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Center School: Those Were The Days, My Friends

On the first day of the new school year, our writer revisits Center School. The building is gone, but the memories are strong.

In stark contrast to the activity going back to school brings, the parking lot at the corner of South Avenue and Maple Street is a somewhat tranquil spot. Usually 50 to 75 percent filled on weekdays, its biggest use these days is for the popular Farmers Market held on Saturdays.

But from 1909 to 1983, this site was as busy and electric as anywhere in town this time of year, for on this hallowed ground once stood Center School.

From the outside, Center looked no different from most brick and concrete school buildings. There were blacktop kickball fields, a rocky dirt playground with a jungle gym, a large slide and tire swings. There was a dodgeball court, popularly referred to as the "Knockout Pit" where many a student received a bloody nose or got the wind knocked out of them.

But what made Center School truly unique was what was happening inside.

At the heart of Center was an unconventional and innovative mathematics curriculum developed by principal Dr. Stephen Rubin, who led the school from 1965 until it closed in 1983.

"Most schools had individual teachers who operated as isolated practitioners," said Dr. Rubin, who is now Director of Sacred Heart's Educational Leadership, Administration, and Management programs. "The dynamic of the system at Center School was that teachers were interdependent on each other, and not isolated in closed boxes."

The Center School system gained national attention with its "ski school" approach to learning math. When the requisite material was completed, children moved at their own pace to the next phase of lessons in a different classroom with a different teacher and new classmates. Because students were grouped based on their mastery of specific material, it was not uncommon to find a math class filled with students from 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.

"It gave students a chance to reach their fullest potential by meeting individual needs," says New Canaan resident Mary Ellen McDonald, who taught kindergarten and first grade at Center from 1970 until 1979. "Steve had a vision and he chose teachers to help him fulfill it."

The system also helped create strong bonds among the faculty, due in large part to their dependence on each other.

"Teachers cared so much about making the school work, we really had to work together," McDonald said. "We were totally interrelated and responsible to each other for ensuring the growth of each child. We all put our hearts and souls into it, and received a lot of support from the parents."

"It was such a heterogeneous mix of students and parents, and it just worked," said Westport resident Rindy Higgins, a first grade teacher at Center from 1971 to 1982. "The parents were phenomenal in their support of what we were trying to do. It was a system where the kids, parents and teachers could maximize themselves, and we took it to the top."

"People were enfranchised. Teachers had rights. Parents had rights. Students had rights that they didn't have at most schools," Rubin said. "They all had opportunities to influence decisions and policies"

More Than Math

It wasn't just the math program that made Center special.

"I remember Miss Howden's art room," said Elizabeth Rutherford Sinnott, who attended Center from 1978 until 1983. "There was something cool behind every door, whether it was cellophane or clay or plaster…I could not wait to get the chance to see what we'd be working on next."

"The hallways were so brightly colored," she continued. "It was so warm and child-friendly."

Center was also distinguished by its close ties to the community, partly because of its proximity to the center of town.

"We were so close to downtown New Canaan, we could take the kids on field trips to the Post Office, to the Fire Station, the Police Station," Higgins said. "We visited the bank to learn about economics and interest rates. We would take weekly trips to the Nature Center where we did Piagetian activities, cognitive principles applied to nature. In 1982 it won 1st Place from the National Science Teachers Association.

Ultimately, Center's close proximity to town contributed to its demise. In the early 1980's, New Canaan experienced a population and enrollment drop. Coupled with a need for parking in town and budgetary concerns, it was ultimately determined that Center would be demolished and the site would be converted to a parking lot. Students and faculty would relocate to other New Canaan schools in the 1983-84 school year.

"I felt cheated, because my experience at Center was cut short," Sinnott said. "I was in fourth grade when it closed, and never had the chance to be a sixth-grader at Center, or play in the All-School Kickball Game against the faculty. It was really hard for me for a long time. And when we were separated from our friends, it just changed the whole dynamic of those friendships. Even though we would see each other again at Saxe, it was never really the same."

 "I was shocked at the short-sightedness of the decision-makers," Higgins said. "Things go in cycles, including population."

Sure enough, an impending enrollment boom resulted in multi-million dollar expansions of the three remaining elementary schools.

"I remember saying to the First Selectman at the time that he should name each parking meter after a teacher at Center," Rubin said. "What was lost was a unique, organized system. When I drive by now, I get very nostalgic."

"I won't park there, I'd rather get a ticket," McDonald said. "My kids make fun of me, because I didn't ever want to go to the Farmers Market. I just didn't think it was right that they closed the school."

A Legacy on Facebook

Despite the fact the school no longer exists, there are still several reminders of its legacy. At the corner of Maple and South, there are several benches surrounding imbedded bricks and a mounted bell salvaged from the demolition of the school. Center also lives on in the new world of social networking. The Facebook group "I Went To Center School in New Canaan" now has more than 350 members and features hundreds of photographs and discussions about the late, great elementary school.

"Facebook is awesome," Sinnott said. "We don't have a place, a building to go back to. It just exists in our minds, and to be able to share our common experiences is great. It's very bittersweet, because I'm happy to have those experiences. If I didn't go there, I would have missed out on so much." 

"When I drive by, I feel sad," Higgins said. "I can still hear the sounds of the kids on the playground, I can see the sun coming through the windows of my classroom. I loved Center School, and I loved being a part of it."

 

Lost New Canaan explores the places, now gone, that created community and memories for generations of  residents.

Eva Levine September 05, 2010 at 02:16 PM
We have a huge blackboard in our kitchen from Center School that was given to us when the school was being demolished. It has always been special, but now even more so, knowing a bit of the history. Thanks for sharing it.
tom September 24, 2010 at 01:27 AM
Our children went there; Mary- Ellen was one of their prized teachers and Dr. Rubin and Center was one of the reasons we moved here in 1975; then the the majority of the Town Council and the Board of Education ( I remember every one of the naysayers) voted to shut the most successful schools in New Cannan and maybe the nation (US News and World Report article) down and, furthermore, to tear the whole site down. So, the message here is: beware of town councils, bd, of ed, members etc.- they VERY often do the wrong thing. And, oh, I don't even look at the center school parking lot either and would never buy a morsel there.
Judy Matos November 13, 2010 at 01:53 PM
My son was in Miss Higgins' class in the 80-81 school year and I loved the school and the programs. I remember helping on those field trips to the Nature Center and other places like Compo Beach. I also remember going into Miss Higgins' classroom wearing ethnic Slovak clothing and teaching the children how to bake Slovak cookies. It was a very exciting program and Miss Higgins was loved by the students and the parents as well.
Michael Dinan December 25, 2012 at 05:49 PM
I believe the math program was developed during Rubin's stewardship but was largely invented by classroom teacher, later math coordinator, Helen Peters.
Peter Grey December 31, 2012 at 10:16 PM
I attended Center School from 1963 - 1968. Can't say that I recall details of the math program (but maybe that's why I can understand math today!). I remember most of my teachers' names though - 1st Mrs. Stone, 2nd Miss Reed(Read?), 3rd ? but she was quite young, 4th Mr. Farley, 5th Mr. Mitchell, 6th Mr. Taylor. I wad also generally afraid of the knockout pit, but gradually worked into it. Kickball and making canals in the dirt after rain were highlights on the playground for me!

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