The Joseph Sears School Then and Now
100 Years of Excellence
Speech to Kenilworth Historical Society by Dr. Linda M. Murphy, Superintendent, Kenilworth School District No. 38
Thursday, October 29, 1998
As we stand at the threshold of the second one hundred years of The Joseph Sears School, we must ask ourselves, "What is it that makes this school so different, so unique, so outstanding? What are the qualities that allow it to stand after 100 years as the best of the best among all public and private schools today?
I believe the answer to these questions lies in the very strong core values that have guided our school from the beginning. These are the common threads that have endured over time and have strengthened the fabric of Sears today and will, I believe, provide strength and direction for the second 100 years.
In the 1947 publication of Kenilworth - First Fifty Years, the author wrote of the founding of Kenilworth:
"The early citizens developed their organizations and institutions to foster the spirit of home surroundings that made the village especially attractive to those citizens whose first interest was their children."
Today, one hundred years later, we can say that our citizens' first interest is their children. I see it in all new parents who come to Sears. Every August before the start of school, I host a meeting of new families. At the beginning of the meeting, I ask families to introduce themselves and tell why they moved to Kenilworth. The answer is always the same: 'Because we want our children to attend Sears School.' An interesting twist on that reply comes from those who say: 'I graduated from Sears, and returned so my children could enjoy the same experience.' And so it is, that the first and most enduring value is our community's singular focus on children.
When Mrs. Babcock's School for Young Ladies and Children moved to Kenilworth from Chicago in 1891, Kenilworth became one of the few places where women were provided with educational facilities before men. But shortly thereafter, the Rugby School for Boys, modeled on the Phillip Exeter plan, was also founded. Each provided the elements of a good education and focused on the moral and physical needs of each student so that they might develop strong character. Each offered courses in mathematics, history, literature, chemistry, physics, Latin, French and German. Mrs. Babcock's girls were instructed in cooking and the Rugby boys in the manual arts of drawing and woodworking. Athletics were important as well with fencing and dancing taught to the girls and a variety of other sports taught to the boys. Both schools closed in1904. Mrs. Babcock's school closed due to her declining health. While the main reason for closing the Rugby school is not recorded, but some say the tragic fire in 1903 at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, which resulted in the death of many Rugby students, was responsible for the closing.
Meanwhile, the public school was founded in 1898 in a one-room frame building near the railroad tracks. In school year 1899 - 1900, the first Board of Education convened and in 1904, Joseph Sears donated property on which a three room, white frame structure was erected on the present Abbotsford Road site. The Kenilworth School, renamed in1 912 The Joseph Sears School, like the Babcock and Rugby schools before it, provided a strong, well-rounded education for the children of Kenilworth.
Another hallmark of The Joseph Sears School is the outstanding educational program. In 1911, art and music programs were added and in 1917, teachers for physical education and manual training were hired.
Today, our students consistently rank in the 98th percentile nationally on standardized tests. In statewide testing by subject area, Sears repeatedly ranks among the top districts in the state. Foreign language instruction begins in kindergarten with children studying Spanish through second grade. They continue with French in third, fourth and fifth grades; and, in sixth through eighth grade they choose either Spanish, French or Latin for a three-year sequence of study that results in placement into the second year of a language as a ninth grader at New Trier. By the way, you may be interested in knowing that Latin has always had the largest enrollment of the three language choices in the junior high school. And, yes, all of our sixth, seventh and eighth graders (boys and girls) continue to enjoy the manual training now known as Industrial Arts where they learn woodworking and Home Arts, formerly known as Domestic Science, where students learn to cook, quilt and the important aspects of nutrition and healthy living.
In a 1948 bulletin to parents, there appears one of the first references to the use of technology at Joseph Sears. Titled "Visual Aids," the paragraph says in part:
"Parents will be interested in knowing that visual aids at Joseph Sears School are not being neglected...films are treated as educational aids rather than educational entertainment. Strip films, slides and movies all have their definite place in the programs of visual aids to education."
Today, the newly refurbished Library/Technology Center houses over 16,000 print volumes, a library of 1,800 educational and entertainment videos, two computer labs with over 60 computers while 86 additional computers are housed in classrooms and offices throughout the school. The computer system is completely networked with access to the Internet and over 100 different software programs.
Much to the dismay of students through the years, homework has always been an important factor to maintaining high standards of excellence. On February 24, 1954, Superintendent Oestreich wrote to parents:
"One of the real problems faced by the faculty of Joseph Sears School is that of trying to establish and maintain high standards of academic work without encroaching on family time after school. On the one hand, schools have been subjected to heavy criticism as typified by the article in the current issue of Colliers magazine. On the other hand, when high standards are demanded, when boys and girls are held to good work habits, to excellent and not mediocre work, there is criticism on the part of some parents that children are being forced to work too hard and that there is too much homework."
