The Scarsdale Public Schools - A History
Scarsdale, New York, lies between the Bronx and Hutchinson Rivers in the hills of south-central Westchester County, 24 miles north of New York City. Originally home to the Siwanoy tribe of the Algonquian peoples, most of the area that is now Scarsdale came into European hands in 1660, along with large portions of modern Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Rye, and White Plains. Englishman John Richbell paid the then-substantial sum of 100 fathoms of wampum and assorted shirts, coats, kettles, and weapons for his entire purchase.
Six years after coming to New York in 1692, 31 year-old Caleb Heathcote (pronounced "Hethcut") devised a plan to create a manor under royal patent. Heathcote bought a large section of Richbell's land, then acquired a western piece called "Fox Meadows" from the Siwanoy. The manor ultimately encompassed over 6,000 acres and stretched from Long Island Sound to the Bronx River, from White Plains to New Rochelle and what is now Mt. Vernon (then only a small village called East Chester). Heathcote named it "Scarsdale" after his home in Derbyshire, England. In 1701, the year the Crown granted his patent, Scarsdale Manor's total population was twelve souls.
Heathcote became mayor of New York City in 1711, died in 1721 and was buried at Manhattan's Trinity Church. During his lifetime, through the colonial period, and well into the nineteenth century, Scarsdale remained rural countryside, with a few small farms on the White Plains Post and Mamaroneck Roads. By the mid-1700's, there was also a small settlement of members of the Society of Friends on what came to be called Quaker Ridge, near today's Scarsdale-Mamaroneck border.
Traditionally, Scarsdale has been known less for great events within its borders than for its prominent residents. (James Fenimore Cooper married Heathcote's great grand-daughter and lived briefly near Mamaroneck Road, for example.) It was nonetheless the scene of an important Revolutionary War battle between American forces led by George Washington and British troops under the command of General William Howe.
Off the White Plains Post Road in 1776, General Joseph Spencer's New England militia exchanged fire with soldiers of the British Army. This first skirmish in the Battle of White Plains was one of a series of ensuing encounters over a period of days. The Battle ended with Washington's escaping to the west and south, thereby ensuring the survival of the American cause. Howe's headquarters is now a private home located near the intersection of Post and Mamaroneck Roads in Scarsdale.
The First Schools
Town records show that a local school existed in Scarsdale by 1784. A simple embodiment of faith in learning and the foundation for all that came after, this modest building pre-dated state authority for education and is said to have stood on a hill west of Post Road, north of what is now Fenimore Road.
Two facts about this early school stand out. First, it attracted attention beyond local town lines. Both Scarsdale children and boarders from New York City enrolled to "enjoy the advantages of the public school." Second, the building also housed local town meetings.Town and gown were literally intertwined from the start.
When the original structure burned down in 1809, the town built a new 25x20 foot wood building near the original site. This "Old Fox Meadow Schoolhouse" served what was known as "District One" through the first part of the 19th Century.
On the southeastern "Quaker Ridge" end of town, meanwhile, the Society of Friends built a first school in 1815. The Friends subsequently surrendered this clapboard, one room structure to public New Rochelle District Three. A "little red schoolhouse" followed in 1863, and in 1866, the Quaker Ridge part of District Three became a new, separate, Scarsdale District Two that continued to educate children from Scarsdale, as well as from parts of Mamaroneck and New Rochelle. In 1901, the stone and wooden Stick-style Griffen Avenue School replaced the 1863 building, followed in the 1940's by a brick Georgian building at the current Weaver Street site. Modernist quadrangles were added in the 1960's, and all but the gym of the original 1940's structure was then replaced with a new section of Modernist design in 2006.
Even in its early days, Scarsdale influenced education beyond its borders. In 1811, New York governor Daniel D. Tompkins, local son and future Vice President of the United States, authorized a commission to study creation of a state system of public schools. The following year, the legislature passed The Common School Law, requiring the state to support local schools and creating the offices of town school commissioners and school trustees.
