The First 100 Years
“It is a constant miracle that a school, like a living organism, maintains its identity through change. Students and teachers come, stay for a time and move on. Administrators and staff leave the imprint of their personalities. Parents and alumnae/i become involved and some continue their concern for years, as Trustees. Curriculum changes to meet differing needs. Activities, interests and school events fluctuate with the individuals who comprise the school. But the essence of the school, its inner spirit, lives and grows with the changing times.”
Elizabeth Parmelee, Co-Headmistress, 1946–69;
Beatrice S. Cosmey, Co-Headmistress, 1948–69;
Wilhelmina Kraber, Lower School Director, 1958–73;
From an annual report to the Board, 1967–68/1968–69
The Calhoun School was founded in 1896 by Laura Jacobi as The Jacobi School. Miss Jacobi came to this country from Germany at around the age of 18 with the help of her uncle, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College and Columbia. Through her uncle and her aunt Mary Putnam Jacobi, the young Miss Jacobi was exposed to a progressive circle committed to women's rights, community health and civil service reform.
Initially Miss Jacobi began her program as a "brother-and-sister" school in a brownstone at 158–160 West 80th Street, counting among its first students the son and daughter of Franz Boas, one of the founders of American cultural anthropology. It gradually evolved into a girls school, attracting the daughters of socially prominent families. "All the girls from 'Our Crowd' came here," a Trustee was once quoted as saying, "from Peggy Guggenheim to the Morgenthaus to the Strausses." The school's nonsectarian curriculum emphasized languages and history, and had a reputation for a strong faculty with high standards. Eleanor Steiner Gimbel '14 remembered Miss Jacobi's commitment to civil liberties and her "teaching of race understanding as one of the high points of her school days."
Four young women became the first graduating class of The Jacobi School in 1905. Despite the strong sense in that time that a "woman's place is in the home" and the fact that many girls were not expected to go on to college, an impressive number of Jacobi alumnae had professional careers, engaged in settlement work and participated in volunteer efforts. Helene Boas Yampolsky '05 worked as a research botanist in the New York Botanical Garden and collaborated with her husband in botany and anthropology. Edith Altschul Lehman '07 was a close political advisor to her husband, New York Governor and Senator Herbert Lehman, and as a philanthropist donated the funds for the Children's Zoo in Central Park. Josette Frank '10 worked as a clerk in Theodore Roosevelt's New York City office, wrote about children's literature and the status of Indian girls, and kept her own name after her marriage. Peggy Guggenheim '15, spurred on by her friend Peggy David Waldman '14, became an influential advocate of modern art. The Model Yacht Boathouse at the Conservatory Pond in Central Park was donated by Jeanne Kerbs '13, as was The Kerbs Memorial Hall at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Lita Annenberg Hazen, who attended Calhoun in the 1920s, was a great patron of science, medicine and education, while her sister Evelyn Annenberg Hall continues to support the arts and horticultural organizations.
In 1916, Laura Jacobi chose Mary Edwards Calhoun to succeed her as headmistress. A member of a Philadelphia Quaker family, Miss Calhoun was a former editor of the Women's Page at the Herald Tribune as well as a teacher at various schools before coming to The Jacobi School. Miss Calhoun supported curricular change and higher academic pursuits for the Jacobi girls. She hired Ella Cannon Levis to teach economics. Miss Levis, who had worked for the National Women's Suffrage Publishing Company in 1914, also established a new Student League at The Jacobi School in 1919.
In 1923, Ella Cannon Levis became co-headmistress with Mary Edwards Calhoun. As a result of increasing enrollment in this time of prosperity, the school moved to new, larger quarters at 309 W. 92nd Street. A fifty-by-forty foot gym was built on the roof to support a new emphasis on physical education in the curriculum (instead of doing calisthenics in the classroom, between the desks!). A Parent-Teacher Association was formed, asking for $3 in dues from each family, and around 1924, the school name was changed to The Calhoun School at the request of parents. In the 1920s and 1930s, community service projects were increasingly available to students and alumnae, who actively supported the University Settlement on the Lower East Side and helped organize the first Well-Baby Pre-School Clinic in New York City.
