GROTON — When the Prescott Elementary School closed its doors for perhaps the final time at the conclusion of the 2008 academic year, the event also marked closure to a chapter in the town’s history encompassing the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, and a war on terror.
But amid large scale national emergencies and movements, there have also been the smaller, human stories, thousands of which took place within the now silent halls of the 80 year old school building, stories which as yet have not ended but continue to weave together in the ongoing life of Groton.
“I think the Prescott School means an awful lot to this town,” said Thomas Hartnett, a long time resident who graduated from Prescott in 1954 when it served the town as its high school. “It’s located right in the center of town and is one the most prominent buildings. It has a huge history. It used to be called the Butler School (burned down prior to 1928 when the current building was constructed) until it became the Groton High School. Some time after that, it was renamed again as the Prescott School. Yes, the school building itself is very, very important to the town.”
“When I graduated from Prescott, we had a class of 36 and the classrooms were small,” recalled resident Alfred Wyatt, high school class of 1955. “There was wood work and shop in the basement and a gymnasium where we held basketball games and dances. We played baseball down the street at the Town Field. Otherwise, things seem to be pretty much the same now except for the cost issues which as I understand them are huge.”
“I’m kind of sad about it closing because I spent my first four years of school there,” said 13-year-old Jacob Riggert who graduated from the fourth grade in 2005. “I liked the Prescott School because it was fun most of the time and we never noticed if anything was wrong with the building. Besides, it had a really cool playground. Most other playgrounds had the usual swings and see saws, but the Prescott playground had that and more including a balance beam and fire poles. There was lot of fun stuff to play on.”
“Prescott as a high school was very nice,” said Hartnett. “I graduated from there in 1954. It was a nice place to go to school. I can remember taking French lessons with about 3 or 4 other kids, or Latin lessons, and under those conditions, if you didn’t get it, it wasn’t the teachers’ fault! It was almost like being tutored! Smaller classes are all right, but the bottom line is you learn because you want to learn.”
“My class was one of the smallest in many years and graduated with only 20 people,” said Board of Selectmen member Fran Dillon, also class of 1954. “So in general, the class sizes at Prescott were small. We were fortunate to have some very good teachers that challenged you and it was a time when students attended school and most tended to do some sort of work after school or other activities such as those in the sports area. Certainly the school’s facilities were not as elaborate as they are today but considering the time, they were adequate.
“I think that it was an excellent school and served me very well helping me to go on to bigger things if you will,” Dillon said. “I think in particular those students who have been attending the Prescott School in the last few years have become very close to it. And there are parents who have grown very passionate about the school as well. At the 80th anniversary celebration I referred to them as the three P’s: the Passionate Parents of Prescott. For myself, I happen to be four P’s: a Passionate Parent and Pupil of Prescott! Not only did I graduate from the school, but I also had two children who went there.”
When it was built in 1928 as the town’s new high school, Prescott often featured small class sizes which became incubators where romance bloomed and often classmates not only graduated together, but married one another too
“A number of graduates from Prescott were later married,” acknowledged Wyatt who found his own wife from among his classmates at the old Groton High School. “It was a pretty small town in those days.”
But even such a repository of memories as the Prescott School was not enough to save the building from being mothballed by the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District.
Faced in recent years with difficult economic times and strong opposition from the public against overrides to make up the difference, the school district’s administration was forced to cast about for ways to save money and balance its operating budget.
Under pressure from town government to do its share in budget cutting and with low expectations of increased local aid from the state, school officials finally decided earlier in the year that seizing operations at the Prescott School would go a long way to save scarce resources
In between the time when Hartnett, Dillon, and Wyatt graduated from Prescott in the mid-1950s and Riggert followed suit in 2005, births in Groton dropped from 117 in 1954 to only 61 in 2007 despite a corresponding increase in the town’s overall population.
Over the same period, the annual school budget grew from just $166,000 in 1954 to $31 million in 2007.
“Apparently there are lower enrollments now and the school district had to save money,” mused Hartnett. “What selectmen are talking about is maybe turning it into housing but I doubt that would ever happen. If I was king though, I would make it a nice building for local kids taking college courses. I think that would be a great idea what with the cost of transportation these days. If that were done, the town could also make some money and Prescott could remain as a school. Later, if the town’s population swings back again, the town would still own it and could make it a regular school again.”
“I think it’s a great idea to close the Prescott School,” said an unsentimental Wyatt. “It was getting too expensive for the schools to run. I say if it’s not needed, then closing it is a good idea. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s a grand old building.”
“Obviously, it’s sad to see it go,” said Dillon, who served as president of his graduating class. “But it’s only facing reality when you can have all of the students placed in other school buildings without increasing the class size while at the same time reducing the district’s budget by a good $300,000. It is necessary to do it but I have complete understanding and empathy for parents who had children going there. It was like a neighborhood school. While it was open, parents did an awful lot to help the school in the many things they did physically internally and externally and principal Betty Lavin did an absolutely outstanding job. Change is difficult but inevitable.”
“I’m sure the closure of the school is having an impact on the parents who had children going there because it just meant so much to them,” said Dillon. “But I’m sure the students are going to do very well at the Florence Roche or Swallow Union Schools. It will be a change but it’s simply a matter of adapting. I think the intangible factor will be felt more by students and parents more than anyone else. One positive side effect of the closure will be having less of an impact on traffic through downtown in the morning. As to what happens next, that will depend on what happens to the building. The land on which the school is built was deeded to the town back in the late 1800s and it was supposed to be used for education purposes only.”
Although the Prescott School itself is only a building made up of brick and mortar, over the years it has become more than the simply the sum of its parts.
“I’m sure the closure of the school is having an impact on the parents who had children going there because it just meant so much to them,” said Dillon. “But I’m sure the students are going to do very well at the Florence Roche or Swallow Union Schools. It will be a change but it’s simply a matter of adapting. I think the intangible factor will be felt more by students and parents more than anyone else.”
Recently, the Board of Selectmen hired a consultant to survey town owned property and to advise them on how they might be used in the creation of affordable housing. The Prescott School building was among the properties considered in the survey but what exactly to do with the building following its closure is still a matter of conjecture.
“One positive side effect of the closure will be having less of an impact on traffic through downtown in the morning,” Dillon said. “As to what happens next, that will depend on what happens to the building. The land on which the school is built was deeded to the town back in the late 1800s and it was supposed to be used for education purposes only.”
“It was a place to go to school until they opened the new high school,” said Wyatt of Prescott’s legacy. “So I think the building should be saved and continue to be used as a school if possible. When you drive by, it’s just a great old building and it’s still owned by town so I’m sure they’ll find some use for it.”
“I think that the town is probably losing something,” said Riggert, groping for words to express the mixed feelings many in town have regarding the building’s closure. “The Prescott School building has been around for many years. It was a high school before it was an elementary school. Closing it is a pretty big deal.”