During the first half of the 1800's, Scarsdale's relatively few students worked with only one instructor. The most influential school commissioner of this period was George Donovan, a Methodist minister who had graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. Donovan advocated the innovative idea of teaching children foreign language as well as the common school studies of reading, writing and arithmetic.
A Modest Enterprise
In the early to mid-1800's, Scarsdale teachers received only subsistence wages, board and lodging in return for their efforts. In 1855, for example, the common schools' supervisor William P. Tompkins reported that he had used only $106.86 of an authorized $214.29 to pay the salary of the school's single teacher. A decade and a year later, in 1866, the first teacher named in school records, Eliza Allgood, was given $105.47 for her work.
Public schools in New York operated on a combination of public funds and private tuition until 1867, when they became entirely tax-supported. The records for District One describe that year's annual school district meeting, expenditures (60 cents for a broom and 40 cents for a basin) and ultimately a special meeting to vote on a new school building site.
The town purchased land at Tompkins and Post Roads in 1873, and voters approved $2435 to build the two-storey frame structure that replaced the Old Fox Meadow Schoolhouse in 1876. Stone on the first floor, clapboard on the second, the Victorian-style building had a cupola for a school bell on its west elevation. Miss E. Harriet Patrick was the school's first teacher.
Education remained a modest affair in the later years of the 19th Century. Records from 1871 list a total annual budget of $500 for 47 of 124 Scarsdale children between the ages of five and twenty-one. Trustees and their fellow citizens were often involved in day-to-day decisions about the schools; for example, residents voted on specific texts at annual meetings. An argument about texts among 1877's eight attendees prefigured a broader and more divisive public textbook controversy that would occur in the McCarthy period some seventy-five years later.
In 1897, residents petitioned the Board of Education for a special meeting to propose creating a Union Free School District for Scarsdale. The goal was to forge a "union" between the existing common (elementary) school and an as-yet-to-be-created secondary department, so that the community would no longer have to tuition older students to White Plains. The schools were to be "free" in that they were supported by taxes, not by individual tuitions. The district began to use its new title by July, 1897, although state officials wouldn't actually approve the request until two years later. The disconnect anticipated future tensions (generally, but not always, muted) that were inherent in relations with Albany.
As the district entered the 20th Century, the tradition of vigorous community oversight and involvement continued. In 1902, for example, the state education superintendent commended the union school for a "highly favorable" inspector's report, noting with pleasure that the building was "frequently visited by local authorities."
By the early 1900's, a new building, the brick, two storey, Number 1, had been built on the Post Road north of Popham Street. A Miss Story was subsequently designated the first official head, or Teacher-in-charge, of a Scarsdale school. A year later, in 1906, however, the school board at the direction of state education officials appointed David Taylor the first male principal, and the first principal teacher in the district.
Taylor lost community confidence amidst concerns about poor student discipline and the use of corporal punishment. His successor, Lemuel Van Schaick, subsequently became school principal in 1910. During his tenure, and following years of discussion, voters in 1915 authorized construction of the Greenacres School and the original section of the High School. The Edgewood School opened in 1919, the year Van Schaick resigned to do post-war work in France, also amid criticism about discipline and poor student performance, much the same issues that had doomed Taylor's administration.
Beginnings of the Modern Era
Upon Van Schaick's departure, the Board of Education named George Hewitt supervising principal of the high school. Hewitt was the first to be responsible not only for day-to-day operations of his own building but also for the town's other schools. He reflected new educational trends when he spoke of the need for "elasticity to give to each group the type of preparation best suited to its needs" and when he advocated considering "not merely the needs of the individual, but his needs as a member of the social order."
After three years, Hewitt left his post in disagreement with the Board over management issues. Ralph I. Underhill, recently appointed high school principal, succeeded him as supervising principal in 1922. A Harvard graduate whose previous experience had been in independent education, Underhill was named Scarsdale's first Superintendent of Schools three years later. A self-described "middle-of-the-road man," he would turn out to be both highly innovative and influential.