Private school enrollment fell during the hard times of the depression in the1930s. With a decreasing number of younger students applying to private schools, Calhoun finally closed the elementary school in 1937 and devoted its 92nd Street building to the increasing demands of a modern secondary school program for girls, grades 7–12. In 1939, Miss Calhoun incorporated the school as a non-profit institution to ensure its future success. No longer privately owned, Calhoun became a role model for what is still today a unique constituency Board of Trustees with representatives from parents, faculty, alumnae/i and friends. In the early '70s, students were added as non-voting representatives.
During the late 1930s and the war years, members of the Calhoun community watched events in Europe and Asia with increasing concern. Students raised money to provide scholarships to refugees from Germany. Parents rolled bandages for and made donations to the Red Cross, and the school became a neighborhood collecting agency for paper, rubber, and bandages. Preparing Jewish girls to deal with anti-Semitism in colleges in the United States was also a concern.
Social events continued in 1942–43 despite the war. At Christmas time, the school prom was held at the Plaza Hotel. The Calhoun glee club made its debut at the Song Festival at Carnegie Hall, sponsored by The Guild of Independent Schools for the benefit of the Greater New York Fund. In late spring Calhoun enjoyed its annual boat ride up the Hudson to Indian Point, for a day of baseball, swimming and boating. There was a father-daughter debate in the 1940s and a debate with boys from The Dalton School.
Retiring in 1942, Miss Calhoun became Chairman of the Board, pursued her interests in World Federation, supported the work of the Society of Friends, and left bequests to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP as well as to her sister and the educational institutions with which she had been associated. Miss Levis continued as Head until her retirement in 1946.
After World War II, Elizabeth Parmelee and Beatrice Cosmey became co-headmistresses of Calhoun. Calhoun's main focus became college preparation as students competed with returning GIs for places at colleges around the country and standardized tests became increasingly important. But other educational goals were also valued at Calhoun. A new global outlook pervaded the school during the Parmelee/ Cosmey administration. The school introduced a program in community service as well as courses in comparative religion, world problems, creative writing, African history and the study of Spanish. By the late 1950s, a tradition had been established that continues into the 1990s, of providing financial support for the professional development of faculty. Some voices in the community urged the recruitment of more students from diverse religious and socio-economic backgrounds.
Students participated in Model United Nations programs and hosted an Inter-School Congress Committee to "promote better understanding among the schools of New York City." They waited for news of The Marshall Plan and the partition of Palestine, and heard about fear of Communism; they "survived long Civil Defense Drills by playing games in the closet." They took field trips to the Stock Exchange and the opera, and continued to go on school-sponsored ski trips, which began in the '40s. In 1953–54, students were involved in the self-study process for the Middle States evaluation—not a standard practice in schools at this time. Community service continued at the University Settlement, as well as other organizations.
But the 1950s also brought changes in the West Side neighborhood that made some families reluctant to send their daughters to the school on West 92nd Street, and flight to the suburbs was an issue.
At the same time, the administration was distressed by the weak preparation of students entering Calhoun's seventh grade from other schools, and anticipated that larger baby boom classes would ultimately make the 92nd Street building too cramped. According to Miss Parmelee, Calhoun needed to create its own "feeder" school that would provide a sound preparation for those entering its secondary school program. And, she said, "we are determined to have it inter-racial and inter-religious as well as coeducational."
The question was, where to look for larger quarters? Hopeful about the impact of new projects on the West Side—Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the new Fordham University Campus, the Coliseum, and Morningside Garden Apartments—Calhoun's Board of Trustees chose to stay on the West Side and work to improve neighborhood conditions under the auspices of the League of West Side Organizations.
At a gala dinner held at the Hotel Pierre in 1953 to raise money for new construction, Barnard Dean Millicent McIntosh spoke about democracy and diversity on the West Side, and praised Calhoun students as among the best prepared at Barnard. She acknowledged that the leaders of the school had never been bound by "seclusiveness." Instead she said that they had always linked "high standards" with "new discoveries in education."
