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A Birthplace Of American Public Education

The American system of public education was born in the old Puritan towns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony almost a century before the United States itself was established. In 1692, the Great and General Court enacted a law requiring towns of fifty households to hire a schoolmaster, and towns of a hundred or more households to build a school. Compliance was not strong, and many towns were fined, including Sudbury in 1701. That same year, sixty-three years after its founding, the town did hire two schoolmasters to teach children "to rede and wright and caste accounts." Each was paid an annual salary of thirty pounds. The following year, the construction of a schoolhouse was authorized. For at least five years (1717-22), the former Rev. Samuel Parris, of Salem witchcraft fame, taught school in Sudbury.

For the next four centuries, the issue of schools their cost and management dominated town life. Like the farmers of old Sudbury, today's suburban dwellers continue to debate the need to raise taxes to pay for more teachers or newer buildings. But town residents, from colonial times to the present, have remained committed to the idea of public education.

Changing Town, Changing Needs

Sudbury started an experimental high school course in 1892, but the town was too small and poor to support its own high school building. For a time, students were tuitioned out to the Waltham or Framingham schools. A true high school was not established until the turn-of-the-century, and was located, along with other grades, in what is now the Flynn Building on Rt. 27.

By 1940 the population of Sudbury, a town of farms and greenhouses befitting the "Carnation Capital of the World," stood at 2,050, only fifty more than in 1776. But within a decade, Sudbury experienced the rapid growth of a burgeoning post-war suburb. Now a new high school would be needed. When the town looked around for a partner to share the expense, it didn't have to look far.

Lincoln Makes Its Appearance

Lincoln, formed from parts of Concord, Weston, and Lexington, was incorporated in 1754. Even prior to this date, Lincoln had its own elementary
schools. In 1752, a high school was established, first in the Town House (now the
old Post Office building) and then in the old Central School. It was unusual
for a town as small as Lincoln to have its own high school, but it had always been somewhat wealthier than Sudbury. Still, in 1898, Lincoln decided to abolish its expensive high school program (a few years before Sudbury started its own), and began tuitioning out its older students to Waltham, Weston, Concord, and Wayland.

Before WW II, Lincoln was about the same size as Sudbury. But with more zoning restrictions and the absence of a road like Rt. 20, Lincoln grew much more slowly. Today, Sudbury has three times the population of Lincoln.

By the early 1950s, the old Sudbury High School was no longer adequate, and Lincoln was again feeling the need for its own high school program. To solve this shared problem, the two towns created the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional School District in 1954.

A Regional High School Is Born

The district's building committee found a potential site for the new school on Lincoln Road, but securing the land would be a more difficult matter. After some hard negotiations, the owner of the Featherland poultry farm was ready to sell. However, the owners of Pantry Brook Farm, which owned the land planned for the school's athletic fields, did not want to sell. Ultimately, the land was acquired through the process of eminent domain, leaving intensely bitter feelings on the Pantry Brook side. Until the end of her long life, the owner of Pantry Brook Farm would look down at the school and think about the beloved woodlots she had walked in as a child. She never stopped wanting them back. The creation of L-S was a major battle in the "culture wars" that accompanied the suburbanization of an old New England town.

L-S Opens!

The doors of the first Lincoln-Sudbury opened for the 1956 school year. The first several years it accommodated not only high school students, but 7th and 8th graders as well (while the new Curtis J.H.S. was being built). As enrollment increased, it soon became a strictly grades 9-12 school. Most of those who would later attend the "old L-S" would have been disoriented by the original building. There was no "Blue Hall." The science wing was a decade away, and the art wing and auto shops lay even further into the future. The first library was in the language office, and then in what became the music center. Over the years, facilities were rearranged quite a bit. As the growing school continued to expand across the landscape, new courtyards were formed. However, most of the school remained on one level, which added to a sense of intimacy. Still, the school wasn't always perceived as homey. The "Regional" was originally nicknamed "the factory." The colorful decorations that more recent alumni recall didn't arrive until the 1980s.

The little White House pre-school, originally a residence for farm laborers, and some old stone walls on Lincoln road these are the only reminders of what the high school site had once been. But if Lincoln-Sudbury was built on a farm, it was also founded on a vision.

Founders With A Vision

The original school committee hoped to create a "public-private school," which would emphasize academic excellence, respect for the individual, and a sense of freedom with responsibility. The superintendent's very first report in 1956 stressed the need to achieve good order, not through authoritarian means, but rather though the cultivation of self-discipline.

Two early decisions of the school committee symbolized this vision.