During the last years of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th, two other distinctive figures played central roles in Scarsdale's re-invention as a modern school system. One was James Cannon, a noted New York City banker who had been deeply involved in planning the Bronx River Parkway and the New York Botanical Gardens. The other was Elizabeth Fountain, the first woman to serve on a Scarsdale school board.
Cannon promoted a vision of a Scarsdale that would resemble "an English countryside with the tradition and legacy of fine old estates." Serving on the school board for the first time in 1904, "Scarsdale's best citizen" headed a drive to replace the deteriorated 1876 school building with a modern facility. He also oversaw the beginnings of a more professionalized approach to school finance and management.
Trained as a teacher, Elizabeth Caldwell Fountain was a visionary. First elected in 1907, she valued teachers and teaching, and she advocated close working relationships between faculty and board. Mrs. Fountain successfully argued for small class sizes in the lower grades. And through a personal connection with Mrs. James Porter of Winnetka, Illinois and the New Trier school board, she also promoted the new educational approaches that were being used in the progressive mid-west.
A National Institution
With Fountain's encouragement, Underhill's leadership, and support from new trustee Gary Calkins, a professor at Columbia University, Scarsdale over the next two decades became a national model for the progressive education movement.
Underhill implemented the so-called Dalton Plan in 1923 to escape "the morass of mass instruction." This progressive approach allowed students in grades 5-12 to move at their own rate according to individual contracts developed in cooperation with their teachers. Students undertook long range projects. Class recitations gave way to individual and group conferences.
The plan was brilliant in concept but difficult to execute. Underhill had introduced it with a minimum of community or faculty preparation, and parents objected that it failed to teach children the basics. Faculty initially adapted the new approach to their own existing teaching styles without fully embracing it.
After two years, Underhill backed away from some of the more controversial aspects of the Dalton approach and substituted The Scarsdale Contract Plan, a blend of new and more traditional methods. By 1928, the plan consisted of a series of four week "contracts" that spelled out the course content to be covered each month. These were supplemented by work sheets and cumulative testing. Classes each met either three or four times a week for 60 minutes of discussion, drill, testing or individual study.
Progressivism also shaped teaching and learning at the elementary level. When the new Fox Meadow School opened in 1928 on the heels of a much-disputed and reconfigured re-districting plan, the principal, Claire Zyve, advocated "observing how a child develops and then shaping education to aid this process." Over the next years, progressive methods at Fox Meadow, including school-wide learning projects and a school farm, earned the school and Zyve national attention.
While the 1920's were rich in academic ferment, they also saw the rise of high school athletics. Scarsdale adopted maroon as its color, and teams were christened the "Red Raiders," in honor of a board member's alma mater, Colgate University. Much later, the "Red" was dropped, leading wags to comment that raiding in Scarsdale was more likely to be corporate than corporeal.
Upon Ralph Underhill's untimely death in 1932, supervising principal Vernon G. Smith was appointed Superintendent of Schools. A champion of "fundamentals in language, mathematics, science and social studies," Smith allowed the Scarsdale Plan to wither. Meanwhile, despite Zyve's book Willingly To School and Fox Meadow's national recognition by groups such as the Child Study Association of America, some parents had grown critical of what they saw as lax discipline and inattention to basics at the elementary school. Faced with community criticism and a new, more conservative, Superintendent, Zyve ultimately resigned in 1940.
The District had de-emphasized or abandoned student contracts, the high school's unconventional schedule and learning by doing at the school farm: much of the visible evidence of progressivism. Nonetheless, the legacy of the progressive movement remained. It is still apparent in the developmental view of childhood; student-centered instruction; and the value placed on skillful, creative, individualistic teaching, all of which influence instruction in Scarsdale today.
"The Understanding We Seek Is Rooted In Liberal Education"
Vernon Smith had appointed Lester Nelson principal of Scarsdale High School in 1933. Well-known for the personal attention he devoted to his students, Nelson recruited faculty from private liberal arts colleges; a number had also attended independent schools. Their efforts continued to earn Scarsdale national attention and a national reputation; in a 1950's movie, the Debbie Reynolds character tells the Frank Sinatra character she wants to move to Scarsdale because it has the best high school in the country.
