A Brief History of Mansfield Schools

Historical Article Series March 30, 2020 > A Brief History of Mansfield Schools

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 34, No. 4, July 1998

This article is based on research by Edwina Whitney and Ann Gauger, annual school reports, and other materials in our archives.

The first schools in Mansfield were established in 1706 by a vote of the town proprietors.  Originally the schools were under the supervision of the Ecclesiastical Society (church) and the townspeople were taxed to pay for them.  The Society hired a schoolmaster for two months of the year.  The town was divided into districts and the teacher traveled in a circuit from district to district, teaching for a brief time in each area.  One wonders how much could be taught by even the best of teachers in such a short time!

In 1729, the town voted to hire a school teacher for 11 months who would travel between 6 districts — Town Street (Mansfield Center), north part of Willimantic, south part of Willimantic, Spring Hill, east side of the Fenton River, and Chestnut Hill.  He would teach in each district an amount of time proportional to “their estates in the county list”.  Willimantic subsequently hired its own teacher and in 1737, it was voted to divide Mansfield into four school districts — Town Street, Chestnut Hill, Crotch of the Fenton River and Spring Hill.  The town’s population continued to grow and by 1760 it was necessary to divide the town into seven school districts.  Each district had its own teacher and held school for three months in the winter. 

During these early years, the schools were under the control of the two Congregational Churches in town.  This changed in 1798 when management of the schools was transferred from the ecclesiastical societies to school societies, especially established for this purpose by state law.  The schools were now directly supported by the town rather than the churches.

By the middle of the 1800’s, Mansfield had grown so much that the town was divided into 15 school districts with two half districts near the border line of neighboring towns.  Each of these districts had its own schoolhouse and teacher and was governed by a committee of three.  These committees hired and fired the teachers and had complete control over the school in their district. There were also two school visitors for the town, one for the North and one for the South Parish. These school visitors — originally the ministers of the two Congregational Churches, later elected officials — periodically visited the schools to examine the teachers and ascertain the students’ progress.   This practice continued until 1910 when the first school superintendent was appointed.

During most of the nineteenth century, Mansfield’s schools held both a winter term and summer term.  Often a male teacher was hired for the winter term when the older children would attend and a female teacher for the younger children who attended in the summer.

Willowbrook School 1881
Willowbrook School and students, c. 1881

Each district school had only one room and one teacher who taught all grades.  The schools were heated by wood stoves and the student’s parents were expected to provide the firewood.  There was no electricity or running water.  Students brought their own lunches in tin pails or walked home for their noon meal.  The number of schools scattered throughout Mansfield assured that a school was within “walking” distance of most pupils — although it may have been a walk of a mile or more.  Bus transportation was not introduced until the 1920s.

By the early 1900s, Mansfield began to outgrow its tiny one room schoolhouses. As the town’s population grew, the schoolhouses became crowded and the value of fewer and larger schools began to be discussed.  Larger communities had already begun to build bigger schools and had separate teachers for different grades.  It became increasingly difficult for Mansfield and other small towns to attract good teachers.  In 1916, the School Supervisor noted in his annual report: 

“Never before has it been so difficult to secure a supply of trained and experienced teachers for the rural school; several of our teachers are accordingly without training or experience…  Normal trained and experienced teachers appear to prefer the city schools…”

Gurleyville School 1910-1911
Students at the Gurleyville School, 1910-1911

As the years went by it became more and more evident that Mansfield’s schools should be consolidated and larger schools built.  It was expensive to maintain so many small schools and difficult to find teachers willing to teach in them.  The Supervisor pointed out in his 1919 report that

“Consolidation would mean better teachers.  The best teachers will not go into rural districts and teach all the grades at the present time.  Consolidation would mean larger classes with greater interest on the part of the pupil, fewer classes for each teacher which means more of the teacher’s time for each class.  Consolidation means, then, better teachers, better schools and so greater opportunities for the children of Mansfield.”

However Mansfield’s citizens continued to resist giving up the traditional one-room schoolhouses. By 1920, the cramped Eagleville School housed 57 pupils and the Storrs schools were so overcrowded that the 5th and 6th grades had to be transported to the Mansfield Center School.  It was not until 1929 that the town finally addressed the inadequacy of the one-room schools by voting to build the Storrs Grammar School.  Over the following years, the one-room schools gradually closed as new schools were built and old ones enlarged.  The last of Mansfield’s one room schools — Gurleyville and Wormwood Hill — did not close until the completion of Buchanan School in 1942.

The closing of the last one-room schools ushered in a new forward-looking era in the history of education in Mansfield.  With the rapid population growth following World War II, Mansfield once again had to address overcrowding in its schools.  During the 1950s and 1960s, the town re-examined its schools and after much public debate, developed a master plan, culminating in the building of Annie Vinton School, Northwest School (now Dorothy C. Goodwin School), Southeast School and finally the Middle School in 1970.  E. O. Smith High School was also constructed on the UConn campus and completed in 1958. Initially owned and governed by the university, it served as a public school for both Mansfield and Ashford.  No longer clinging to its rural past, Mansfield moved to the forefront of education in Connecticut — developing over the last decades into one of the premier school districts in Connecticut.

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