First, committee members decided to interview "personally" all new faculty, save those from the old Sudbury High School who would continue at L-S. They were looking for teachers who were not only intelligent and competent, but who were also strong and independent-minded individuals. That first year, the faculty numbered all of twenty-four.

Second, football and marching bands were banned in favor of soccer (a favorite at private schools) and a few other sports. In making this decision, the committee hoped to discourage a "rah-rah" athletic culture that might distract from the focus on academics. That even the earliest soccer teams were hugely successful probably did help much.

But Also A Place Of Convention

Lincoln-Sudbury, from its founding to the late 1960s, was a conventional school in many respects. Relationships between teachers and students were friendly but formal. There was a dress code for both. There were "study halls." Also, though there were quite a few extra-curriculars, the academic curriculum itself was rigidly structured with few choices for students, who were strictly tracked into four levels. In 1956, Sudbury still had a sizable working class population, and even as late as 1966, forty percent of the school did not plan to attend a four-year college.

A Philosophy Begins To Take Shape

Nevertheless, allusions to a "student-centered" approach to education and to the value of "self-direction" can still be found in that first superintendent's report. The first generation of L-S teachers also recall that their classroom independence was respected from the moment schooling commenced on Lincoln Road. No doubt these traditions were as much products of the school's small size as they were expressions of educational philosophy.

With the advent of the postwar baby boom, the hallways at the Regional began to bustle and, soon enough, several additions to the original building were needed. When the school was established, there were about a hundred students from Sudbury and an equal number from Lincoln. By 1966, the school was home to 1,200 students. A quick scan of the senior photographs from the middle 1960s on show class pictures becoming ever more crowded with hopeful, smiling faces and still neatly-coiffed heads. But that would soon change.

The Sixties Arrive...Time For A Change

The times they were a-changing, even at L-S. The restive spirit of the 1960s stirred students and teachers alike. The old ways the study halls, dress codes, the rigid curriculum were no longer working very well. Student alienation was now more emphatically expressed, as, for example, in a student campaign to have "dungaree material" considered acceptable school dress. In 1968, a new administration opened the windows and doors to the many innovative educational ideas of that period. Teachers were taking a fresh look at what schooling could mean and what being educated did mean. The slate was wiped clean, and a bracing sense of possibility seemed limited only by the faculty's imagination.

A Laboratory Of Change

By the late '60s, L-S was a veritable laboratory of pedagogical experimentation. Many of the decisions and programs of that time, born out of tempestuous faculty debates, still shape our school day. Out went study halls; in came free time. Out went the fixed curriculum; in came an elective program. Academic requirements were reduced. An "Open Campus" concept was introduced. Ability leveling remained, but rigid tracking was gone. Creating new courses and programs was encouraged. L-S students were now involved in exchange programs overseas. As part of the Nimbus Program, teachers and students would go hiking (during school weeks) through the forests of the White Mountains. Seniors might choose to participate in Alternate Semester, spending, for example, their last semester interning with a silversmith in Boston or with a farmer in Vermont. The METCO program was also established during this time. Students enjoyed a great deal of freedom. Alternate credit was popular. Structure was not.

An Exciting But Controversial School

Not all parents were happy with the new changes. The community uproar (not all of it negative) no doubt helped to shorten the tenure of Superintendent/Principal Willard F. Rullifson. There were drugs. There was cutting. There was long hair. Some saw anarchy, but no one could doubt that there was energy and excitement at Lincoln-Sudbury. For teachers and students, the questions appeared to be blowing in the wind. For some understandably nervous parents, the answers were nowhere to be found.

The Early Seventies Were Just More Sixties

By the early 1970s, L-S had swelled to its largest population ever, nearly 2,000 students. The average class was crammed with thirty or more, requiring some students to sit on the classroom radiators. In most respects, the early to mid-1970s still had the feel of the turbulent '60s. Requirements were at a minimum, with many options for "alternative credit" (One girl received her physical education credit, and at long last, her diploma, after biking down to the Cape). There was no effective "cut" policy; there was very little accountability for teachers or departmental coordination; and experimental programs were still multiplying. In short, it was "situation normal" at the Regional. And normal meant skating along the edge of creative chaos, with most decisions made at the "grassroots" in long, passionate faculty meetings. Some parents saw only the disorder and wondered, "Who's in charge up there?" There were also racial tensions at the school, as well as antagonism between the suburban students (now the vast majority) and the remaining working-class kids. Academically challenged and emotionally troubled students, as well as non-conformists and the gifted, were being well-served. However, there was a deepening concern that many of the students in the middle were falling through the cracks.

