Niagara Gazette

April 22, 2013

HIGGS: A lesson in Falls junior high schools

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — According to my reference material “School Bells Ring” compiled and written by Patricia Wilson Rice in 1991, in conjunction with the city of Niagara Falls Centennial Committee, a study was undertaken during 1919-20 to determine building needs for the future. Yes, even in those days “studies” were determined to be a necessary tool in planning.

The study, “A Report of the Survey of the Niagara Falls School System,” revealed that “the school population is growing far more rapidly than the school plant. School accommodations are not keeping pace with the rapidly increasing registration.” It was also determined that “The pupils in the higher grades, particularly those in the seventh and eight years are mostly crowded into the two oldest buildings in the city, the Fifth Street and Cleveland Avenue Schools.” It continued to discuss “the need for differentiated courses of instruction in the higher grades” cannot be met in these two buildings.

The survey recommended two or three intermediate schools “which would provide space; also, for the ninth grade, or first year high school pupils and in part, this would relieve the pressure in the high school building.” With that determination the idea of intermediate schools was conceived and departmental teaching rather than class teaching was also introduced for these grades. Adequate library facilities with supervision, suitable laboratories for science work, an auditorium for school and community purposes and the already introduced gymnasium and swimming pool were all to be integral parts of these buildings.

Vocational education which was then called an opportunity where “a boy or girl may learn something of the arts which play such a large part in the daily life was even in the thought process during these times and thought was given to industrial arts, such as mechanical drawing, woodworking and sheet metal work, printing, general homemaking courses including cooking and sewing.

Apparently the survey was adopted as construction began in 1922 on the South Junior High School. The Niagara Falls School District gained national attention as a progressive school system and educators from other areas visited during the 1920s and ‘30s. Somewhere along the line these “innovative ideas” were dropped and many of my peers wish these “daily life courses” were still a part of our current education system. Cooking and family meals are no longer a part of daily living as most of our children seem to be eating in school or out of convenience stores.

Anyway, that is a story for another day. South Junior was the first to be completed in the city and one of the few in the entire state in this concept. Quick action was needed to provide classrooms for the high school students who were displaced after a fire devastated the original Niagara Falls High School in 1922. South Junior was completed just in time to provide space for high school juniors and seniors, along with seventh and eighth grade classes. It went back to its original purpose in 1924 when the new high school was completed.

Located on Portage Road between Ferry and Walnut avenues, South Junior was heated by pipes laid between the two schools under Walnut Avenue. The original three-story brick building held 46 classrooms, an auditorium, gymnasium and pool and cost $862,002.86 which included land, building and equipment.

The first principal was Walter Fraser, followed by Elmer A. Knowles who held the record of the longest tenure as principal in South Junior history. He served from 1925 to 1941. During the 50th anniversary in may 1972, Edward J. O’Connor was principal and in 1985, when the school closed as a junior high school, Robert LaDuca was principal and probably the last one out of the building. It was reopened, however, during the 1986-1987 school year during the construction of the Niagara Street School to provide a learning center for its students. It served for a while as the Community Education Center providing adult education and other programs. It now sits empty waiting for reuse and a new future we hope.

We head to the North End next week to my former alma mater, North Junior High School.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.