Although the Scarsdale Plan had disappeared, Nelson continued to promote its goal of providing a humanizing education that produced inquiring, contributing citizens, as opposed to one of rote learning and single-minded focus on grades and college admission. "We have consistently sought to extend to all the opportunity for equality of education," he said in 1953. "It is important for us to understand, to know the form and character of ideas which are alien to our own. The essence of the understanding we seek is rooted in liberal education."
Nelson oversaw the development of a traditional liberal arts curriculum that aimed at academic excellence, while also breaking down rigid prerequisites. He introduced new courses in fine and applied arts and crafts and otherwise enabled students to follow their interests. Current problems courses sought to prepare high school seniors for citizenship. New clubs and activities, such as the student newspaper, Maroon, encouraged service to the school and larger communities.
The school board and community had decided to invest in salaries to attract and hold strong faculty in the 1920's and 30's, and teacher quality was a continuing focus of school board and community concern during the war years of the 1940's. In February, 1945, for example, the Board granted teachers a cost of living adjustment of $200, and the next year they again received cost of living bonuses. In February of 1947, the board granted each teacher an added $250 for the second half of the school year. A decade later, in 1959, the Town Club still worried about faculty quality, issuing a report that proposed salary raises to guard against teacher turnover.
McCarthyism and The Committee of Ten
In the late 1940's and early 50's Lester Nelson, along with Acting Superintendent (and, beginning in 1946, Superintendent) Archibald Shaw and a series of boards of education, drew national attention when they resisted efforts of a citizens' "Committee of Ten" to ban "Red-Fascist propaganda" from school libraries and to restrict speakers who did not reflect "basic American values." In an often-bitter struggle, Nelson championed an "open school," where students were exposed to different views and people.
Ultimately, 81 prominent citizens, including the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, signed an open letter in support of the board, stating that "we have not, as a people, lost the courage to take the risks that are necessary for the preservation of Freedom." The Board voted to support teachers' and librarians' choosing texts. And at the next election, over 1000 of 1090 ballots supported the three board members running for re-election.
Although free speech issues consumed time and energy in the 1950's, the District also addressed the post-war enrollment boom by planning and then completing the Heathcote School in 1954. One of the first Modernist school buildings in America, Heathcote received coverage in the national magazine Life as a result of its classroom clusters, courtyards, and light-filled corridors. The Junior High School, also of Modernist design, opened in 1957. Initially serving grades 7 and 8, the new building allowed the high school to house students in grades 9-12 only.
The Junior High School—later called the Middle School, with the addition of grade 6—was born in the early years of the national middle school movement. Middle school education sought to recognize early adolescence as a distinct developmental stage, one with its own social and learning characteristics. Superintendent Shaw steered the community to support a new kind of program in which one large building would be subdivided into smaller, more personal, units for student coursework, counseling, and dining. The House System was one of the first of its kind and a model for other districts.
Throughout the 1950's, favorable class sizes were a priority. In 1953, the average high school class had 22.5 students, and the average elementary school class 23.3.
Consistent with its longstanding commitment to "keep abreast of progress" but to "give place to improvements (that) are thoroughly tried," in the words of a 1933 school district policy, Scarsdale in the mid-fifties adopted the Advanced Placement program, some team teaching, and student exchange programs. When Superintendent Shaw resigned in 1959, however, he still described Scarsdale's central strength as its historic appreciation for "the real necessity of children's contact with real teachers."
Harold E. Howe II, later United States Commissioner of Education and professor at Harvard University, was appointed Scarsdale's fourth Superintendent of Schools in 1960. During a brief tenure marked by change and rapid program innovation, Howe worked to improve services for special needs children. Responding to a new awareness of America's world leadership role and spurred by the technological challenge of the Soviet Union's space program, he, along with other national educational leaders also sought to increase and improve science and math instruction and to introduce the use of foreign language laboratories.
