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Friday, March 4, 2016

John A. Andrew School: Can an appreciation of the past add clarity to the future? - By Walter Lunt

All vestiges of the original wood frame John A. Andrew School in South Windham are now gone. All but the memories.
The 90 plus year old “grammar” school was demolished and hauled away in recent weeks after its roof was deemed beyond repair. The brick ell, an addition built in 1954 and currently used for school storage, remains on the High Street site. Concurrently, a committee of the RSU 14 Board of Directors mulls the future of the district’s three middle schools. An advisory group concluded in June, 2014 that Windham Middle School (1977) and Field-Allen School (1947) in Windham are over capacity and facing heating, electrical and other building issues. Jordan Small School in Raymond, it was determined, while suffering from roof deterioration, electrical issues and energy inefficiency, is under capacity by 45 percent. Unfortunately, efforts to resolve the middle school concerns spawned controversy over cost sharing between the two towns and Raymond’s failed attempt to leave the district.

The John A. Andrew history is a proud and storied one. The original structure, a clapboarded 2 ½ story wood frame building, built at the turn of the 20th century, was lost to fire in the early 1920s. The more recent 4-room wooden building featured an abbreviated, shallow cellar with a raised floor. Generations of Windham children, kindergarten (early on known as sub-primary) to grade 4 learned their arithmetic facts and ABCs from stern, strict teachers, usually female.

As noted in the early Windham Town Reports, most teachers were graduates of Gorham Normal School; great emphasis was placed on penmanship (Palmer method), and promoted the craft through basic and advanced classes and special awards to those who mastered the drill sheets; and public speaking (known as elocution) was valued and practiced daily.

When primary and elementary classes at John Andrew ended in 1990, a reunion of staff and alumni was organized. Attendees reminisced about teaching practices unheard of in today’s schools: Early “scholars” entered the building in two separate lines, boys and girls – the girls entered first. Both would pause to hang up coats and remove boots in a “cloakroom.” A treasured and esteemed occurrence was to be chosen by your teacher to clean chalk board erasers by going outside and “clapping” them against the building – chalk dust was a regular and familiar part of the classroom sensory experience. And, a mainstay of the day’s opening exercises was a verbal prayer. 

The original school in the 1920s
John A. Andrew in South Windham and the old Arlington School in North Windham (predecessor to the Manchester School) were among the vanguard schools that lead rural communities from the 19th century “district” school systems, or one-room schoolhouses – there were once 19 in Windham). The newer, larger schools were less expensive to operate and required fewer grades per room. The dawn of the automobile, in this case buses, afforded pupils the convenience of “conveyance” instead of walking long distances.

The school’s namesake, John Albion Andrew, was a favorite son of the community. His birthplace is located near the school site on Depot Street. Born in 1818, “Albion” was home schooled, and later attended Bowdoin College. After pursuing a law career in Boston he is best remembered for serving as governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War. In his last return visit to Windham during the town’s centennial celebration in 1862, Andrew regaled local citizens with a rousing speech crediting his early life in Windham with his success. Later, in 1935, Windham historian Frederick Dole would write, “He was a son of whom Windham is justly proud.” In the early 1900s, one deserving Windham High School graduate would be honored with the John Andrew prize by being awarded the sum of $12.

As residents pay humble respects and bid a necessary though sad good-bye to the John Andrew School, Marge Giovani, chair of the current day RSU 14 Board of Directors, looks ahead to the task of meeting modern school needs. “We’re whittling down our options on the middle school issue. It’s a difficult one,” she said.

Before the brick addition. 
Giovani said the facilities committee hopes to give district voters two viable options later this year, either in an advisory or a binding referendum. Choices, she says, could involve new construction or major renovations.

School facilities director Bill Hansen said that the Andrew site will continue to be cleaned up. “Right now, we’re enhancing the area for future use.” The brick building that was the 1954 addition to the Andrew school is serving a critical need for storage. Attractive metal siding is being placed where the two buildings connected. He said tires and other lingering debris will be removed, and it will soon be an attractive lot.
Almost as an after-thought, Hansen mentioned that he is planning to construct a special plaque in honor of the school, a unique one.

It seems, during the tear-down, while the Windham Historical Society salvaged old slate chalkboards and decades old wainscoting for use in their Village Green history center, Hansen removed the front stair treads that lead to the classroom areas. “I’d like to use them for a plaque,” he mused, “that would show (highlight) the indentations formed by years of foot traffic.”

So, gone but not forgotten. Hansen’s plaque will be a physical testament to immortalize decades, that is, generations of little feet. Memories.

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