North Wind And Sun

The Story Behind the Little Red Schoolhouse

In a small brick building nestled between the often-boisterous Social Quad, Therese Ross is conducting conflict resolution. The parties of the conflict stand across the table from one another. The offended party, a small blond-haired girl in a green dress, points a single indignant finger at her offender, a small boy who pays her no mind as he stares down at the art project before him.

“He said I can’t play with that basket,” the girl says with a pout. Ross, on her haunches, turns to the boy, who is in the process of rummaging through a basket of Popsicle sticks and pieces of cloth. “Lucas,” she says to him, “I’d like you to remember that anyone who sits at the table is allowed to use the things here.” Lucas quickly nods in response. Crisis averted.

Ross is the director of the Little Red Schoolhouse, an independent pre-school open to area children on the Social Quad. Unifix cubes, model trains and rows of books about birds, animal babies and self-concept line the walls. In the south room, a teacher is reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to a group of attentive children who bounce up and down in response to the narrative excitement. The scene, taken as a whole, is one rarely expected to occur on a college campus, and yet it does.

For the last 72 years, the Little Red Schoolhouse has held its conspicuous position on the Amherst College campus, its construction predating even the dormitories that currently surround it. This arrangement, however, has made for a number of issues. Ross’s week begins with an examination of the perimeter of the building, a task that invariably includes cleaning up remnants of the previous weekend’s events –  party cups, beer cans and sometimes broken glass.“ Last year was the first in eight years where there wasn’t any vandalism,” she said.

Indeed, the Little Red Schoolhouse’s position in the middle of the social quad has made for something of a tumultuous history. While inebriated party-goers regularly used the sides of the building for urination, it wasn’t until 2005 that Amherst students in earnest took to smashing some of the windows of the building. The response to the events was as gut-wrenching as would be expected: The Little Red Schoolhouse began circulating hand-drawn doodles by the children of the school, depicting crying faces next to renditions of the building. A table tent indicating students with the question “Why do you keep breaking the windows on our Little Red Schoolhouse?”

In spite of these rare incidents, however, the Little Red School House maintains a strong relationship with Amherst College and its students. Students at the College regularly volunteer and work at the building. “We are a great place to work,” said Ross, “And Amherst students love to work here; it’s just so different from their daily lives. Some haven’t had preschool experience of their own, so it’s really nice to have stories read out loud to them.” According to Ross, nine to 10 Amherst student volunteer at the Little Red Schoolhouse each semester, often receiving payment through their work-study packages. Curious, however, is that, despite the school’s indisputable location on campus, in financial aid terms, the building is considered “off campus” work.

But there are fears that such a relationship might come to and end. As a part of the College’s master plan, the Social Quad will be completely refurbished, prompting new fears by Ross that the renovations will cause the Little Red Schoolhouse to be either relocated or destroyed. While no final plans have been announced, and Amherst College Director of Facilities James Brassord was unavailable for comment, there are questions of whether the Little Red Schoolhouse’s age allows it to be considered a protected historical landmark.

The story of the Little Red Schoolhouse began in 1936 when Katherine Cole, the wife of Amherst Professor (and eventual Amherst College President) Charles Cole forwarded a petition to Amherst President Stanley King. In the letter, she and a number of other faculty wives expressed concern over the lack of a nursery school for their young children. Taking the petition seriously, King brought the matter to the Board of Trustees, but not before donating two rooms in the Pratt Gymnasium to the Amherst Day School. These arrangements, however, left much to be desired. One teacher commented on the space, lamenting it as “an inconvenient, draughty old place.” Clearly, the children of Amherst faculty needed a more comfortable place to learn.

The champion for that cause soon appeared. Meeting behind the grandstands during a football game halftime, King and Amherst alumnus, James Turner agreed to pursue a plan to build what would eventually become the Little Red School House. Asking to remain anonymous, Turner and his estate provided Amherst College with a check for $9,000 for the construction of the brick building. For Mr. Turner, money was no object, which was certainly a good thing, as the final cost of building totaled more than thirty-six thousand dollars.

In a letter to James K. Smith, the College’s architect, Turner discussed some of the features he wished to see implemented in the new building. While its location on the east side of the campus was already determined, most of the decisions affecting the internal characteristics of the building had yet to be settled. In his letter, Turner suggested that the new building, which would be modeled after many old New England schoolhouses, contain three school rooms, a lavatory (“to contain two toilets and four washbowls all of miniature size for small children,” Turner wrote) a coat room, a kitchenette, and an office – all on one floor. The schoolhouse, naturally, retains all of its original architecture, including the old pine walls and wood flooring.

The building’s location, a position in very close proximity to the Central Vermont Railroad lines, gave the children incomparable access to the sights and sounds of the tracks. Letters written by early instructors detail how the students would wave and cheer at passing trains. Often, the conductor would toot his whistle and wave back, causing a more pronounced undulation of cheers.

The Little Red Schoolhouse’s first term began September 26, 1938, but it soon faced a number of financial woes. Because the school was independent (and despite the fact that the College provided free heat and lighting) it very quickly began operating with a deficit. The teachers were underpaid, and most local families could not afford the tuition increases necessary for the Little Red Schoolhouse to get out of its hole. It was here that Turner’s legacy, via his siblings William and Isabel, presented itself once again: The Turners donated an additional twenty-thousand dollars to The Little Red Schoolhouse.

Since then the Little Red Schoolhouse, while something of an anomaly on the Amherst College Campus, has served as a unique and historically important part of the College’s history. James Turner died before he could see his work come to full fruition. To show appreciation for the man that made for them a place to learn, a group of early students at the school composed a book of poems for him. Shortly before Turner’s death, Betsey Cole, daughter of President Charles Cole, captured much of the youthful enthusiasm that Turner would have no doubt appreciated:

May is here

The sky is clear

Cool breezes blow

Gone is the snow

The flowers have turned heads

Lovely May! Lovely May!

(Originally published 24 September in the Amherst Student)

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