WESTERLY — From its beginnings in the 1792 Red Schoolhouse, education in Westerly has adapted to the changing needs of the population and, for more than a century, has offered students paths to viable careers through vocational training.

The Pawcatuck Schoolhouse Company built the Red Schoolhouse in 1792 on the site of the present-day Congregation Sharah Zedek building on Union Street. Eventually known as Pawcatuck Academy, the school was a private boys elementary school where four subjects were taught: reading, writing, mathematics and religion. Girls who received an education were home-schooled or taught by women in small, private, home-based schools, according to a 1950 University of Rhode Island paper by Margaret Emerson, the “Development of the Secondary School in Westerly, Rhode Island.”

In 1816, a group of Westerly citizens established and sold shares in Union Academy, a school of higher education. It was located on Union Street, where the Westerly Fire Department stands today. The group’s charter stipulated that committee of three shareholders would periodically inspect and report on the school and the work of the headmaster, thus establishing the town’s first School Committee.

The first headmaster was Charles P. Otis, who received $400 annual salary his first year, which the committee increased to $500 show approval of his work. After Otis left in 1824, the school’s shareholders amended the school charter. They eliminated the headmaster’s salary and required teachers to pay rent to use space in the school. The teachers also paid a 25-cent tax on each student quarterly. Nevertheless, it was considered an honor to teach at the academy and the School Committee continued to find suitable teachers. The school closed in 1836.

From 1835 to about 1941, Margaret Alcorn ran a free school in Westerly for children who could not afford school fees. During 12-week terms, the students were taught reading, writing and arithmetic.

Beginning in the 1820s, Westerly divided itself into public school districts, each with its own elementary school supported by the people of that district. By 1828, Westerly had six schoolhouses that were each limited to 30 students and open year-round, according to historian Zachary Garceau.

Other schools were also built, such as the Westerly Institute in 1836 on the site of the Union Academy building, used by the school district for elementary and intermediate grades until it became a private school in 1858. In 1853, American Hall was built as a high school and could accommodate 150 students.

First high school

In 1869, District One of Westerly decided to build the Elm Street School as a four-year high school that would be tax-supported by the entire town. Classes began the next year in English, mathematics, music, art, American history, Latin, Greek and a number of foreign languages.

In 1896, the School Committee decided that too much prominence was being given to the study of languages and not enough to sciences, leading to the building of a physics and chemistry laboratory at the high school.

In 1899, Harriet H. Wilcox donated property to the town for a new high school, which was completed in 1903. The new school could hold 300 students and had chemistry, biology and physics laboratories. When it opened it had 180 students and six teachers. The school offered a full range of academic classes but also business courses such as bookkeeping, typewriting and commercial law.

Vocational training

Westerly’s population was increasing but the high school, with a $40 per semester tuition, was mostly attended by students from wealthier families. School-age children of poorer families generally went to work in industry.

By 1913, the school changed its curriculum to encourage students to attend who were not planning to go to college. Two-year courses to prepare students to be mechanics or work in business administration began. Another program, restricted to boys, provided preparation for college degrees in science and engineering.

War and epidemic

The United States' entry into World War I and the influenza epidemic of the war years had an impact on education in Westerly. In his 1919 report to the School Committee, Superintendent Willard H. Bacon wrote about the effects of the “broken school year.”

“During the epidemics of influenza in the fall and in the winter, we lost four weeks and three days,” he wrote. “The wisdom of the action taken in closing the schools is unquestionable. However, following as it did, the loss of several weeks in the fall of 1916 and the frequent interruptions and distractions due to war-time conditions throughout the 1917-1918 year, the shortening of this school year has undoubtedly had a noticeable effect on the quality of the work accomplished.”

Bacon also advised the committee to bring the high school’s industrial courses into compliance with the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, which provided federal aid to the states for promoting vocational education in agricultural and industrial trades and in home economics.

During this period, while many teachers enlisted in the armed forces, the high school made adjustments to assist the war effort, teaching domestic science classes in food conservation as well as practical arts, such as making stretchers, benches and tables for the Red Cross.

