SHIRLEY -- Gone are the days when schools had outhouses in the middle of their playgrounds and all students drank water from the same wooden ladle. But those days were brought back to life recently during the Shirley Historical Society museum's opening of its schoolhouse exhibit.
As Shirley resident Harley Holden recalled, in the old days, "not everyone got a Saturday night bath, so the outside row was for kids who smelled the worst," or for students who had illnesses such as tuberculosis.
According to museum curator Meredith Marcinkewicz, in the 1800s, one-room brick schoolhouses began to replace the local family-built and district-run wooden school buildings in Shirley. By the mid-1800s, there were eight separate Shirley school districts, each with a one-room brick schoolhouse.
A photo of a Lura A. White Elementary School mural depicting each building and its location is among the information and memorabilia in the exhibit.
Also included is a drawing of the new stucco school building that opened in Shirley Center in 1924. It had three classrooms that, at the time, would hold two or three grade levels each. In 2009, the Shirley School District turned the building -- which had been used most recently as a preschool -- over to the Council on Aging for use as the Shirley Senior Center.
Enter, the WPA
In 1938, total student enrollment in Shirley was 222, not including the 166 students attending St. Anthony's Parochial School.
"Apparently our public school membership has now reached its maximum, unless new families come into town," observed then school Superintendent Frank Johnson.
At that time, the Works Progress Administration was providing grants to towns in order to improve roads and buildings and to provide much needed employment.
Among other projects, the town of Shirley requested funds to build a new eight-room school building on Lancaster Road. This would later be named the Lura A. White School (LAW), after a woman who taught in Shirley for 50 years.
Two of the rooms would have folding doors that could be opened to provide space for assemblies, which, before that time, had not been possible on school property. A wooden building in back served as the cafeteria for students who lived too far away to walk home for lunch. Also included in the WPA project were improvements for a town ball field and playground.
A growing district
Eventually, children born of World War II soldiers grew to school age. It took three Town Meetings in the fall of 1958 to settle the details and approve posting a $400,000 school bond for the construction of an addition to LAW.
The town also agreed to borrow $50,000 to cover additional expenses. At that time, the town was leasing building P-20 on Fort Devens for its sixth-graders, and part of the first grade was attending school in the municipal building until the addition to LAW could be completed.
The addition opened in 1960, with the cafeteria being completed later in the school year. This addition also boasted a gymnasium and classrooms for industrial arts and home economics training, as well as space for offices and a small library.
Due to overcrowding at LAW, the town leased space at St. Anthony's Parochial School building from 1968 to 1972. In November 1971, the town approved the expenditure of $950,000 for two projects: the renovation of the Center School for kindergarten classes, which by then were required by state law, and a two-story addition on the end of LAW.
This latest LAW addition provided 14 classrooms, a library, music and art rooms, and a small gym. Soon the industrial arts and home economics classrooms were needed for other purposes, and in 1996, Shirley once again began to lease space for its students, this time at a pre-school daycare building on Devens property, until the town could find additional school space.
Unlike Superintendent Johnson's predictions in 1938, the town's population and the need for school and community access space still had not peaked.
New schools, region
In 2000, voters approved the building of a new middle school for grades 5-8, and for the first time, the town voted to include an auditorium in its construction plans. The state provided a 68 percent reimbursement for the building costs, and students moved into the building in 2003.
In all of this time, other than a short period during which the District #3 schoolhouse was used as Shirley High School, Shirley had never had its own high school building. Most attended Ayer High School, but with the 1996 closure of Fort Devens, Ayer's student population began to dramatically decline. That and a number of other factors -- the increase of students leaving due to school choice, tuition agreements, and enrollment in parochial, private and charter schools; declining birth rates; the housing market; and school budget cuts among them -- began to drain students.
In 2007, a formal Regional Planning Committee began investigating the formation of a three-town region, including Lunenburg. At the same time, there was a push by the state for individual districts to regionalize, with promises of more Massachusetts State Building Authority and transportation aid.
A major sticking point, however, was adequate transition funding from the state. In the end, the transitional cost of a three-town district became a major obstacle, and the plan was reduced to a two-town region.
Ayer and Shirley overwhelmingly supported the merger on March 6, 2010.
The Patrick administration allocated $300,000 in federal stimulus funds to assist with costs related to creating the new district, and during the transition year, Ayer Middle School students began attending the Shirley Middle School. The merger of the two districts was completed in time for the 2011-2012 school year.
In May 2011, a majority vote of the two towns approved a feasibility study for the renovation of the 1963 Ayer Middle High School building. In November 2012, they approved a $56 million renovation and addition.
At the exhibit opening, Ayer-Shirley Superintendent Carl Mock said that from what he has seen, regionalization gave both communities the best opportunity for improving the quality of education and for sustaining that quality over time, by ensuring a larger student population and combining resources.
Mock said the new part of the high school building will be finished by this fall, and that the renovation is expected to be completed by the summer of 2015. The old middle school portion of the building will be torn down.
"That's why people voted for the region," said Marcinkewicz. "So we'd finally have a say in how the high school was run. I was in favor of it."
Shirley resident Jane Hawlett commented that there used to be high school programs in which Shirley students could not participate.
Pat Wood asked Mock whether the tennis courts were still in the plan for the new building. They are, for now, he replied.
"So many parts of the buildings are being used for other things," remarked Marcinkewicz, which makes good use of the middle school auditorium.
Marcinkewicz updated the status of the District #8 school building on Church Street.
"In 1976," she said, "we got a federal bicentennial grant to help pay for materials to restore schoolhouse #8, which had been used for storage. Thanks to many volunteers, it looked like a one-room schoolhouse again."
In recent years, third-grade classes from LAW would walk over to the building for a lesson comparing their school building to the one-room schoolhouse. In 2012, however, classes had to stop coming because of the poor condition of the building, which had become hazardous. After inspection, it was found that water had seeped into a corner of the building, disturbing the foundation and floor above.
"It is hoped that the DPW will be able to improve the drainage while the historical society tries to find a source of funding for the needed repairs, which will be in the thousands of dollars," Marcinkewicz explained.
The schoolhouse exhibit, which will be up through early March.
The museum, located at 182 Center Road, is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Mondays, or by appointment.