The Calhoun School History
Calhoun was founded in 1896 by educator Laura Jacobi. The Jacobi School, as it was known at its founding, was located on West 80th Street and soon evolved into an all-girls school. The school had a reputation for high standards and excellent faculty, and from the beginning sought to excite its students and engage with the vibrant surrounding Upper West Side neighborhood.
Despite the fact that in the early 20th century most women were not expected to go to college, an impressive number of Jacobi alumnae had professional careers and participated in philanthropic work. In 1916, Laura Jacobi chose Mary Edwards Calhoun to succeed her as headmistress. A former teacher and editor of the Women’s Page at The Herald Tribune, Mary Calhoun carried on the school’s commitment to serious intellectual development and social engagement. The school was renamed for Calhoun in 1924.
In 1973, The Calhoun School appointed Eugene Ruth as Head of School and broke ground on its innovative, open floor plan facility on West End Avenue. The newly coeducational school was dedicated to “learner-centered instruction,” an educational philosophy with deep roots in the progressive tradition dating to John Dewey and others.
Calhoun has evolved over the course of its long history, but it continues to be a place that puts students at the center of the learning journey, and where we remain grounded in the values of diversity, social justice and community engagement. As we continue to learn from and honor the past, we remain open to the future and how we might shape it together.
Calhoun History Timeline
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. The school's nonsectarian curriculum emphasized languages and history, and had a reputation for a strong faculty with high standards.
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.
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.
1896 — School founded by educator Laura Jacobi as The Jacobi School in a brownstone at 158-160 West 80th Street. Started as a "brother and sister" school, it gradually evolved into a girl's school.
1916 — Mary Edwards Calhoun appointed Headmistress.
1918 — Jacobi/Calhoun school song written by Edith Mendel Stern '18.
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. 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.
Private school enrollment fell during the hard times of the depression in the 1930s. 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.
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.
1923 — School moves to 309 West 92nd Street; Ella Cannon Levis named Co-Headmistress; Parent-Teacher Association formed.
1924 — School name changed to The Calhoun School in honor of Mary Edwards Calhoun, Headmistress until 1942.
1939 — Calhoun incorporated as non-profit institution; Board of Trustees formed.
1942 — Ella Cannon Levis appointed Headmistress.
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.
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 took field trips to the Stock Exchange and the opera, and continued to go on school-sponsored ski trips, which began in the '40s. Community service continued at the University Settlement, as well as other organizations.
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."
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. In 1965, the school purchased three more townhouses adjacent to the Lower School on the corner of West 81st Street.
1946 — Elizabeth Parmelee and Beatrice Cosmey appointed Co-Headmistresses.
1958 — Calhoun reopens coeducational Lower School. Discontinued in 1937, the opening of the Lower School (under direction of Wilhelmina Kraber) marked the first time in 21 years that Calhoun once again offered classes form pre-K through 12th grade. Lower School located in two townhouses at 431 and 433 West End Avenue. (Middle and Upper School remain all-girls.)
1963 — First Spring Fair (now Carnival) is sponsored by the Parents Association.
1969 — Philip E. McCurdy appointed Head of School.
In 1969 Miss Parmelee and Miss Cosmey retired, and the Board selected Philip E. McCurdy to be the first male Head of School. McCurdy 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. 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, open space, and independent learning.
While some were skeptical at first, Gene had the capacity to inspire faculty, students, families 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 and the custom of calling teachers and administrators by their first names were both 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.
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.
1971 — The Middle and Upper Schools become co-educational.
1973 — Dr. Eugene D. Ruth appointed Head of School. Groundbreaking for new school building on 81st St. site.
1975 — New building at West 81st Street and West End Avenue opens in the spring of 1975. Calhoun now has classes for preschool through Upper School under one roof.
1975 — The last all-girl class graduates from Calhoun.
1980 — Dr. Neen Hunt appointed Head of School.
Dr. Eugene Ruth was succeeded as Head of School by Dr. Neen Hunt in June 1980. 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.
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.
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.
1984 — Calhoun becomes one of the first NYC schools to require community service for graduation.
1986 — Calhoun's Elementary Division is one of 269 elementary schools nationwide (and one of the only NYC schools) to be designated an "Exemplary Elementary School" by the U.S. Department of Education.
1986 — Edward E. Ford Foundation Grant awards the school a Minority Scholarship Fund, in recognition of Calhoun's aggressive program to promote diversity among its student body.
1988-89 — Center of Excellence Award from the National Council of Teachers in English is given to Calhoun's Middle School for its innovative 5th/6th grade interdisciplinary curriculum in language arts and social studies.
1989 — Opening of the Robert L. Beir Lower School building on West 74th Street for preschool through first grade meets expanding enrollment needs.
1990 — Edward E. Ford Foundation Grant is awarded the school for its Professional Development Program for faculty.
1991 — Dedication of the new Neen Hunt Library at the 81st Street building
1991 — The Cum Laude Society, an international honor society, grants Calhoun a charter to become a member of this prestigious organization.
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.
The parent-led Spring Fair, renamed the Spring Carnival, celebrated its 34th year in May, 1997, with a turn-of-the-century theme to celebrate the school's centennial. Upper School students continued to enjoy their annual ski trip, and the entire student body looked forward to the annual Harvest Festival and Field Day (still going strong since the '60s).
