Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

School days, good ol' baby boom days

Palo Alto could hardly keep up with the population explosion as it added more than a school a year

by Julie Tilsner

When Ruthe Lundy first started teaching at the newly built Fairmeadow Elementary School in 1953, the roads leading to the place weren't even built yet. "The city had to lay planks down for the students and staff to walk over," she said. "And when the floods started coming a few years later, things got a little muddy."

But roads and sidewalks were the least of the district's worries in those days. Finding enough teachers to fill all the positions at the new schools posed a much bigger problem.

As Palo Alto opened itself to the post-war hordes of families seeking the American dream, the school district bore the brunt of the onslaught. Between 1950-60, new school construction included a total of 12 new elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school and the district administration building at 25 Churchill Ave. As soon as a school went up it was filled with students, and another school site was begun.

The young teachers who flocked to Palo Alto then have retired now, and had the leisure to sit back and compare the eras. Along with phenomenal growth, they say, the '50s saw innovations in the school system that have lasted into the '90s. School counselors came into being in the '50s, remembers Lundy, and so did classroom aides. But perhaps the biggest change was the curriculum.

Curriculum trends follow a pendulum, swinging from one school of thought to another. But when Del Thompson began teaching, the entire curriculum was wrapped around social studies. "The expert teacher was expected to teach everything--English, math, reading--through social studies," he said. "The present wasn't included in the curriculum. History stopped at the Civil War."

But after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States switched gears, mandating more emphasis on technology and science, he said. "And when Kennedy was shot in 1963, we became terribly aware of our history shortcomings."

Despite the changes, the old adage "The more things change, the more they stay the same," applies to the school district. Even then television was blamed for ruining the intellectual capacities of the children, remembers Lundy.

"I remember my father saying when he retired from his teaching career that children had become less easy to motivate," she said in 1990. "And that was 50 years ago."

The classes were huge then, but teachers managed somehow. "I was pretty young," said Lundy. "I figured this was the way it was."

No one had classes with fewer than 30 students, she said. "And it was usually more like 32 or 33 students. And these were the primary grades, which they wanted to keep as small as possible. Fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes were bigger."

Even though Del Thompson taught at Addison School in the older part of town, which was less affected by the growth, he still saw the impact of the baby boom in his classroom. "The growth was tremendous," he said. "We had to assign children to other schools to try and fit them all in."

With all the young families moving in, there was a link between the school district and everyday life. In 1990, only about 16 percent of city residents had school-age children. In the '5Os households with school children made up a large percentage of residents.

"There was a relationship that existed between the schools and the community in those early years that doesn't always exist today," said Lundy. "We were all like a large family. So you had 33 kids in a class. You also had 66 parents willing to help you out--not overseeing, but helping with what was going on."