The Consolidation of Westport Schools
The following paper was written by Peter Innes following his internship at Westport Historical Society, during the spring semester 2009.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tremendous change occurred within the Westport Public School system. This change occurred gradually and not without opposition, but ultimately was the result of not only a better understanding of health and hygiene and general child welfare, but a gradual yet continual centralization and consolidation of schools in town.
In 1892, Westport and Dartmouth decided to unite in choosing a single Superintendent of Schools for both towns. This signaled a shift to a new system of school supervision that would not only create fewer schools, but also more modern and accommodating schools. In order to understand the shift that took place during the following years, it is essential to look at the system that was being replaced: the district system.
In 1832, 18 distinct school districts were defined in the Westport Town Records. Four years later another district was added, creating a 19 District school system. These 19 school districts (with the exception of a short-lived and poorly documented 20th district) each had their own small school house scattered throughout Westport, all with their individual needs for funding and repairs. Although each school had these individual needs and repairs, each district received an equal amount of funding from the School Committee. For example, the Acoaxet School in District 1, currently located on Cross Road, had 15 pupils in the spring of 1890. It received the same funding as the District 17 School in North Westport, which is no longer standing, that had 42 pupils that same term. The inequality is in the numbers, and the more crowded schools bore the brunt of financial hardship.
This unequal distribution of funds led the School Committee, in 1866, to suggest in its Annual Report to abolish the district system. It was argued that abolishing the districts would save the town enough money to construct a High School opened to all the children in town who desired to pursue a higher education. This suggestion was not acted upon, although it does seem to mark a trend within the Annual Reports of emphasizing a more accessible and cheaper education for the ‘common’ families in town.
It wasn’t until Seth S. Crocker was chosen as Superintendent of Schools for Westport and Dartmouth in 1892 that serious consideration for abandoning the district system and consolidating schools took place. In his very first Annual Report, in 1893, Crocker specifically mentions that consolidating schools is in the best interests of Westport financially, and would also benefit the children. He cites the district system as being ‘extremely wasteful,’ and says that if the “small, feeble, (and) widely scattered schools should be discontinued…well taught schools could be maintained.” With consolidation, not only could Westport save money on employing teachers, of whom there would be fewer to pay, but also on repairs for things like heating and ventilation in the many school houses, of which there would also be fewer. Not to mention that it would make his job as Superintendent easier, having fewer school houses to visit and supervise. There was no proposed plan for consolidation presented at this point, but the seeds of consolidation were firmly planted.
Two years later in 1895 a new Superintendent, Clarence E. Brockway, was chosen to supervise the schools in Westport and Dartmouth. In his first Annual Report for the School Committee he addresses at length the advantages that could be had from consolidating schools. Among these advantages were: fewer schools to be kept in order, better heating and ventilation and consequently better health for the children, better grouping of students (first grade, second grade, etc.), fewer teachers to be employed and thus better qualified (i.e. more expensive) teachers, more time for each teacher to devote to each class, more enthusiasm from students brought on by larger classes, and less expenditures for the town once the system was to be established. Once again, no specific plans are outlined for consolidation; only the firm belief that implementing the system would be to the advantage of the schools, the children, and the town in general.
With the consolidation of schools, however, came the controversial topic of transportation for students. With schools in local neighborhoods being closed to make way for bigger, better, more centralized schools farther away, there were genuine concerns coming from parents that halted progress. For example, many people were concerned that closing a nearby school house to make way for a centralized school that was further away would decrease the value of their property. Also, many parents were hesitant to send their children across town where they were worried that proper care would not be given. Another common argument against consolidation was that larger classes would place their child in an environment where “they will be more likely to be corrupted.” Essentially, the most passionate opposition to school consolidation came from concerned parents who were wary of sending their child far away to school. In 1901 the School Committee, recognizing these concerns, stated that if parents truly cared for their child’s welfare, they would be willing to consider the good that would come to the child placed under improved conditions in schools created by consolidation.
Two years later in 1903, under newly appointed Superintendent Ernest P. Carr (the position of Superintendent changed hands frequently at this time), two brand new, centralized, and modern school buildings were proposed to be built at the Head of Westport River and at Westport Point. This suggestion was complemented by the Medical Inspector, Edward W. Burt, who visited the buildings at the Head and the Point and remarked: “They are old, dirty, leaky, poorly lighted, insufficiently ventilated, the ceilings are falling, the outhouses are in a disgraceful condition, and the building at Westport Point is unsafe.” Burt’s remarks may or may not have contributed to the construction of a new school at the Point the following year, but nevertheless a new building was constructed.
The new building at the Point, which still stands today as a private residence on Main Road, was well-received and was described in the 1904 School Committee Report, as “probably mark(ing) an epoch in Westport’s school history.” However that same year Edward W. Burt again described the deplorable conditions of many other schools in town: “Children sit crying, with cold feet, water stands under the buildings, the stoves heat the front of the room leaving those in the rear to shiver, the outhouses are inexpressibly unfit, blackboards are between windows, ventilation is poor, ceilings are patched with paper and tins like hen houses… in fact they are not suitable for use as school buildings.” Whether or not his report had any positive effects toward consolidation, by 1907 another central school was built at the Head of Westport, which still stands today as the Counsel on Aging on Reed Road.
This school was intended to accommodate pupils from five or six other districts for grammar school. After only a few years, by 1909, another new building was proposed at Central Village to serve as a High School. This would leave the building at the Head with the elementary grades whilst providing a central and more accessible location for High School students.
These new school houses represent in a general sense the consolidation of schools in Westport. These two, three, and four room school houses replaced the feeble one room schools that required constant maintenance and repairs. Not only that, these buildings brought more pupils together under better teachers and allowed the creation of a more efficient system of grouping students into classes. It was the beginning of a consolidating process that continued for years and is even still taking place today.