In 1965, the community voted decisively to consolidate with Scarsdale District 2, the Quaker Ridge area, and Ohio educator Donald Emery took Howe's place. Emery's administration extended through the first years of political activism associated with the broad social transformations of the late 60's. During this tumultuous era, the District's traditional focus on academic achievement, along with efforts to deal intelligently with challenges of the time, helped to moderate social and political stresses that often seemed to be enveloping so many of America's schools.
Two developments nonetheless generated significant tension during this period of transition. The first concerned race relations. In 1966, the District was one of first in the country that tried proactively to increase student diversity. A first effort, the S.T.E.P. program brought African-American students from the South to the high school. Two years later, a community study group initiated discussions leading to a proposal to bus significant numbers of African-American students from Mt. Vernon to the Scarsdale Schools.
On one hand were those, including Board President Kenneth Thompson and Superintendent Emery, who concurred with former Scarsdale resident and Carnegie Foundation President John Gardner that "It would be unfortunate if white youngsters grow up in an environment where they don't see people of another race and aren't able to work out relationships with them." On the other were residents who worried about eroding educational quality and property values.
For twenty months, the Board of Education deferred a decision in a vain search for community consensus. Then, in late 1969, it voted 7-1 to support the plan. The Mt. Vernon board, which was embroiled in a desegregation suit and whose white majority had criticized the idea early on, subsequently voted to reject it in March, 1970. The S.T.E.P. program remains active today, however, and as a result of natural demographic change, the District has also become home to a significantly more diverse population. Students come from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds and also represent more than 50 nationalities.
For many communities, the evolution of faculty associations into labor unions was another source of stress in the late 1960's and early '70's. Scarsdale was no exception. What made this transition different from most, however, was an authentic effort to find a new relationship between district and teachers that, in Emery's words, would be "professional in nature and at the same time avoid the pitfalls of conventional labor negotiations."
The result was an unusual and largely successful blend of approaches to the conduct of a public school system. This was a kind of participatory decision-making that involved college-style committee work, consultation among faculty and administrative leaders, and at board level, policy governance sometimes mixed with more hands-on involvement in issues of particular community interest.
A prime example of the effort to professionalize teaching was the Scarsdale Teachers Institute (STI), founded in 1968. With a self-governing policy board that included a majority of teachers and with over 100 courses taught by teachers each year, the STI became a significant force in continuing professional education. New ideas for classroom instruction and program improvement emerged from the interactions that occurred in STI courses. In a typical year, over 90% of Scarsdale teachers continue to participate in one or more STI courses.
The Current Era
Like other districts in the nation's more affluent communities, Scarsdale had increasingly focused on college preparation and college admission through the 1950's and 1960's. The percent of students attending college, four year college, and highly competitive colleges, was rising, and external measures such as SAT scores were among the very strongest in the nation.
Although Superintendent Shaw had tried some years before to remind parents that "Scarsdale High School Isn't Just a Genius Factory," reality for many students was growing pressure for ever-higher academic attainment. To improve their college admissions chances, more and more were taking as many difficult courses as possible. Enrollment in non-academic courses—home economics or auto shop—had begun to decline. "Stress" and "pressure" were terms increasingly common in the local educational vocabulary.
Thomas Sobol became Superintendent of Schools in 1971, leaving in 1988 to become New York State Commissioner of Education and then Christian Johnson Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Among the innovations during his tenure was the Scarsdale Alternative School. Created in 1972, the "A-School," a democratic community of students and teachers, was designed to operate along the lines of work by Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard University and Swiss educator Jean Piaget. A reform prototype, the Alternative School affiliated with the national Coalition of Essential Schools and became a model for similar efforts around the country. The main high school and the A-School have since moved closer to one another in style and approach, with the former now serving as a more intimate community-within-a-community at its own site.
By the time Richard Hibschman succeeded Sobol, high inflation had caused many school districts to defer building maintenance, and upkeep had suffered seriously. The Superintendent and Board therefore focused on passing the first bond issue in over two decades to undertake much-needed repairs. During Hibschman's tenure, the High School adopted the Senior Options program, an effort to address "senior slump" that freed students to do independent study or internships in the last six weeks of the academic year. He retired from New York State in 1994 to become headmaster of the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City.
