Town Meeting voted to appoint a School Building Committee (SBC). As that committee explored alternatives to add more space to the school campus, another investigated locations for the town offices. The Highland School was a candidate for both, although not at the top of anyone's list. In 1986, the SBC stated that deciding what to do with the Highland School was "perhaps one of the toughest and most emotional options for the SBC." The age of the building was beginning to weigh against it, particularly with its wood-frame construction and lack of handicap accessibility, and 1988 marked the last time the Highland was used as a school.

Three years later, with the search for town office space still ongoing, the school was a candidate once again. Some of the plumbing was original and needed to be updated, but with a variety of renovations, it was still in the running. This time, there was more optimism about its future, and even if it were not used for town offices, other alternatives included a home for the Council on Aging or an extended day program.

But in 1993 the Highland School's life was again on the line. A Mosquito article stated: "The Highland School will remain standing for at least one more year while the Building Committee continues further studies to use the building as a future site of town offices." The committee's request for $30,000 for architectural and engineering studies was approved. In the months leading up to Town Meeting, the Mosquito ran almost weekly articles on the Highland School issue. Whether one was in favor of dismantling or reusing the building, emotions ran high. A group of residents created an organization called S.O.S. or Save Our School, to lobby for the building's survival. There was an open house on April 3 that allowed voters to do a walk-through and judge the building for themselves. In his April 9 letter to the Mosquito, Mark A. Snyder of Bedford Road expressed his opinion in rhyme:

The Highland Building is history . . .
It could go either way.
Be it a wrecking ball,
Or a town hall.

Weezie Petrie of Baldwin Road and Phyllis Hughes of Acton Street spearheaded the creative use of the Highland Building. As artists with studios at the Emerson Umbrella in Concord, itself a recycled school building, Petrie and Hughes suggested that the old school be used as studio space for local artists. One year later, it was.

In September 1994 the Emerson Umbrella for the Arts signed a lease with the Carlisle School, assuming responsibility for repairs and maintenance. Jero Nessen, then Emerson Umbrella's executive director, said, "Everyone is so pleased to have Highland used as artists' studios. I hope to have a long and creative relationship with the town." Superintendent of Schools Davida Fox-Melanson called the Highland's new role, "a terrific use of space."

It could go either way . . .

Twelve years later, the future of the Highland School once again hangs in the balance. At the moment, artists still occupy their studio space at the school, but the survival of the building is unclear. In December 2004, School Committee member Michael Fitzgerald said, "We need to take a hard look at the Highland School. It is part of the history of the town, but it is taking up precious land."

It is too soon to know whether the fate of the Highland Building will be decided by the voters at the next Town Meeting. If the old school is on the Warrant, townspeople will have an opportunity to save the town's first centralized schoolhouse or decide, as it approaches its centennial, that its usefulness has passed.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito