Independent Day School: Complete History
by Liz Warner, Former IDS Middle School History Teacher
The Formative Years: 1959 to 1970
Driving rains, little protection from the weather, a crude unfinished structure. An episode of Survivor? No, it was opening day at The Independent Day School, September 18, 1961. School started a week late, but 93 students attended that auspicious first day. Its arrival had been two years in the making.
The momentum began on April 16, 1959, when a group of Wesleyan faculty wives met in the living room of Margot Greene's Middletown home with several Choate families to brainstorm ideas for starting a local, private, elementary school. Shared concerns about area public schools had led them to embark on this monumental task. By May of 1959, they organized a board of trustees and were confident that local interest would make it possible for a new school to be opened by September of 1960. Not surprisingly, they were overly optimistic, and it soon became clear that the school would have to wait another year. In December of 1960, the board appointed David Newcomb, an Army Air Corp veteran who had been teaching only a few years, as headmaster of their new school. The board saw in him a youthful idealism and drive that would help make the school a reality. During that same month they put an option on the Birdsey property in Middlefield. The name "The Independent Day School" was selected in the spring of 1961 with the hope that a wealthy donor might come forward for whom the new school could be named.
The initial Board of Trustees was an impressive group. Six members had ties to Middletown: John F. Reynolds (the first president of the board), Dr. Christie McLeod, Margot Greene, Robert J. Norwine, Lou Page, and James Weir. Meriden and Wallingford were represented by Donald Lunt, Mary Lyon, John H. Norton, Seymour St. John and Gordon Stillman. Peter Flagg and Horace C. Wilcox lived in Middletown, but had their places of business in Meriden. Board member Robert Engman lived in Durham.
The IDS mission was to provide a nonsectarian, coeducation in kindergarten through eighth grade to 140 students. Class sizes were limited to 15 students, and development of individual capabilities and a love of learning were the goals. The admission process was acknowledged to be "a bit selective", but local media emphasized that the school did not see itself as "progressive". It was to have a conventional system of classes using "methods that have been of proved benefit".
Delays in acquiring title to the property kept the board from starting construction on the school until late May of 1961. Only $60,000 had been raised, but that was enough to begin construction. The building committee, which included architect John Martin and architecture professor Robert Engman, expressed their intention to build a Spartan contemporary-style structure of concrete block. When the first students arrived in September, 1961, the builders were scurrying around to finish the school.
The building was without doors, and polyethylene sheeting covered most of the spaces where windows should have been. To make matters worse, a tropical storm blew into town, and the students huddled with their teachers in corners to keep warm and dry. The first students were evenly split from Middletown and Meriden/Wallingford. Wesleyan University and Choate were liberally represented. Tuition ranged from $250 for kindergarten to $850 for eighth grade. School began at 8:40 a.m. and ended at 2:55 p.m.; Kindergarten was a half-day program. Homework in the upper grades was significant; fifth through eighth grades could expect an average of 1 1/2 hours each night.
It wasn't long before the school had growing pains. The Talcott House, which was rumored to have housed livestock before IDS acquired it, was restored for use by the Headmaster in 1962. As enrollment steadily increased, a building campaign was established in 1963 to enlarge the original school. The school worked quickly. When school opened in 1964, IDS had a new library, named in honor of its benefactor, John F. Reynolds III, and a wing for the kindergarten and fourth grade.
Headmaster Newcomb was replaced in the summer of 1965 by Roger Nelson, who had been Assistant Headmaster at the Salisbury School. Under his leadership, the school oversaw the construction of the Conservation Pond which was stocked with bass, and used for science education and ice skating and hockey in the winter months. The Board kicked off another building campaign in 1967, and construction began a year later. At this point, IDS doubled the size of its facilities and reached an enrollment of 171 students in 1968. The new addition provided the school with a science laboratory/classroom and art room (the present fifth grades), the Maurice Schwarz All Purpose Room, two bathrooms, four classrooms at the east end of the 1964 wing (today's two IS classrooms, the common kitchen, and music room), and the gymnasium.