While the school's Board searched for funds for a new building, a sixth grade class was started in a rented first floor apartment at 650 West End Avenue on the corner of West 92nd Street. Two years later, in 1958, a co-educational Lower School was reopened under the directorship of Wilhelmina Kraber, in two townhouses that were purchased from the Children's Colony School at 431–433 West End Avenue. For the first time in 21 years, The Calhoun School once again offered classes from pre-K through the 12th grade—in two different locations. Miss Parmelee, Miss Cosmey and the Board continued to look for affordable property where they hoped to house all the school's programs at the same address. In 1965, the school purchased three more townhouses adjacent to the Lower School on the corner of West 81st Street. One of the townhouses was immediately renovated for use by the Lower School, while the two at the corner awaited future plans. The stage was set.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, while talk of moving and rebuilding dominated, the Alumnae Association raised money for scholarships by sponsoring bazaars. The annual mother-daughter luncheon and fashion show continued at the Plaza, the Waldorf Astoria, the Pierre Hotel and other well known sites. The Parents Association was equally involved with fund-raising and social events, instituting a Holiday Fund for the faculty in 1956 and a Spring Fair in 1963—both of which continue today. A Lower School Parents Association was formed, and morning parent workshops and book fairs became regular events.
In 1962, the French club was a popular after-school activity with French teacher/faculty advisor Mme. Isabelle Pitzele (front, second from left). Perhaps it was the promise of the trip to France that encouraged high participation? Today, Calhoun's Upper School students continue to take advantage of the annual school-sponsored trip to Europe--albeit to a different destination each year.
In 1964, the Assembly Committee brought speakers to talk about Africa, Greece, UNICEF, Civil Rights, Urban Renewal, the arts and education. Advisor and history teacher June Williams, meets with students Teddy Levine '64 and Marilyn Allman '65.
But the mid-'60s was also the beginning of remarkable political and cultural changes that had lasting effects on the Calhoun community. Students mourned the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., and began to question the Vietnam War. In 1964, students sang "500 Miles" at a "hootenanny." The Calhounder (the student newspaper begun in 1938) reported on a public school boycott protesting segregation in New York City schools. The Calhoun community coped with a transit strike and the Eastern power failure known as "The Blackout."
The English Department inaugurated a new policy of giving a failing grade to any paper with more than ten "mechanical errors," a new class was offered on the History of the Non-Western World, and students were studying world poverty with a grant from the Leadership and World Society program. "New math," interdisciplinary work, individual research, senior projects, team teaching, drug and sex education, double periods for biology labs, philosophy seminars, and Advanced Placement courses could be found at Calhoun.
While enthusiasm for proms and formal dances declined during these turbulent times, for much of this era Calhoun continued to compete with other schools in athletic events. But toward the end of the 1960s, interest in team sports waned, and there was no basketball team in 1969. Two issues of an "underground" paper appeared in the spring of 1969, and the dress code was changed to allow girls to wear pants.
It was a transitional time for the school. The Board had decided against merging the school or moving to the East Side or to the suburbs, despite the hard economic times in the city and on the Upper West Side. "We believe in the West Side; we feel that once more this is the coming place, this is where the future is," Board Trustee Blanche Surut was quoted as saying in a New York Times article. "We feel that the presence of the school is a necessary factor in revitalizing the area." ("A Private West Side Girls School Decides to Seek A New Role," 5/18/69).
In 1969 Miss Parmelee and Miss Cosmey retired, and the Board selected Philip E. McCurdy to be the first male Head of School. Mr. McCurdy (known by friends and colleagues as Pem) was given a mandate to guide Calhoun's transformation into a fully coeducational school, and much of his time was devoted to planning for a new building at West End Avenue and 81st Street. He and the Board of Trustees also entertained ideas for changing Calhoun's educational program, doubling enrollment, and getting more involved in the community.