A high standard of civility continues to be expected of Joseph Sears' students. Sears is the only public school that I know of where sixth, seventh, and eighth graders strive to earn Citizenship honors each trimester. And, they are encouraged to perform service to the school and honored at the end of each school year for having done so.
On February 5, 1896, Kenilworth was incorporated as the smallest village in America. Today, Kenilworth School District No. 38 is one of the smallest in the State of Illinois. Our size is one of our greatest assets affording children the unique opportunity of ten years of schooling that allows families and faculty to form strong relationships over time, where children can walk to school, ride their bicycles or rollerblade year after year. Ten years of schooling at a single site results in students forming life-long friendships with classmates so that years later they enjoy the most unusual phenomenon of any grammar school: class reunions. The most recent was the Class of 1948 that I hosted for a tour this past August.
The earliest school records, dated September 4, 1901, list one teacher and thirteen students in the primary department. Among them was Ethel Hadley, the first African American student at Sears. She was the daughter of the Sears family coachman and later became a schoolteacher. In 1924, enrollment was 450 with 24 teachers. The school's enrollment peaked during the 1970's when it climbed to over 700. Today, we have 573 students in junior kindergarten through eighth grade. We have 50 full and part-time teachers and 13 instructional assistants. Sears School officials have repeatedly over the year’s resisted State legislative challenges to consolidate small districts and thus, we remain proudly small today.
To accommodate growing enrollments and meet the education needs of students; the facility has changed tremendously over the years.
• The first school building was the one-room frame structure situated near the tracks in 1898 with a second room added in 1899.
• The first building on the current Abbotsford Road site was erected in 1901.
• In 1912, architect George W. Maher designed the beautiful prairie style building, which was added to in 1924. These buildings were demolished in 1969 to make way for the Baker Building. During my five-year tenure, a number of architect students have come to Sears looking for "the school built by George E. Maher."
• The 1928 addition, so familiar to us today, created twelve rooms and the memorial gymnasium. In 1959, the gymnasium was remodeled into classrooms and a new twin gym added immediately to the rear.
• In 1960, the addition to the north of the Abbotsford and Cumberland intersection was erected. This is where the three current kindergarten classrooms are today.
• In 1969, overcrowding caused the placement of portable classrooms on the site.
• 1970, the Baker Building was built to replace the 1912 and 1924 Maher buildings.
• Finally, the recent $3.85 million dollar refurbishment. This project, which was completed in 1998, has included:
• Refurbishment of the Library/Technology Center
• Technology wiring, cabling, and networking throughout the facility
• Relocation of the administrative offices to the front of the building
• Relocation of the art room from the Baker Building to the 1928 Building
• Relocated nurse's suite
• A reconfigured Baker Building, which rendered two new classrooms and faculty offices.
• A new improved link between the 1928 building and the Baker Building, which houses an elevator and conference room and special education offices.
While the community's singular focus is on children, the strong educational program and the small size have contributed to the greatness of The Joseph Sears School, its rituals and traditions have provided the glue that has bound one generation to the next. There are so many Sears' traditions that have left an imprint on the memories of graduates. Time does not permit me to discuss each of these treasured traditions in detail, but I am sure the mere mention of some of these will evoke strong memories for many of you. Those that remain nearly intact today include:
• Eighth Grade Graduation - No! The girls no longer make their graduation dresses. That tradition seems to have ended in the '60's.
• Junior and Senior Field Day - Invariably, when I host eighth grade class reunion tours, the participants reminisce about being Wildcats or Tigers. Today, students are assigned to each team when they enter Sears and always have the same team as their parents or grandparents had.
• The Halloween Parade - I hope you will come out tomorrow as the parade travels through the neighborhood at 2:00 p.m.
• Rebel Football - Did you know that Joseph Sears played the first grammar school game on record under lights? Tonight, by the way, the Rebels were facing off with Wilmette as I left school.
• Scouting - The first Boy Scout troop was established in 1919 and then, as now, Kenilworth had more Eagle Scouts than any troop on the North Shore. Girl Scouts were begun in 1928 and this year, we will enjoy our 56th Scamper Night production.
• Dad's Day - was begun in 1949 and celebrated on Armistice Day because: "possibly a good number of dads will have this day off, while school will be in session all day"! The '70's brought us Father's Day which in the '80's, with more working mom's, became the Parents' Visitation Day. Today, the Parents' Visitation Day tradition continues and is held in January.