The most dramatic change in the educational program came in 1968 when IDS incorporated a ninth grade. The Upper School was reorganized as seventh, eighth and ninth grades (sixth grade became a self-contained classroom). For ninth grade to be successful, IDS relied on a healthy percentage of our eighth graders to stay on another year and for new students to join the community. The faculty was provided with an opportunity to prepare a creative and interesting program. The first year the ninth grade enrolled about 13 students; the second year it dropped to nine students, but IDS had its largest enrollment to date, 196 students.
Years of Growth and Change: 1970 to 2010
The school year 1969-1970 was filled with optimism. IDS, under the leadership of Headmaster Roger Nelson, had its largest enrollment to date, 196 students. Wesleyan donated their wooden floor from Fayerweather Gymnasium to IDS, and after two years of playing on bare concrete, the antique wood floor was a wonderful gift. In 1970 the new All Purpose Room was dedicated by parent and board member, Maurice Schwarz.
By all accounts, IDS was a challenging, creative, and fun place to be in the early 1970s. The cultural revolution of the Sixties had loosened up American society, and IDS was no exception. In 1969 the strict dress code of jacket and tie for boys and skirt or dress for girls was dropped. A pottery kiln and greenhouse were added, and letter grades were dropped in favor of written evaluations. Many young and idealistic people joined the faculty, education was becoming more creative, and close relationships developed between teachers and families.
Then student enrollment at IDS began to decline. The nation was sliding into a recession, and the Northeast was particularly hard hit. Concurrently, new trends in education called into question the traditional age-based classrooms, and the British open-classroom model was becoming increasingly popular in America. A philosophical rift was developing at IDS as well. Many in the school community felt that the incorporation of new, creative approaches could draw more students, while others felt the declining enrollment was a direct result of policies that had already compromised traditional education. In late winter of 1973, the headmaster, who had stood firmly with the traditionalists, tendered his resignation. Then less than a week before graduation, on what has euphemistically been dubbed "Black Friday," the board asked many of the school's traditionally-minded faculty for their resignations. When Alan Blackmer, Jr. arrived in July as the new headmaster, he was stunned to find he had only one remaining administrator, enrollment was down to 96 students, and he needed to hire a significant number of new faculty.
Blackmer, who had been a teacher in Africa with the Peace Corps, was young, idealistic, and eager to take on the challenges IDS presented. The board of trustees approved the gradual conversion to open education beginning with the institution of a team-teaching approach in 1973. Their decision, however, was based on practical motivations as much as educational ideals. Many classes were deficiently small, therefore combining the first, second, and third grades into a single Primary Unit became a necessity. The middle and upper schools maintained their more traditional classroom organization while incorporating team-teaching and an interdisciplinary approach. Students in all grades were expected to guide their own learning to some degree and teamwork became the buzz word.
Gradually enrollment increased, hovering at about 115 between 1973 and 1979, and many IDS traditions were established during this period. The Auction was instituted to benefit the Scholarship Fund in 1975. It proved an immediate success, raising approximately $25,000 by offering the innovative items still available today. The first Grandparent's Day was held in 1975 and the Science Fair became an annual event in 1977. All-day Kindergarten was first offered in 1979, the same year the first Summer Camp opened.
Students, under the direction of science teacher Helge Birk, cleared the Nature Trail in 1974 and built bridges along the school's back property to learn about regional flora and fauna. Sometimes the rural nature of the neighborhood imposed itself on IDS. On one occasion a bull got loose from a nearby pasture and charged into the playground filled with lower school children. Kids scrambled onto the monkey bars while Mr. Blackmer enlisted the aid of a student with farm experience who successfully held onto the bull until its owner came to claim it. Both received Certificate of Merit awards!
By the time Norman Jason took over as headmaster in 1979, IDS had moved away from the open classroom model and begun emphasizing challenging academics and respectful values. A steady increase in the school's population brought enrollment to 130 by 1985. It was during this era that the language program was expanded and the first Secondary School Fair was offered. All School Meeting was instituted and until 1988 the entire school community managed to meet each Wednesday in the All Purpose Room.
Walter Ebmeyer became headmaster in 1985 and oversaw the school's growth during the next ten years. A preschool was added in 1988 and increasing enrollment required most grades to be split into two homerooms. The campus facilities began to feel the strain. One modular building was brought in to accommodate the nursery school and another one housed music classes.