And Yet It Moved

Nevertheless, these were exciting years to be at the school. They were filled with restless energy and continued experimentation. Despite the upheaval, most of the students graduated, applied to their three prospective colleges (about seventy percent), and did well in "the real world."

The Pendulum Begins To Swing

L-S was not only growing, it was also beginning to move closer toward the middle. There were powerful forces local, state-wide, and national that would moderate the character of L-S.

In the late 1970s, 1,700 parents signed a petition demanding that L-S return to a standardized schedule and a "back-to-basics" approach to education. This local movement reflected both rising middle class aspirations and a reaction against the '60s, which would soon be expressed nationally with the election of Ronald Reagan. A new conservatism was in the ascendancy, and parents wanted the school to implement more discipline and structure. To the maximum extent possible, the school committee and Superintendent Brad Sargent (as well as his predecessor, David Levington) had tried to protect the progressive character of the school. An alternative high school, L-S West, was even created off-campus.

A Taxpayer Revolt Changes The Educational Landscape

However, the administration and school committee's authority was undermined by a state-wide taxpayers' revolt which resulted in the passage of Proposition 2 1/2. With this new law, school committees lost their financial autonomy and ability to set tax rates for their individual school systems. From this point on, the funding of public schools would become even more embroiled in local politics. The public would now have much more to say about their schools. Much like old Sudbury's farmers, some parents and taxpayers felt that enough was enough.

It's the '80s & Where Are The Kids?

A demographic change was also transforming the school. From the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, the school's enrollment declined precipitously from nearly 2,000 to 887. Birthrates were down, and economic circumstances made it more difficult for young couples to move into Lincoln or Sudbury. Teachers began to hear the dreaded acronym RIF ("Reduction-in-Force"). At a school where new courses were created with passionate abandon, teachers were now being laid-off and the course catalogue was growing noticeably slimmer. Money was tight, and Superintendent/Principal Matt King tried to save the academic core by eliminating home economics and the business track. He succeeded, but Lincoln-Sudbury would no longer be a comprehensive high school.

Under the leadership of Matt King and John Ritchie, the period from the late 1980s to the present became a time of consolidation. Many features that have long distinguished L-S and that still differentiate it from most high schools electives, classroom autonomy, free-time, a commitment to caring staff/student relationships remain. But new rules and requirements and a greater centralized control have brought more order to the "creative chaos" that once characterized L-S. Gone are some of the excitement and spontaneity of the past. Athletics play a larger role, as do college admission pressures. (Fully ninety-five percent of students now attend four-year colleges, often applying to as many as a dozen colleges to get there). Still, students and their parents generally feel very positive about their high school, and graduates still amaze college roommates when describing L-S.

The Vision Still Remains

The vision of the founders of Lincoln-Sudbury is still being realized on Lincoln Road. No doubt they would approve of the continuing emphasis placed on academic excellence, freedom with responsibility, and community relationships.

The first half century of education at the high school ended in dramatic fashion. In 1998, the school committee began to discuss the expansion and renovation of an aging and cramped school building. After careful consideration, the school committee decided that constructing a new school would be the most cost-effective option, and the towns' voters agreed. In 2004, the new L-S opened its doors. It was larger than the old building, and was packed with superb facilities. And, if it seemed more impersonal and less cozy than the old place, the wear and tear of teenagers would no doubt warm it up over time. The Class of 2007 would be the last to have spent any time in the old Lincoln-Sudbury.

From the 1700s on, the building of new schoolhouses has provided the occasion for animated debates at Sudbury town meetings. And so the approval of a new $74 million building project represented a significant vote of public confidence in L-S. By every statistical measurement, L-S consistently ranks among the top schools in the state. Equally significant, its students, staff, and alumni regard the school with affection and respect.

Challenges Ahead, But For Now...Happy 50th, L-S!

Challenges loom on the horizon. The enrollment is growing. Will another addition be needed sooner than had been anticipated? Will taxpayers be able to continue funding the school at the levels deemed necessary by the staff? Will top-down state education reform, with its lengthening list of standardized tests, erode the school's diverse curriculum and distinctive personality?

But these questions belong to the future. For now, the 50th anniversary of L-S has arrived in Sudbury, one of the towns where American public education began. Today, students are attending the latest Sudbury schoolhouse, and it is "wired" in ways that Puritan schoolmasters three centuries ago couldn't possibly have imagined. Here on Lincoln Road, students are still learning how to "to rede and wright and caste accounts," but also to live more fully the life of the mind, and to dream of a brighter future and better world beyond these walls.

In a new building, in a new century and millennium, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School endures, and has reason to face the future with optimism.

Bill Schechter
History Dept., Emeritus
November 2006


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