FROM SCHOOL HOUSE TO HIGH SCHOOL by Adrianna Donat
If you have a student at Columbia High School, you will likely ask why there is an enormous flagpole in the middle of the school’s parking lot. The parking lot is small and the flagpole is placed where new drivers are likely to back into it. This placement is odd for a number of reasons, but particularly because CHS has a long history of changing with the times. Strangely, the flagpole remains despite its inconvenience.
CHS’s forerunner was a one-room stone schoolhouse located at "The Common" – what is now the intersection of South Orange Avenue and Academy Street, currently occupied by PNC Bank. Little information about this schoolhouse is known. In 1814, a new toll road (now South Orange Avenue) going into Newark threatened its location, so a wooden, two-story structure was built nearby in time for the 1815 school year. It served a small agricultural community.
Students paid $1.75 per quarter “for spelling, reading and writing,” writes Henry Foster, SOMSD Superintendent from 1900-1927, and author of The Evolution of Public Education in a New Jersey School District. Arithmetic, grammar and geography lessons cost an additional fee. Families within walking distance paid to send their children of all ages to learn and share the cost of wood to heat the building. In the absence of any historical documentation, we can only surmise that the first flag to fly at the school was some version of our Stars and Stripes.
Local families elected trustees who, in turn, hired a teacher paid by the quarter. Enrollment for the entire school was sometimes fewer than 30 students. The school was dubbed “the Columbian School of South Orange” in tribute to the early-adopted poetic name for America that gave its name to such patriotic songs as “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” Columbia (formerly King’s) College (now University) in Manhattan, and the Columbia River in the American northwest.
By 1861, the Columbian School was entirely funded by the public.
Serving the changing needs of its community to the best of its capacity, the Columbian School leased the upper floor to various religious groups, and during what Yankees called the “War of the Rebellion” it opened in the evenings to allow local Union troops (the Columbia Guard) to meet and drill.
But by the end of the Civil War, the community was growing fast. The Township of South Orange had formed by 1863, containing the communities of South Orange and Maplewood. Soldiers returning from war to family life, and improvements to the railroad, which created a growing new citizenry – “the commuter”, were revitalizing forces that encouraged investment in education. And in 1867, a state law required that Columbia become a graded school. By 1877, the old two-story wooden building erected in 1815 was found to be woefully inadequate, so in 1880 a new two-story brick building was constructed near the old Columbia to deal with a school population of around 240 students.
This new building allowed for the establishment of a high school for grades 10-12 in 1885, fulfilling a new demand for higher education. More renovations and additions followed in 1898 and 1910 as the towns continued to grow. In 1894, the South Orange Maplewood School District was created by consolidating the districts of South Orange, Maplewood and Hilton, replacing the original private trustees with a public board of education.
This new investment in the school system brought with it the controversial practice of teaching more than the traditional spelling, reading and writing. By the 1890s, South Orange High School, alternatively called Columbia, adopted “manual training,” as well as history and science. In 1892, Cornell University accepted two Columbia graduates. Within the decade, Columbia began an athletics program, and the student council and The Columbian newspaper were created.
Conservative parts of the community objected to these changes. The BOE fielded complaints about teaching “fads and frills,” writes Foster, and they wrote editorials to New York-based newspapers asking to return to the teachings of the “little old red schoolhouse.”
The same conservative elements in the district objected to less inhibited student behavior as well. Superintendent Foster lamented the horrors of students sneaking alcohol into school dances and abandoning the “restraint and refinement of the waltz and polka; Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, Fox Trot and Shimmey [sic] began to reign.” Dances were banned for a few years. (Cue the Footloose music!)
But student behavior took a back seat to international affairs as World War I erupted. Eligible male students and all male teachers enlisted. Epidemics such as polio and Spanish influenza raged through the community.
By this time, most of the farms in our area had been sold and subdivided. The community started to look suburban. And by 1927 total school population had risen 526 percent to 4,960 students.
The high school wasn’t big enough to accommodate the boom. Columbia needed to reinvent itself again.
In September 1927, Columbia High School opened at its new, and current location on West Parker and Valley Street. Designed by the noted Newark architectural firm Guilbert & Betelle to fill the needs of a community changing from agrarian to urban, CHS became known for academic excellence. (One of its exceptional features, still in use today, is an observatory turret with a telescope, the gift of a wealthy donor.)
“Educators considered it one of the most outstanding high schools in the United States,” writes Fred Profeta, former mayor of Maplewood Township and CHS alumnus (class of 1957). In 1929, Encyclopedia Britannica described CHS as having “the ideal floor plan for secondary schools in the United States.”
Columbia High School was a model for high schools everywhere, with interiors built to help students in an industrial economy, and a handsome collegiate-gothic exterior. The landscaping, an elegant, sweeping green campus of grass, shrubs and pine trees, was designed by Brinley & Holbrook, a renowned architecture firm out of Morristown – including the enormous flagpole in front of the school.
As the school gained fame and excelled at training students for the increasingly modern world (state-of-the-art shop classes as well as science labs were installed), enrollment grew. The C wing was constructed in 1958, with the B and D wings following in 1971.
When the enrollment ballooned to 2,400, CHS considered how to make the size more manageable for students. The new wings were divided into houses, each with its own dean, sports teams, lounge, newspaper, and student government. This allowed more students to have leadership roles. But declining enrollment saw an end of the House system.
Enrollment in the 1980s was low, so the district moved the 9th grade to CHS, bringing numbers up to 1,400.
The Midtown Direct train line and our proximity to New York City have caused enrollment to swell again since the 1990s, and CHS is now nearing capacity. The need for space is critical. This is noticeable both in the classroom and outside, where a lack of parking spaces can be frustrating.
The parking lot on the front of the school was a modern sacrifice, carved out of the elegant campus Brinley & Holbrook created in 1927 when the D wing was built in 1971. But during construction, the district couldn’t bring itself to remove the stately flagpole, despite popular outcry. Judy Cohen, class of ‘71 and CHS teacher/counselor for 44 years, has had a lot of experience with the flagpole. “I’ve bumped into that flagpole so many times....Wouldn’t it look more majestic in front of the main doors?” she asks.
And if you also ponder the placement of that flagpole, instead of cursing it, consider the many things here that have changed – and the flagpole that hasn’t. Food for thought, even as you execute yet another K-turn to avoid running into it.