In the fall of 1990 the new Science & Arts Center (SAC) provided two new classrooms, two art rooms, and two science classrooms and laboratories. IDS's enrollment reached an all-time high of 243 children in 1993. During Mr. Ebmeyer's tenure it became a tradition for each grade to perform a play or musical during the course of the school year. The After-School Program was instituted in 1985 and a full-time custodian was hired. Mr. Ebmeyer is probably best remembered by students, however, for his family pets. Buster, the errant Beagle, and Otto and Rosie, the lunch-grabbing Golden Retrievers, became beloved members of the IDS community.
In 1995, when Robert R. Coombs, Jr., became headmaster, he was struck by the contrast between the simplicity of the edifice and the powerful energy and character of the student body and faculty. He was impressed by the positive value placed on relationships within the school, the commitment of the faculty, and the basic, yet demanding curriculum. He set the goal of improving the financial stability of the school and its physical plant, and bringing faculty salaries more in line with its dynamic educational offerings. Mr. Coombs reorganized the administration to include full-time positions for directors of admission and development. An addition to the front of the school was completed in the fall of 1996, which provided IDS with a more attractive facade and several new administrative offices.
In 2001, as The Independent Day School celebrated its fortieth year, Robert Fricker joined the IDS community as the seventh Headmaster. In September of that year, the Early Childhood Wing was completed for opening day, greatly expanding the school’s square footage and offering spacious classrooms for Beginners through third grade. Bob Fricker emphasized the nurturing aspects of the IDS community and brought the Responsive Classroom program to the Lower School. Responsive Classroom provides a practical approach to creating a “safe, challenging, and joyful classroom” environment and enabling optimal student learning.
The academic year that began in September 2005 saw the addition of the Galluzzo Performing Arts Center, generously donated by parents Frank and Donna Galluzzo. The impressive building provided the school with a modern and elegant space for grade level plays and community gatherings, including Wednesday’s All-School Meetings. The lower level of the Center was finished with two band rooms, instrumental practice rooms, and a dance studio. The new Galluzzo Center made possible the establishment of The Middlesex Academy for the Performing Arts (MAPA), which opened its doors in 2005 for classes in dance, music, and theater to children beyond IDS from the neighboring communities. Programs are offered for all age groups after school, in the summer, and during school vacations.
In July, 2007, Dr. John Barrengos became the school’s eighth Headmaster. Dr. B, as he is affectionately called, came to IDS with experiences ranging from high school teaching to banking for schools and hospitals. In the midst of the nation's challenging economic times, Dr. Barrengos has focused upon the essential value of the relationships among teachers and students, aligning the school's resources and its objectives, and enhancing the school's long term resource.
Jessi Christiansen, the first female Head of school, began her tenure at IDS in the summer of 2013. Ms. Christiansen came to IDS following a two year tenure as Director of Strategic Development at a school in Panama. Born in Germany, Ms. Christiansen moved to the United States when she was 13. Based on her experience, one of her core beliefs is building in our students a comfort and knowledge of our world and preparing them to be global citizens. Her goal at IDS is building and maintaining relationships within the strong IDS community and identifying growth segments as she moves the school forward.
In the summer of 2016, Marijke Kehrhahn, a former president of the Board of Trustees and former parent, assumed the position of interim Head of School. Marijke has been an educator for over 35, with experience teaching pre-school, elementary and middle school students as well as at the undergraduate and graduate level. Over the past ten years, Marijke has served as the Director of Teacher Education at the University of Connecticut and as Associate Dean of the Neag School of Education at UCONN, leading faculty and staff in the development and execution of nationally recognized programs in teacher education and collaborative development and implementation of the Neag School's strategic plan.
IDS has remained fundamentally the same for more than fifty years. The school is living up to its mission "to inspire a community of independent thinkers who are resilient and confident to take risks." Former headmasters, teachers, parents, students, and trustees comment that IDS "feels" the same today as it always has. The teachers are still dedicated and caring. There are still children in classrooms and in the halls thinking, laughing, exploring, and enjoying their education. The Independent Day School, one of the finest private pre-school, elementary school and middle school in Middlesex County, continues to be a delightful place to come to each day.