By ERIN ROLL
Few institutions have been as important to the life of Montclair as its schools.
The last 150 years have seen Montclair’s schools change from a collection of modest school houses serving local farming families, and a small handful of private schools for more privileged residents, to a highly acclaimed public school district and five renowned private schools.
Montclair’s public schools operate on a magnet system, with each school offering a curriculum tailored to different subject areas, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses, arts, languages and history.
The roots of Montclair’s public school system predate Montclair’s actual founding as its own separate township. Prior to the 1860s, Montclair was part of the larger township of Bloomfield. The area, which encompassed several communities known as Cranetown and Speertown, was largely populated by farming families.
One of the first mentions of a schoolhouse in Montclair was of a modest one-story stone building built in 1740. It doubled as a church. The building was just southeast of what is now Hillside School and opposite the present-day Board of Education offices. The school was equipped with a “dungeon,” where misbehaving children would be sent for a time-out.
A second schoolhouse was built about 20 years after the first.
In 1829, the state began distributing public funds toward school districts. It was in 1849 that Montclair switched from a fee-paying system for its town schools to a public, taxpayer-funded system.
The 1860s brought the arrival of the railroad from New York. Soon after, wealthy and middle-class families interested in moving from New York out into the country began to arrive in Montclair. The arrival of families from New York resulted in a push for better services, including improved streets and lighting, and better schools. But this wasn’t without its tensions, with long-established families sparring with newer families about whether Montclair really needed new schools.
1868 saw Montclair’s incorporation as its own separate township from Bloomfield. Edwin B. Goodell’s “Montclair: The Evolution of a Suburban Town,” published in 1934, includes this mention of the first township meeting minutes, including the outlay of a budget: “For Public Schools, $2,500. For roads, $2,500. For care of the poor, $1,000. For ‘incidentals,’ $600. Such and so humble was the birth of Montclair.”
Besides the public schools, there were some small private schools, such as the Ashland Hall boarding school opened in 1859, the Mount Prospect House, and the Hillside Academy for Young Ladies.
The 1860s saw the advent of a secondary school system in Montclair. Prior to that time, students often traveled out of town to get a high school education.
Another name that shows up in the history of Montclair’s schools is Dr. John Love, a local doctor who also held a position as a library trustee. He joined the board of education in 1862 and served as a trustee for 35 years.
Love had been among the proponents for establishing a high school in Montclair, a suggestion that many residents had questioned because of the perceived expense. “We can afford to pay for anything that will elevate the community,” Love said during the 1879 school budget meeting.
Randall Spaulding was appointed the first high school principal. He later became the first superintendent of the consolidated school district. “He was a gentleman, a scholar and a dedicated educator, and it is largely to him that we are indebted for the foundations and first creation of one of the finest school systems in the country,” according to “Montclair: 1896-1993.” The book notes that Spaulding’s accomplishments included going on a science expedition for the Smithsonian and collecting 30 new species of plants, “which any holder of a chair of botany in any university on earth today would envy.”
Montclair actually comprised three separate school districts until 1894, when they were consolidated into one district.
Growth and change
The late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century saw many more changes come to Montclair.
The town continued growing, and became more diverse over time as well. Irish and Italian immigrants arrived, as did African American families.
As the town changed and grew, so too did the schools. Most of Montclair’s present-day schools were established during this time.
Maple Avenue School, now Glenfield Middle School, was built in 1896. The first Bradford School, described as a two-room school in “the Heights,” was built in 1895, and Watchung School opened in 1900. Hillside School and Cedar Avenue School, later renamed Nishuane, were built in 1909.
The Montclair Academy, a private school for boys, was established in 1887. The school became a military boarding school in 1891, and was renamed the Montclair Military Academy. This designation continued until the end of World War I.
Mary Kimberley Waring established the Kimberley School for girls, initially as Miss Waring’s School and Studio, in 1906. The Kimberley School became known as the sister school for the Montclair Academy.
