The oldest public high schools in the United States are in New England, a result of the Puritan belief that all children should be educated so they can read the Bible.
There are only four 17th-century public high schools in America, and they are in New England: the Boston Latin School, Hartford Public High School, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and Hopkins Academy.
They are relative babes compared to schools in England and Germany. The King’s School in Canterbury, England, was founded in 597.
The early public high schools were modeled on the Latin school, the grammar school of 14th- to 19th-century Europe. Educators then believed grammar was the foundation of all scholarship, and they taught Latin and Latin grammar.
It made some sense, as Latin was the universal language for academic, legal, government and liturgical matters. The Latin schools allowed middle-class children to improve their station in life.
Below are the oldest public high schools in each New England state.
Hartford Public High School
Founded as Thomas Hooker’s Latin School in 1638, Hartford Public High School is the second oldest public high school in the United States. It started only two years after the Boston Latin School. It’s right next to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House and the Mark Twain House.
Mark Twain’s daughters, Olivia and Clara, attended Hartford Public High School from 1887 to 1889.
Not until 1847 was anything taught other than Greek and Latin, which young men needed to enter college or the ministry. The name was changed to Hartford Public High School in 1847.
A fire destroyed the school building in 1882, when it was only 13 years old. A new one was designed by George Keller, who also designed the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Hartford. The school’s science facilities were better than those in most colleges, as it had a chemistry laboratory, a science lecture hall, a Clark telescope and an observatory.
A new school was built in 1963 and later renovated. Today, 1,300 students attend the school known as The Pub.
Stephen King taught English at Maine’s oldest public high school, Hampden Academy. It should be no surprise then that he set his novel Carrie there.
One of his students remembered him as a great teacher, though he looked a bit like a werewolf. “I will never forget the day he came into class with a dandelion in his sport coat pocket, and announced he had sold "Carrie" including movie rights,” wrote Jim Spohrer. “He was very happy, and we were all happy for him.”
Later that week, everyone in the school was working on their novel 🙂 Spohrer, though, is a computer scientist leading the development of a new science of service systems.
Hampden was founded in 1803 as a private school, then as a theological seminary and finally a public high school. Today it has about 700 students from Hampden, Newburgh, Frankfort and Winterport in a new $52 million school built in 2012. The original Hampden Academy building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the site of the Battle of Hampden during the War of 1812.
Founded in 1635, the Boston Latin School is easily the most famous of all the old public schools.
Boston Latin was established by the early Puritans, who believed strongly in educating boys and girls so they could read the Bible. It became a bastion for the offspring of Boston Brahmins who wanted their children to attend Harvard. Its alumni include Saltonstalls, Adams, Lowells, Phillips, Winthrop, Eliots and Danas.
Even its dropouts are famous. They include Benjamin Franklin and Louis Farrakhan. Its graduates include four Harvard presidents, four Massachusetts governors and five signers of the United States Declaration of Independence.
Helen Magill White was the first female student, graduating in 1877. She went on to become the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. The year she graduated from Boston Latin, the Girls' Latin School (later the co-ed Boston Latin Academy), was founded. Not until 1972 did Boston Latin admit its first co-educational class.
Famous alumni include Samuel Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Cotton Mather, George Santayana, Ed Ames, Phillips Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Richard A. Clarke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Arthur Fiedler, Thomas Finneran, John Hancock, Nat Hentoff, CNN newsman John King, Henry Knox, Theodore White, Sumner Redstone.
After signing the No Child Left Behind Act, President George W. Bush visited the Boston Latin School with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
The wealthy Pinkerton brothers, Major John Pinkerton and Elder James Pinkerton, donated $16,000 to make the private Londonderry high school permanent. The State of New Hampshire incorporated it on Dec. 4, 1815. Tuition was $2 a quarter.
Three years later, the first female student was admitted. In 1821, the Adams Female Academy opened and Pinkerton stopped accepting girls. Derry broke off from Londonderry in 1827, and the high school went co-ed again in 1853.
John Morrison Pinkerton, son of Elder James, left a large bequest to the school upon his death in 1881. It was an independent day and boarding school until it agreed to accept public school students from Derry in 1948.
Robert Frost taught at Pinkerton Academy. Murderess Pam Smart and astronaut Alan Shepard attended the school, now New Hampshire’s largest public high school. Its student population is 3,100, 800 more than the next highest school in the state.
Pinkerton Academy is still a private school that serves as the public high school for the New Hampshire towns of Derry, Hampstead, Chester and Auburn. It offers a spectrum of vocational courses from Electrical Engineering to Cosmetology, 17 Advanced Placement courses and Junior ROTC.
Providence Classical High School
In 1800, Rhode Island's General Assembly ordered each town to open public schools. Most towns couldn't do it, but Providence managed to open elementary schools. For decades there were no public high schools in Rhode Island.
By 1838 a heated debate raged over education. Opponents said a public high school would be 'too aristocratic' and would 'educate children above working for their support.' William Goddard, a prominent Brown professor, led the high school advocates who eventually won their case.
Classical High School was dedicated on March 20, 1843. At first it admitted women and African-Americans, then decided African-Americans should be segregated. Four teachers taught arithmetic, algebra, Latin, English grammar, ancient history, medieval history, modern history and book-keeping.
The school quickly grew too crowded and a new school was built in 1878. By 1963 it was outdated, and a competition was held to design a new one. The winning design was by the local firm Harkness & Geddes in collaboration with Boston architect Walter Gropius.
The new high school was built in 1970 in the same Brutalist style as the much-hated Boston City Hall. Today, Providence Classical High School is a demanding college preparatory magnet school. In 2012 it made Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools list.
Windsor High School
Windsor High School in Windsor, Vt., is the youngest of the oldest public high schools in New England.
Windsor was a village in 1786 when its citizens laid out the school districts. In the early 19th century, fires destroyed much of district No. 3. The people of district No. 3 appealed to the Legislature for firefighting help, and the legislature incorporated the hamlet as the Windsor Village Corporation. It was supposed to be for fire purposes, but it also had its own municipal powers. The village controlled itself, its schools, its highways and its officers. The villagers could vote on town issues and officers but the town couldn't vote on the village.
Sometime around 1786 a school was built in the village. It was used until about 1810, when the villagers decided to build a new brick schoolhouse. In 1838 the village decided to divide the younger students from the older, which eventually led to the high school being established in 1845.
The village decided to construct a 'more pretentious school building,' one that would be an ornament and an honor to the place.' The subject was much discussed, and finally the high school was built in 1886. Windsor boasted it had a high school 'which is not inferior to any in the State,'
Today it is a junior and senior high school with 300 students in grades 7-12.
Windsor draws schools from the Vermont towns of Windsor, West Windsor, Weathersfield and Hartland as well as Cornish, N.H.
Photos: Hampden Academy, By Justinrussell - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36624973; Pinkerton Academy, By Unknown - Genealogical and Family History of the State of New Hampshire. ASIN: B000K7FWIS, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8729927; Pinkerton class of 1919, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8789719; Classical High School, By Antony-22 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43545809