Two distinct challenges confronted Francis T. Murphy upon his appointment as Hibschman's successor. One was the impact of the national testing movement; when in the first administration of new state tests, some scores failed to meet community expectations, Murphy and the schools had to weather and respond to criticism. The other was the need to develop the instructional use of computers and other technology. From this beginning, the District ultimately became one of three districts to receive National School Boards Association recognition for technology use in 2003.
A Global Education
Michael V. McGill became Scarsdale's ninth Superintendent of Schools in 1998. Three main themes characterized his administration: efforts to create a true “Education for Tomorrow,” significant improvement of physical facilities and resistance to misguided state and federal reforms.
The initiative called “The Scarsdale Education for Tomorrow” sought to foster excellent thinkers and problem solvers, global perspective, and an ethic of service, “
non sibi,” all through a renewed emphasis on liberal learning.
To develop critical and creative thinking and personal initiative, the District introduced an inquiry research program and culminating projects in the elementary and middle schools, as well as an Advanced Topics program in place of traditional Advanced Placement classes. A Center for Innovation encouraged efforts to create broad-scale change in whole programs, schools and the District. Many employed emerging technology.
An Interdependence Institute promoted “global-for-all” experiences abroad for growing numbers of students. Academic departments created more inclusive curriculums that explored a range of cultures, histories and literatures, as well as interdisciplinary study of topics like sustainability and water rights. Mandarin and elementary grade Spanish were added to the world language program. Scarsdale also initiated a Global Learning Alliance of schools and colleges abroad to identify curriculum and teaching methods that met a high international standard of practice.
Non sibi activities included Circle of Friends, Human Rights Day, the Middle School Empathy Project and the High School’s first year service expectation. The Schools also committed to efforts to reduce their carbon footprint 10% below the 1990-91 level by the year 2020, in order to "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The District began a decade-long, $90 million dollar, construction program in 1998, the largest single such effort in its history. The program ultimately resulted in major additions or replacements at every building, including award-winning libraries; classrooms, science labs and multi-purpose rooms and new athletic facilities. In 2014, the Schools developed new plans for improvements at three elementary schools and the Middle School, and for the creation of a 21st century Learning Commons at the High School.
In 2001, meanwhile, parents had boycotted state testing efforts that threatened to narrow curriculum and promote a test prep mentality in the classroom. The Schools subsequently refocused on providing a "deep, rich program, letting the scores take care of themselves," in the words of a Board of Education statement. A little over a decade later, the faculty, Board and Parent Teacher Council reaffirmed this commitment by supporting what the faculty described as “A Declaration of Intellectual Independence.”
McGill retired in 2014 to become Director of The Program for District Leadership and Reform at Bank Street College in New York City. His successor, Thomas Hagerman, took office in July of that year.
With the ongoing goal of "inspiring lives of contribution through an exemplary public education in the liberal arts tradition," the Schools continue to define "An Education for Tomorrow." Appropriately for a district with a long history of careful progressivism, much of this emerging initiative is consistent with principles that would have been familiar to Ralph Underhill in the 1920's and Lester Nelson in the 1950's.
A Scarsdale Education for Tomorrow assumes that tomorrow's graduates will need to develop the same capacity for effective thinking and expression that’s long been the end of liberal learning. What’s different today is the context: the need to use higher order abilities to function successfully in an interdependent world and to solve complex global problems that overlap the bounds of the traditional disciplines. The undefined nature of this future education is both a challenge and Scarsdale’s great opportunity.
Compiled by Michael V. McGill, 2009; updated 2014
It Didn't Just Happen; Amelie Rothschild, unpublished, 1977
Of Colonists and Commuters; Diana Reische, Junior League of Scarsdale, 1976
Scarsdale: From Colonial Manor to Modern Community; Harry Hansen, Harper Publishers, 1954.
Also, with appreciation to Village Historian, Eric Rothschild '54.