Meanwhile, the State Normal School (now Montclair State University) was established in 1908 for the training of new teachers and staff.
Two schools on Grove Street and Baldwin Street were built in 1912 and 1913. The present-day Montclair High School was built on Chestnut Street in 1915. Even so, each of Montclair’s schools was filled to capacity by the start of the 1920s.
A rapid succession of new schools followed in the 1920s: Rand, Edgemont, George Inness Junior High School and the present-day Bradford. The 1920s also saw the founding of Lacordaire Academy, and the Brookside School.
Along with the building of new schools, all of the existing schools saw a program of expansions and additions.
Montclair Academy was in need of additional space of its own, and bought the Brookside School in 1949 to use as a feeder school.
By the end of the 1940s, Montclair had 11 public elementary schools – including also the Chestnut Street School, Southwest School and the George Washington School – in addition to the public middle and high schools.
Declining enrollment starting in the 1950s led to the closure of some of Montclair’s schools. The Chestnut Street School is now the home of the Montclair Cooperative School, which opened in 1963, and the Grove Street School later became the private Deron School.
Desegregation and the magnet program
In the 1950s and 1960s, Montclair, like many school districts across the country, had to deal with the problem of segregation. Neighborhoods were divided largely among color lines, with black families being consigned largely to the Fourth Ward, and this was reflected in the demographics of the schools.
There were virtually no families of color in Upper Montclair. Before the 1960s, real estate agents didn’t show black families houses for sale north of Watchung Avenue.
Glenfield and Nishuane, two predominantly black schools, had fallen into disrepair, and students were given inadequate textbooks and other resources compared to their peers at predominantly white schools.
Harris Davis, whose daughter Lydia had just started at Montclair High School, went before the BOE in 1961 to raise concerns about the issue. His daughter had been a straight-A student at Glenfield, but her grades plummeted when she started at the high school. This led Davis to question whether Glenfield was doing its job to prepare students for high school coursework.
Davis, together with other parents, founded the Parents’ Emergency Committee. The committee worked with the NAACP to compare educational offerings in predominantly white schools with those in predominantly black schools.
In 1966, a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the BOE. The case, Rice v. Montclair Board of Education, was a landmark case in New Jersey educational law, and it led to Montclair being put under a desegregation order.
Montclair tried a busing program in 1972. But this led to many tensions in town, with BOE meetings lasting until 1 a.m. sometimes. It was estimated that 1,500 children were pulled out of the public schools and sent to private schools during that time.
In 1976, the schools tried something new: a magnet program.
The magnet program started out in two schools: Bradford and Nishuane, with Bradford having a “back to basics” program and Nishuane being designated as the gifted and talented program. Gradually, the magnet system spread to the other schools.
Bradford and Nishuane were also designated as sites for the schools’ new Pre-K program in 1977.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bradford and Nishuane were virtually equal in the attendance rates of white and minority students.
Jane Manners, a graduate of the Montclair schools, took Montclair’s magnet system and its founding as the subject for her honors thesis at Harvard in 1998. While Montclair’s system has been lauded as a successful model, she wrote, the schools still had a problem with students of color being less likely than their white peers to be enrolled into advanced academic courses.
Today, Montclair has 11 public schools, as well as five private, parochial and otherwise independent schools. As of the 2017-2018 school year, there were approximately 6,681 students enrolled in the public school district.
The magnet program has received accolades at both the state and federal level over the years.
A new elementary school, Charles H. Bullock, opened its doors in 2010.
Mt. Hebron School was renamed Buzz Aldrin Middle School in 2014, after the Montclair native and Apollo 11 astronaut.
The Montclair Academy, the Kimberley School and Brookside School merged in 1974 to become the Montclair Kimberley Academy, which serves students on three campuses across Montclair.
All information from “Montclair 1868-1993: A Goodly Heritage,” by David Nelson and Mary Travis Arny Alloway, unless otherwise noted.