Words and Pictures
Center Street Elementary School
by Ron Whalen
In 1895, a good salary brought the rate of fifty cents an hour. A ride on the trolley cost five cents, a pair of new men's shoes cost one dollar and stylish women's dresses sold for four dollars. Electricity powered most of the lights for downtown Oneonta's stores, with only two or three homes having attained that luxury. Money was in short supply, but the residents and the elected civic leaders of the Village of Oneonta thought education was a necessity, an important asset for the children of Oneonta to have. Therefore, the village council allocated what would be an outstanding investement of $20,000 for the construction of a new elementary school at a Center Street location.
The land for the new school had originally been part of the Huntington family farm. The property was purchased, the land cleared, and construction began for the new facility with classes officially beginning two years later. A new neighborhood school with a century of rich heritage had been created.
The faculty and staff of the newly constructed Center Street Elementary School consisted of Miss Linda Meade - Principal, Miss Carolyn Hurlbutt - First Grade, Miss Jennie Shearer - Second Grade, Miss Cora Shearer - Third Grade, Miss Leilla Tanner - Fourth Grade, Miss Nellie Wilson - Fifth/Sixth Grade. The school's student body numbered over one hundred seventy. The large windows of the school brought sunlight and warmth into this new structure. Classrooms were located on the first and second floor and the entire third floor was occupied by the auditorium. The new school was a source of great pride to the rapidly expanding community. Unfortunately, in a few short years, this rapid, unplanned growth would make the local civic leaders and residents wish they had built a larger school.
In 1906, Center Street Elementary School would enter into a whole new chapter of Oneonta history. In that year, Center Street School was leased by the Village of Oneonta to the State of New York to be used as a practice teaching and training school for the Oneonta Normal School (fore-runner of the present-day State University of New York at Oneonta). This leasing arrangement came about due to the closing of a state normal school on Long Island, bringing a large influx of practice teachers (today's student teachers) to the already filled-to-capacity Oneonta Normal School. This lease arrangement was devised to help ease the practice teaching crisis at Old Main. During this era, only unmarried women were hired as elementary school teachers and principals. A few men taught at the high school level. The faculty of the state-run Center Street School was led by Principal Miss Addie Hatfield and faculty members included Miss Ellen Hitchcock, Miss Mabelle Boynton, Miss Estella Matteson, Miss Ellen Vaughn, Miss Alice Esmond, Miss Jennie Green, and Miss Faith Brigham.
The long-term lease agreement lasted for twenty-seven years until 1933, when the Bugbee School was built adjacent to Old Main by the State of New York. Bugbee School became the new campus school for the Oneonta Normal School, with Center Street School reverting back to the community for use by the Oneonta School District.
With passing years, Oneonta's north-central section became the fastest growing part of the city. By the early 1950's, the student enrollment had mushroomed to over three hundred seventy students. Since the school's opening, adjacent properties had been bought for residential homes, reducing the open playground area to a "postage stamp" size. Adjustments in the building were needed to handle the increased student enrollment. The third-floor auditorium was converted into a classroom; even the basement boiler room doubled as the instrumental music room and gym. The principal's office was made into a classroom with the principal using part of a cloakroom as an office. Assembly programs were held in the stairwell area. During those "crowded days" of the 1950's, Earl Smith became the school's first male principal. Mr. Smith is fondly remembered for teaching dancing lessons to the students every Friday afternoon during school.
In the late 1950's, the school board realized all their schools were deteriorating and initiated several surveys conducted by professional firms to assess the future needs of the district's schools. The results were dramatic. Every school needed major structural repairs. All were over-crowded. Oneonta needed to consolidate and build new, updated facilities at all levels. New properties were acquired, some schools were closed with new expansive buildings taking their place. Center Street remained the exception. The old part was renovated in 1961 with a new addition built, consisting of a gymnasium, cafeteria, library, and spacious classrooms at the cost of $580,000. The two buildings were joined together, proving that the past, present and future can prevail.
The school population remained constant during the 1960's and early 1970's, with Miss Lucille Houck as principal. The long-tenured classroom faculty members included Mrs. Ann House, Mrs. Irene Miller, Mrs. Marcella Drago, Mrs. Jane Sloan, Mrs. Christine Truesdall, Miss Lou Ella Gridley, Miss Helene Higgins, Mrs. Angeline Nielsen, Mrs. Dorothy Doyle, Mrs. Helen Swackhammer, Mrs. Mattie Clune, Mrs. Coralyn Rose, Mrs. Wava Cuyler, Mrs. Helen Ranieri, Mrs. Marlene Pidgeon, Mrs. Joanne Schoonover, Mrs. Mary Benjamin, Mrs. Dawn Minette and Mrs. Ellen Delaney. Mr. Richard Picolla became principal upon Miss Houck's retirement. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, a few of the school's many principals were Miss Dorothy Perry, Mr. John Higgins, Mrs. Ginger Uhl, and Mr. Joseph Cichello.
The 1980's brought a dark cloud of possible closing over the school- redistricting caused a decline in enrollment, coupled with shrinking school budgets. With the school board's redistricting and the issue of closing the school at odds, battle lines were drawn by residents throughout the district, who enlisted the assistance of Oneonta Mayor James Lettis and other civic leaders. Residents rallied, as in the past, strongly believing Center Street School was an important neighborhood asset and an educational necessity. A public referendum approved keeping the school open.
In 1989, the Oneonta City School District allocated nearly $1.5 million to remove asbestos from the old school's walls, ceiling and floors. Renovations were made to retain the one-hundred-year-old interior architecture style of the building. Mr. John Cook was principal during the school's long renovation period, and he currently serves as the school's principal.
Center Street Elementary School, through its historic past, looks forward as it begins its second hundred years of service to its increasing student population and to the entire Oneonta community.
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