In 1970 Eugene (Gene) Ruth was hired to pioneer an experimental sixth grade in a West Side brownstone on West 92nd Street. A doctoral candidate at Teachers College with six years of teaching experience in urban and suburban elementary schools as well as colleges, Gene had been developing his own philosophy based on current educational theories. With Calhoun's sixth grade learning center, he got the chance to use the principles of "learner-centered instruction." Words like "open-space," "individual differences," and "independent learning" were fundamental to his approach. [Students wrote/signed "contracts"; see this New York Times article from 1973]
The sixth grade experiment was a huge success. While some were skeptical at first, Gene had the capacity to inspire faculty, students, parents and Trustees with his theories, and he was soon asked to expand his program to include fifth, seventh and eighth grades. The cluster advisor system, anecdotals (faculty meetings to discuss individual student needs) and the custom of calling teachers and administrators by their first names were all born at this time.
Gene was appointed Head of School in 1973. In the spring of 1975 Calhoun opened its five-story, $2.7 million structure on West 81st Street, designed by architect Costas Machlouzarides. The unique building on West End Avenue was planned for the open-space, learner-centered program that would now be integrated throughout the coeducational school, pre-K through 12th grade.
Students learned to set their own goals with "contracts," work in interdisciplinary "environments," and do self-evaluations. The goal of teaching and preparing the "whole child" with democratic values—concepts often advanced by the early headmistresses— found its natural expression in the design of the new building and the learner-centered educational approach.
Teachers were committed to providing academic excellence while nurturing the total individual at a time when many tended to measure educational quality solely in terms of SAT scores and elite college placement.
The diversity that Miss Parmelee and Miss Cosmey had talked about in the '40s was finally becoming a reality in the '70s. The school graduated its last all-girl class in 1975. That same year, the school became a member of the ABC financial aid program in order to recruit more students of color. The student body began to better reflect the racial and economic diversity of the Upper West Side, while at the same time, by 1978, the faculty had become more diverse by recruiting more men, and teachers and administrators of color.
Dedicated parents participated in all aspects of school life, and many continued to be active well beyond their children's graduation. Parents participated as members of the Board of Trustees in helping manage and plan for the future of the school. Through the auspices of the Parents Association, they were responsible for fund-raising, social and educational events. And many parents were involved in the classroom—as artists-in-residence, speakers and mentors.
Dr. Eugene Ruth was succeeded as Head of School by Dr. Neen Hunt in June 1980. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Neen moved the school's program toward one that combined an individualized approach to learning with renewed emphasis on academic standards and structure. She set up procedures for a ten-year cycle of external review of each department's curriculum.
Throughout this process, Neen managed to preserve a sense of balance and reaffirmed the school's commitment "to create a humane environment." The school worked to recruit more students of color, and organized parent and faculty committees devoted to gender and multicultural education. Community service—both in and outside the school—was central to its philosophy. In 1984, requirements for graduating seniors were expanded to include the fulfillment of at least 60 hours of community service over the course of the Upper School years.
Calhoun established a reputation for its writing and research program, critical thinking, drama and forensics, and leadership in the areas of gender issues and cultural diversity. Recognition of Calhoun's academic excellence and progressive leadership started to get national attention by the mid-80s. In 1985–86, Calhoun was one of 269 elementary schools nationwide designated as an "exemplary elementary school" by the U.S. Department of Education. Three years later, Calhoun's Middle School was designated a "Center of Excellence" by the National Council of Teachers in English for its fifth/sixth grade interdisciplinary curriculum, designed by teachers Julie Core and Ruth Licht. In 1990–91, Upper School teacher John Roeder was honored with the Tandy Technology Scholar award as an "outstanding teacher" in the field of science.
In the fall of 1991, Calhoun was granted a charter to become a member of the prestigious Cum Laude Society—a national organization which, at the time of Calhoun's induction, had conferred the honor on fewer than a dozen other independent schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and only 324 schools nationwide. Calhoun's election was unanimous, based on a study of its academic program, faculty strength and stability, profile of Upper School students, test information (SATs, AP examinations), and selectivity of the school's college placements.
The school became known for its dedicated and accomplished faculty, who were an integral part of curriculum planning and decision-making as well as the social life of the school. Teachers and administrators were regular participants in annual parent-led and student-driven activities. And it was not unusual for teachers to mark their 15th, 20th and 25th year anniversaries at the school, which were duly celebrated at Calhoun's 90th Birthday Party.