• Dancing School - Our sixth, seventh and eighth grade children continue to have ballroom dancing classes during the winter months. The boys dress in their jackets and the girls in their white gloves.
• The Christmas Pageant - no longer exists in its original form; however, December chorus, band and primary grades concerts are celebrated.
• The Eighth Grade Shakespeare Play - which Superintendent Nygaard made so memorable, has evolved into the annual eighth grade play of more recent theatrical productions. Last year's production was Fiddler on the Roof. However, Shakespeare has not left us. The eighth grade language arts curriculum includes Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In addition, our students enjoy field trips to the Ruth Page Shakespeare Repertory Theater.
• The Annual Spring Exhibit - is now the Art Show Open House held in April. This family event features the talents of all of our students.
• The Opening Ritual Each Day Known as "Colors" is also still with us. Historically, students gathered at the center stairwell to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" to music performed by fellow students. Now, we begin each day with Student Council officers making announcements over the school intercom, a cassette recording of "The Star Spangled Banner" is played and students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in each classroom. During the Vietnam War, the Pledge of Allegiance was dropped from opening colors due to faculty protest. I was proud to reinstate the school recitation of the Pledge during my first year as Superintendent in 1994.
These are just a few of the many traditions and rituals that continue to bind all generations of Sears School children.
Finally, in addressing the question: What is it that has continued to make Joseph Sears School unique -- the best of the best, we cannot forget the most important element is its people. Generation after generation of parents continue to follow the model of the Rugby School for Boys that stated in 1901:
"It is self-evident that to secure the best results in a boy's education the parents and teachers should work in harmony particularly in the matters of scholarship and discipline. Parents are therefore earnestly requested to visit the school, to examine its methods and workings, and to confer with the teachers, that they may form a just estimate of their sons' abilities and progress. The responsibility of thorough advancement lies as much with parents as with teachers."
Parent involvement has always been key to the success of Sears and it has probably never been stronger than it is today. Our parents volunteer daily throughout the school, provide important enrichment programs for all grade levels and, of course, sponsor the annual benefit which last year raised over $210,000 to support a myriad of Sears School programs and activities.
Then there are those who have served as members of the Board of Education and some of you are in this room tonight. These are the people who have given so selflessly to deliberate policy, finances and frame referenda questions to the community. Their wisdom, and commitment to the children of the community have ensured that The Joseph Sears School maintained its excellence and strength.
Lastly, then, there are the many individuals who have contributed so much and created reputations spanning decades. They include:
• Of course, Mr. Joseph Sears whose vision and generosity have provided the foundation for our greatness.
• Bob Townley - The boy's athletic instructor and Boy Scout leader for whom Townley Field is named.
• Ann Pemberton - The English teacher of the '30's, '40's, '50'sand '60's whose Grammar Outline is renowned among students and I have copies for each of you tonight.
• Jacob and Russ Baker - who together served Joseph Sears School as chief custodian a span of 70 years and were known as a "veritable storehouse of historical anecdotes of the village, the school and of former students." The Baker Building is named for these two men.
• Elmer Nygaard - who served as Superintendent from 1924 -1948. Mr. Nygaard was known for his Shakespearean productions with eighth graders. His hobby was sketching and he was responsible for acquiring the magnificent art collection which graces the walls of our school today. Upon Mr. Nygaard's retirement in 1948, Vernon R. Louchs, Board of Education President said: "For twenty-four years, Mr. Nygaard has been the guiding spirit in the elementary education of the children of Kenilworth. During those years, he has given all of himself to two fundamental purposes: (1) the molding of sound character, and (2) the development of strong intellect."
Then there are the many teachers who have demonstrated their dedication and commitment to the children of this community. And, of course, there are the generations of bright and eager learners who have brought such joy to those of us who have had the honor to be part of The Joseph Sears School.
And so there you have it -- my reflection on the factors that have served and enriched the Joseph Sears School over time:
• The community's singular focus on children
• The high academic and moral standards supported by a strong program of study and extracurricular activities
• The small size of our community and school
• The myriad of rituals and traditions
• Its people
Missing from my reflections are the stories. Those individual anecdotes that serve to add richness and texture to the fabric of The Joseph Sears School's first 100 years.
I am hoping that perhaps, over the next year, some of you will share your stories with us in the form of oral histories, which will truly capture the richness of The Joseph Sears School experience. We intend very soon to begin to collect these stories for all who will gather to celebrate our centennial during next school year. Your stories will also provide wisdom and understanding for those who will no doubt gather in 2099 as well.