Community service continued to be as important as ever. Most of the Upper School students went well beyond the requirement of 60 hours of service and continued to volunteer in their communities after graduation.
Calhoun's forensics team consistently won high honors both at regional and national levels—unusual for a school of its size. The Lower School became a model for other progressive educational programs, internationally as well as locally. 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.
1993 — Mariana S. Leighton appointed Head of School.
1994 — DeWitt-Wallace Readers Digest Fund Grant awarded to Calhoun--one of the first NYC independent schools to be awarded a grant as part of this fund's Independent School Opportunity Program.
1995 — Calhoun's Forensics Team wins six team sweepstakes awards in the New York Catholic Forensics League. (see Forensics awards for complete list.)
1996 — Award is given to Calhoun for its pioneering website; school undertakes major push for technology.
1996/97 — Calhoun celebrates its Centennial.
1998 — Steven J. Nelson appointed Head of School.
1999 — Calhoun announces major building campaign to expand 81st St. site.
2001 — Calhoun purchases adjacent ("Jagger") townhouse, 304 W. 81st St., for use as administration building.
2001 — Groundbreaking for Phase I of 81st Street Expansion, June 15.
2001/02 — Lower and Elementary Divisions merge under one director and one name, The Lower School. [3's through 1st grade continues in 74th St. building, 2nd through fourth in 81st St. building.]
2002 — Phase I of Growing Up With Calhoun building campaign completed in January, adding expanded teaching space to the 81st Street site.
2002/03 — Chef Bobo hired to revamp the school's lunch program, developing Calhoun's Eat Right Now approach to healthier eating. The program gets international attention, with coverage from Fortune Magazine, The New Yorker, NPR, ABC's World News Tonight, Japan's Fuji TV Network, and Canada's National Post.
2003 — E.E. Ford Foundation awards $50,000 matching grant towards creation of Calhoun's Green Roof Learning Center.
2003 — Phase II of the building campaign commences in June, just after graduation. Construction begins to add four new floors, which will house a full-size gymnasium and athletic center, performing arts center, science labs, art studios, and eco-friendly Green Roof Learning Center.
Sept. 2003 — Calhoun establishes School & Society Initiative and begins programming for the school's yearly theme.
2003 — Calhoun becomes a member of the Black Rock Forest Consortium, a center for onsite research and teaching.
2004 — In September 2004, Phase II is completed: four new floors at 81st Street open in time for the school year.
2004 – Calhoun's Mary Lea Johnson Performing Arts Center is dedicated with a Gala Benefit and Festival of Arts in October 2004; yearly Performing Arts Series, all open to the public, features music, dance, children's theater and town hall meetings.
2005 – Calhoun's Green Roof Learning Center opens with ribbon-cutting ceremony. It is the first Green Roof in New York City that offers an eco-friendly space for educational programming. Calhoun recognized as one of the top "Green Schools" in the country by The Green Guide, for its pioneering Green Roof and award-winning Eat Right Now lunch program. Chef Bobo's Good Food Cookbook, based on the school's lunch program, was a finalist in the 2005 Int'l Assn. of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Awards.
2007 – Townhouse renovated; all administrative offices move in as of September. Calhoun and FXFowle Architects receive the 2007 DesignShare Merit Award for the design of the four-story expansion at 81st Street. Calling it a "courageous design," jurors made special mention of the Green Roof.
2008 – Neen Hunt Library at 81st Street renovated and expanded.
2009 — Calhoun helps found the Independent Curriculum Group (ICG), a national consortium of independent and public schools promoting alternatives to Advanced Placement.
2010 — Calhoun adopts 6-day block schedule, and Upper School goes to 5-mod schedule.
2011 — Calhoun and 3 partner schools win $500,000 Edward E. Ford Foundation Leadership Grant for PEL program, a multi-site lab school for teacher-training.
2012 — Calhoun is awarded a $243,063 Grant by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to produce a national, 3-part multimedia educational project, "What Kids of Color Know & White Kids Don't – Deconstructing Racism."
2012 — The first cohort of students begins with The Progressive Education Lab (PEL), a teaching fellowship program founded by The Calhoun School in collaboration with three other leading progressive schools. Funded in part by a $250,000 leadership grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, PEL is a two-year training program that provides a dynamic, experience-based training for future teachers.
2014 — Calhoun breaks ground at 81st Street for a renovation that expands the footprint of the first floor, to accommodate the new Calhoun Commons–a multipurpose space for lunch/food service as well as community gatherings and events. Also on the first floor: new administrative offices and lobby. The ground floor houses the newly designed Neen Hunt library, plus offices and enclosed classroom. The facade of the building presents a whole new Calhoun! Calhoun Commons renovation was completed in September.
2015 — Library Resource Center Opens: The opening of the lower level at 81st Street marks the completion of the 2014-15 renovation. Included on the lower level: the redesigned Neen Hunt Library, new tech and learning resource offices, and a multi-use classroom.
2016 — 19 for 19 Campaign launches, to raise $19 million for the school's endowment and annual operations. Campaign named in honor of the 19-year tenure of Head of School Steve Nelson.
2017 — Steven Solnick comes on as Calhoun's 11th Head of School, upon the retirement of Steve Nelson.
2018 — In December 2018, the Board of Trustees formally adopted a new strategic plan for The Calhoun School, titled Calhoun 2025. Read more about the new plan.