Our Children, Our Schools
Sometime around 1740 families in the East Hill section of what is now the town of Canton got together and established "Women Scholes for the instruction of children located in private homes." Within about five years a schoolhouse was constructed. By 1759 the School Society of West Simsbury had established three schools in various parts of town. It is likely that parents hoped their children would learn enough reading during what was probably a 60-day school term to be better able to understand their Bibles. The agrarian community had seen a need and had responded to it. Canton wasn't even a town yet, but it had a system of public education. They could not have possibly forseen the role that schools would play in the community 266 years later, but the principles underlying this enduring tradition remain the same in the year 2006 as the community acts to meet the ever-changing needs of children and the society in large part through its schools.
Industry Brings Changing Needs
By 1826 Canton had been a separate town for about 20 years, and events were occurring that would change the community forever. A group of enterprising young men purchased some property alongside the Farmington River and established a factory to produce pre-sharpened axes. Many residents who had been trying to carve out a living on the rocky soil of the town were ready to give up that hard existence for the promise of steady work in the factory. But industry required more than just rudimentary reading, workers needed to learn punctuality, some basic mathematics and simple technology skills. It is probably no coincidence that a group of parents attempted to improve the curriculum by setting up Select Schools with broader curricula about six years later. Once again the community was seeing changing needs and responding accordingly.
Canton Becomes an Early Leader in High School Education
By the 1850's our one-room schoolhouses had expanded their annual terms to 80 days, and industrialist Samuel Collins was supporting the establishment of Collinsville High School. Education beyond what would now be considered elementary school was reserved for the elite few in that era. Two teachers staffed the new high school which taught fewer than 50 pupils. Students came from Avon, Burlington and New Hartford as well as Canton. Interestingly, it would be another hundred years before any of the towns dispatching some of their top scholars here would have their own high schools. It is likely that Mr. Collins and others in town had started to see the merits of an expanded educational opportunity for young people who could take managerial roles in the Collins Company and who could improve the other enterprises springing up in town that supported both industry and agriculture.
By the late 1860's, the Civil War had brought dramatic growth to industry in America, and the Collins Company was an important part of a burgeoning new manufacturing system. By the 1870s, two railroad lines had found their way to town and Canton was no longer an isolated little mill and farm town. Outside influences coming to town and the ease with which residents could now travel across the land must surely have produced more changes in schooling.
Entering a New Century
As Canton entered a new century the town continued to transform away from farming and toward industry. Production needs of The Great War (World War I) put the Collins Company into ascendancy. By 1920 more than 2000 people were employed in the town's major industry, and many more worked in businesses supporting the factory. Still serving as a sort of regional facility, Collinsville High School had grown to about 70 students and 3 faculty. For the first time, all students were offered free textbooks and supplies, school buses appeared on the scene, and commercial courses were added at the upper level. Signaling a growth soon to come in extra-curricular activities, Collinsville High School won a state championship in 1928 in basketball. The egalitarian spirit was growing in America throughout the decade called The Roaring Twenties. The war had spurred economic growth to new heights, there were new opportunities and freedoms, and our schools in Canton were responding to the challenges.
The Great Depression, The New Deal and World War II - High School Education Becomes a Right
The stock market crash of 1929 put an end to a decade of unprecedented prosperity and it hit hard at industries like those in Canton. Still, the 1930s was a decade of growth for public education. Not only was the population still increasing, people realized that improving themselves educationally would pay dividends in better job opportunities in the years ahead. With the help of the federal governments Works Progress Administration, the first Canton High School (now Canton Intermediate School) was built and opened in 1935. The school had a separate manual training section and there was increased emphasis on the arts. Increasing ease of transportation allowed those tiny one-room schoolhouses in the corners of the town to be consolidated into gleaming modern facilities. Cherry Brook School opened during the war in 1942, and Canton Elementary School followed shortly thereafter in 1949. Local residents began to realize that they needed to be directly involved in providing their children with an appropriate education. The first parent/teacher organization appeared in Canton in 1945. By 1953 the state dropped its control and the first local superintendent of schools was hired. GIs had returned from the battlefields of Europe, Asia and Africa, and they had clearly earned the right to put an end to any vestiges of educational elitism still holding on in American society. Among the most cherished rights was that of a good free public education for all their children, regardless of a family's wealth.