More schools

By 1928, Westerly’s population had increased dramatically. The elementary schools were overcrowded and Westerly High School had 500 students in a facility built to accommodate 300.

To relieve congestion, the Babcock Junior High School was built in 1931 in Pawcatuck, housing seventh, eighth and ninth graders. The high school’s industrial school was also moved to the new building.

The population continued to increase and Westerly High School, named for Gov. Samuel Ward, was built in 1937, opening with 540 students, the largest number ever enrolled in the high school. In 1940, the old high school was razed and the land was added to Wilcox Park.

The new building contained facilities for vocational programs such as an agriculture course, a home economics laboratory, and two large industrial shops that occupied the basement. The school also had typing rooms, bookkeeping rooms and a business appliance room.

Soon enough, the country was preparing for World War II and enrollment declined. Courses specified by the War Department were added, such as the fundamentals of machines, electricity, ship work, elementary aeronautics, automobile mechanics and radio.

With the end of the war came an abrupt increase in enrollment and the high school adjusted its curriculum again to accommodate workforce needs.

Embracing change

James Murano, who has 60 years of experience in the Westerly schools, said in an interview that continual adaptation to the needs of the workforce characterizes the local educational system. 

Murano started in the Westerly schools as a kindergartener, graduated from Westerly High School, returned as a coach and teacher after college, and eventually became the principal at Westerly High School, serving from 1997 to 2003. After he retired, he served on the School Committee as chair and vice chair from 2004 to 2016.

He said the most significant change during his tenure was technology.

“When technology first came on as an essential tool of education, suddenly technology burst out of nowhere and we were using it extensively, it was such an important part of instruction and learning,” he said. “And it keeps changing, it’s constant change.”

Methods of instruction also changed, he said. “The method of instruction I was used to was always teacher-driven, with lectures, students sitting in rows, pretty much working on your own, and then people realized that not everyone learned well that way and we had to address the diversity of learning styles,” he said. “A whole different approach developed that was student-driven and the student was given more responsibility, the teacher was more of a supervisor and a resource; the type of instruction became students working together in groups, very little lecture and more hands-on learning.”

Flexible, adaptable

The buildings were also changing constantly to reconfigure grades because of population changes and teaching styles, Murano said.

“Throughout my professional career, I saw different configurations. I saw walls being knocked down — there was a time when they had the open classroom and they would have 60 kids working with three teachers instead of three separate rooms,” he said.

“And then they put the walls back up and we went from a static rotating schedule where you had the same class every day at the same time to block scheduling where you had larger blocks of time, and instead of a year, it was a semester.”

Murano said the high school’s vocational programs in conjunction with the Westerly Education Center were the wave of the future.

“I’m 100 percent behind those types of programs and facilities and I’ve always said the more choices and options you give kids, the more successful they’re going to be,” he said. “If you limit their choices and limit their options, you’re limiting their scope of success. With that comes a feeling of being happy, being secure, productive and I think they all go hand-in-hand.”

Looking to the future

The Westerly Education Center opened its doors in 2017 through the vision and financial support of Charles “Chuck” Royce, the businessman and prominent community benefactor.  

The goal of the center was to provide access to higher education programs designed to meet projected workforce growth in the region, said Amy Grzybowski, executive director of the education center.

“It was always Mr. Royce’s goal when he was willing to make the investment to make sure that when students could graduate with a diploma and a job,” she said.

The center offers classes such as maritime sheet metal and maritime pipe fitting that lead directly to jobs at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyards. New programs are also starting in customer support for banking call centers and process technology for pharmaceutical, brewing and textile manufacturing.

Grzybowski said 2,600 people have taken either higher education or workforce development courses since the center opened its doors.

She said Gov. Gina Raimondo’s goal is for 70 percent of Rhode Islanders to have a postsecondary degree or a credential by 2025.

“Not everyone is going to go to college but everyone needs some sort of credential to help them seek employment because 71 percent of the jobs are going to require it,” Grzybowski said.


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