The cohesiveness of its faculty, the strength of an active parent body, and the maturation of a progressive educational model with high academic standards brought Calhoun to another turning point in the mid-80s. The school would once again have to expand its facility to meet the demands of its own success, the new requirements of education in the 21st century, and changing demographics that pointed to a mini-baby boom.
In the early 1980s, the school mounted a new search for additional space and acquired a building at 160 West 74th Street that would house three-year-olds through first graders. Named for Trustee and benefactor, Robert L. Beir, the building was dedicated in the fall of 1989. Once the younger grades were moved into the new 74th Street Lower School building, which also houses the Gayfryd Steinberg Theatre, room for expansion opened up at the 81st Street building. A beautiful, centralized library was created on the first floor, dedicated in the fall of 1991 and named after Dr. Neen Hunt. Each of the division floors was renovated, including new science labs and redesigned seminar space for the Upper School; and more room was finally available to accommodate the newest educational revolution—computer technology.
While computers had already made their way into classrooms in the '70s, the rapidly changing technology put new imperatives on educational institutions in the early '90s. Under the leadership of Mariana Leighton, who succeeded Neen Hunt first as Acting Head in 1992 and then as Head of School in 1993, Calhoun made a special commitment to encourage students and faculty to become well versed in computer technology—through major investments in hardware, teacher education and expanded student courses in the Lower School grades.
Parents have been a major force in this direction, as well. In the 1995–96 school year, the Parents Association sponsored computer workshops for parents and teachers, and made a commitment to allocate a large portion of its fundraising toward technology and faculty education. Out of $38,000 raised by the P.A. for the annual Faculty Wish List, $14,000 was specifically designated for computer technology and education. This did not include the $15,000 raised by parents for the annual Holiday Fund for teachers and staff, a tradition since 1956.
Other traditions have continued at Calhoun. The parent-led Spring Fair, renamed the Spring Carnival, celebrates its 34th year in May, 1997, with a turn-of-the-century theme to celebrate the school's centennial. Upper School students continue to enjoy their annual ski trip and Café Calhoun, and the entire student body looks forward to the annual Harvest Festival and Field Day (still going strong since the '60s). Student newspapers and literary magazines continue to be popular extracurricular activities, and are the spawning ground for many of our published and yet-to-be-published student authors.
Community service is as important as ever. Most of the Upper School students go well beyond the requirement of 60 hours of service and continue to volunteer in their communities after graduation. Volunteer projects and fund-raisers are commonplace for the younger students, and Middle School students get a taste of community service through special days set aside to work with neighborhood organizations. Can, coat and toy drives are sponsored annually by the school.
In the past few years, Calhoun's forensics team has consistently won high honors both at regional and national levels—unusual for a school of its size. The Lower School has become a model for other progressive educational programs, internationally as well as locally. Students are designing Calhoun's own website and are using desk-top publishing for research and student publications. And in the 1995–96 school year, the renewed emphasis on sports paid off with two winning Varsity teams, in boys soccer and girls volleyball.
Academically, Calhoun students are inspired to become self-motivated, creative thinkers. "Calhoun taught me to speak with my mouth, my mind and my heart," says Sonia Bonsu '95, Harvard '99. "Calhoun taught me to think, question, challenge and succeed. When it came time for me to move on, I found myself more than prepared for Harvard." In fact, Calhoun students are accepted by many of the best universities and colleges.
Since its beginnings in 1896, The Calhoun School has seen much change in American society and education, in its West Side neighborhood, and in its own organization and curriculum. What an admirer said of one of the institution's Heads could be said of the school itself; both have had "a way of changing with the times, but not being engulfed by them."
Throughout its 100-year history, the school has attracted independent thinkers and retained a commitment to academic excellence, educational innovation, development of high self-esteem and self-expression, community service, and democratic decision-making. Students, faculty, administrators, parents, families, alumnae/i and Trustees continue to make important contributions to the life of our school and our community.
We look forward to continuing these wonderful traditions for the next 100 years.