The Move to Suburbia - Schools in the Latter 20th Century
The Collins Company moved to South America and closed its doors in Collinsville in the late 1960s. Increasingly, the town was taking on the look of suburbia; a bedroom community for people employed in the insurance, finance and defense industries of the capital region. Even though Avon, Burlington and New Hartford high school students had moved into new facilities in their own hometowns, Cantons growing population demanded a modern comprehensive high school. The dream was realized in 1970 when the new Canton High School was opened. Realizing that the nature of work itself was changing in the post-industrial age, high schools in Canton and everywhere began to provide more varied programs. Four years of English, a solid foundation in Mathematics, and strong programs in Foreign Languages, Science and Social Studies provided the foundation. But there were also opportunities in art, business, home economics, industrial arts and music. The first computer in the Canton Schools a Wang made its debut in the math department in the mid 1970s, and PET Computers appeared a few years later in a word processing lab. Keeping pace with the ever-changing technological needs as America moves to the Information Age is a continuing challenge. In response to federal and state mandates, formal special education programs also came on the scene in the 1970s. As we moved toward high school becoming almost a universal experience, the need for a variety of healthy activities for young people became evident. Canton students have distinguished themselves in a variety of statewide competitions, have provided memorable performances in the arts and have carried home numerous league and state championships in baseball, basketball, field hockey, soccer, tennis and wrestling. The growth of womens sports in the past two decades has been especially noteworthy.
Accountability became a political byword during the 1980s as the state instituted an extensive testing program measuring student progress. Canton students and teachers have been equal to this challenge, as test results have been consistently strong. Our children have often been at or near the top when compared with those from similar towns throughout Connecticut
The rebuilding and expansion of Cherry Brook Primary School in the early 1990s most recently signaled that Canton has no intention of backing away from its long-standing commitment to provide for children and the schools they need. As the school system approaches its 4th century in service, its fundamental mission remained, in many ways, unchanged to provide for the educational opportunity equal to that offered in similar communities across Connecticut. Needs have frequently shifted in a changing society over 260 years, but the community has always met its challenges.
Canton in the 3rd Millennium
Canton Public Schools entered the new millennium understanding that difficult - even unknown - challenges lie ahead. Certainly, the town is growing. As we deliberated over school building proposals in 2002, we saw that our overall population has increased by 6.9 percent since 1990 and 144.5 percent since 1950. During the 2004-2005 budget year, student population will soared past the 1700 mark, an increase of more than 28 percent in the past decade. Projections through 2014 show that the number of students enrolled will continue to rise.
To provide a competitive education, we will need more textbooks, more transportation, more teachers and more space. But growth in the student population is not the only reason the town needs to consider additional investments in its facilities. The changing nature of education is another major factor. Substantial renovations and additions to the Canton Middle/High School and Canton Intermediate School were completed in 2005. Future expansion of the Cherry Brook Primary School may be needed in the next four to five years.
When our present high school was constructed, the model for American education was the assembly line. We emphasized worker efficiency. In the ensuing years, computer technology increased the demand for workers with a higher degree of competence.
The dawn of the Information Age in the 1990's began to define what we are seeing in the first part of the 21st century. Schools are now being called upon to develop the "knowledge worker" who is skilled in collaborative research, critical thinking, in developing a variety of action plans that can be used in strategy planning, and in presenting these findings to others. The federal government has chimed in, boosting requirements for Special Education. The state has instituted competency testing to insure that students acquire the skills required by the new economy.
Technology represents the most significant change in education in the past 30 years. Computer labs, designed for multiple learning purposes, have been carved out of spaces designed for very different purposes. Computers have also been added to already crowded classrooms, and are making an extraordinary impact. Teachers are finding an invaluable ally in the computer equipped with a demonstration monitor, but teachers are also finding that the model of identical classrooms with a stationary desk and neatly arranged student desks no longer suffices. Students are being asked to work not simply by themselves but collaboratively as well. The fundamental shift from individual research and learning to use the technology in collaborative activities with their peers represents the greatest challenge to our facilities and teaching methods
As in the past, our programs continue to change in response to the needs identified by industry. Today's service industries and information age demand that students be skilled as knowledge workers. The question is not if but when we will commit to providing the skills needed to succeed in this emerging world.