50th Edition, News

Seasholes (1973-1997)

By Denebola
Published: February 2011

From a January 2011 interview:

How did Newton South High School come into being?
Well, Newton High school, a classical high school that went back into the 19th century and had a national reputation, was getting too big, perhaps 3400 students. So the thinking was to build an even larger, a huge, a massive high school.
But Newton High was really two schools, Newton High and Newton Technical School. (The latter did what’s called VocTech, these days, but the students who attended and were trained were not just from Newton but came from other communities, and had their own, separate building.)
In any event the discussion moved to newer ideas about schools and social relations, the value of closer, more face-to-face contact in the teaching/learning experience.
The argument emerged that one school with perhaps 4500 students would be too big, and there were other pressures for a high school closer to the south side of Newton where the community there had been growing in the post-World War 2 period.
The School Committee decided to make the line Beacon Street, which many over the years thought unwise, reinforcing an artificial North/South mentality.
* * *
Newton High School had for each building—1-2-3—administrators but South gave the system an opportunity to re-think that organizing principle.
Why not combine what had become separate elements of the educational experience? Put together in a single unit academic, administrative and counseling aspects of student and teachers’ days?
If the thinking was vigorous in Newton, the practice had already begun in Evanston, Illinois; those public schools had a “house” system. (There had been smaller scale practice of this concept at Meadowbrook Junior High from the mid-1950s.) Newton educators visited Evanston, and a form was planned and partially implemented in the new South. Harold Howe, who was a legendary figure in American education and part of Newton then thought the houses would be independent and autonomous, each would have a House Master, a little principal, students would take all their classes within a smaller grouping of teachers and teachers and masters would really get to know each student as an individual. Well, Howe left for the Ford Foundation, the ideas had a hard time being put into practice, and many aspects simply couldn’t or didn’t happen.
I grew up in a very good public school system, Shaker Heights, near Cleveland, Ohio. It was a three-year place with 750 kids, about 250 in a class. It was a demanding, academically challenging public school. Just to give you an idea of what its graduates were aiming for, in the mid-1950s, my Senior year, 11 were accepted and 11 went to Amherst College, including myself.
South has at times been referred to as the “Jewish” high school. Was it, or to what extent has it been? In the early days, the Sixties, for some people it was 110% Jewish. The numbers were less but in that first decade the numbers were well over 50 or 60 percent.
It is an important story, part of a much larger and equally important story of American demographics in the 20th century, before and during World War 2. A large group moved out to the south side of Newton from Boston after the war.
That fit the stereotypes, and at times was used in very negative ways. Parents would get me to try to say, well, South is much more academic, if their youngsters went to North they might not get this or that.
I didn’t see it that way, we had two very good high schools to my mind, each with their strengths.
On the other hand, I’m not Jewish but in Shaker Heights, a large Jewish population helped make those schools more positive in many ways. There were two important contributions —first, a culture of learning that began when children were very young, and second and also, a practical awareness of the connection between one’s school and the world, getting on, achievement.
Many of my friends were Jewish, I saw the same thing in Newton I had seen elsewhere, that positive effect of the two.
Also interesting was the way in which separate migrations had different effects, as with other ethnic and racial groups.
You have an older community, now in the north of the city, people whose families had come to America after the failed European revolutions of 1848, people from Germany and Central Europe.
And then a younger community, where my typical student might have grandparents from the 1890s, who had come from Poland, Russia, Galicia areas. They were born or lived in Boston, lived in an apartment in Brookline perhaps, then their parents moved to Newton – moved for the schools of course.
Positive, positive thing. In the classes I taught I would have them write up a short biography of their family, join in a group discussion which was a fine experience. So Newton was not just a “wealthy” suburb.
Is South just an academic powerhouse, do we all put undue pressure on kids? We can discuss it, but the reality is we are living in a competitive society, in a competitive global economy. People must work hard to get by but also to gain some of the experiences they want for themselves and for their children. So there’s good pressure and bad pressure, the one pressing to get important things done; all pressure isn’t bad. If a kid wants to spend time just studying or on something mindless, are those the only choices we can offer?
* * *
There are regional and sectional differences, as anyone will know taking a job in New York City or coming to Boston to study from the Middle West. One of the first things I noticed in Newton in 1958, while with the Harvard-Newton summer school program was at the old Weeks Junior High. The custodians there were always dealing with random forms of vandalism. At Shaker Heights, in the Middle West, if anyone made a mark anywhere, custodians rushed to clean it up. But there wasn’t much, yet I saw a certain kind of casualness in Newton, even in 1961.

We like to think of the school as being a home you would keep up, not as I saw the kids, at Fenway Park or down to see a football game, toss something on the ground, let someone else pick it up. A different mindset, if you will.

Read more

Like it? Share it!


Copyright © Denebola | The Official School Newspaper of Newton South High School | 140 Brandeis Road, Newton, MA 02459.
Site designed by Chenzhe Cao.