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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Hartford Public High School in Hartford, Connecticut is the third oldest school still in existence in the United States. Among public secondary schools, it is the second oldest behind the Boston Latin School, which dates to 1635. The Hartford school was founded as Thomas Hooker’s Latin School in 1638, two years after Hooker founded Hartford and the Connecticut colony. The Reverend Hooker, a Puritan, had led a group of 100 people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony due to its lack of universal male suffrage and settled at Hartford. He set up the school to prepare young men to join the Puritan ministry.
Apart from its status as one of the oldest schools in the US, Hartford Public High School is perhaps significant for the number of buildings it has occupied over the years and the extensions to them. It is thought that the school was initially run from Hooker’s home in Prospect Street. This street in downtown Hartford was a dirt track in the 1630s. Residents of this model Christian community took education seriously. Pupils were called scholars and were trained in scripture, Latin, and English. The school was known variously as the Latin School, Free School, Free Grammar School, and in the 1700s as Hartford Grammar School. Its location is believed to have changed many times as Hartford and the school grew in size.
By the early 1800s, there was a move in a number of states to educate women and to give more emphasis to the teaching of English rather than a purely classical course of studies. In Hartford, the First School Society led by Henry Barnard decided to push for a high school to be established in the town. Barnard had attended Hartford Grammar School before going to Yale University, and was later the first US Commissioner of Education. On 1 December 1847, the school added an English course, admitted females, and became the Hartford Public High School. The school now had a program to educate young people going into business and finance, as well as those studying the classics. It was also a major step forward for the girls, who had been taught at the likes of the Hartford Female Seminary, although they remained well and truly segregated from the boys.
The design of the new wooden building was state of the art at that time, with one big classroom on each floor. But the school wasn’t large enough for the rapidly growing town. In 1869, an imposing brick building was constructed at Asylum Hill just to the west of downtown Hartford. It was extended eight years later, by which time the school’s reputation for excellence had spread nationwide. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the building in 1882. Everything was gone except for some records kept off site and some items in the safe. Lessons continued in the Batterson Building, Asylum Avenue.
A grand new school building was designed by architect George Keller and built at the same site on Asylum Hill, facing Hopkins Street, in 1883. Hartford Public High School added to its expertise in classics and business studies by soon leading the way in science facilities, housing a Hall telescope, observatory, laboratories, and fossil collection. This included six brownstone slabs with dinosaur footprints and conifer fossils 200 million years old donated by James Batterson. These are still in the school’s possession. The school building was extended in 1897 and its two steepled towers became a famous landmark. Before long, a manual training wing was built, and another building was constructed in 1914 for business and industrial courses. This doubled the size of the school. However, the whole complex was demolished in 1963 for the new interstate 84 highway.
A new school was built in Forest Street in 1963 in the old Nook Farm literary area, which had been home to the likes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Parts of the old school had been salvaged and taken to the new site, such as the observatory, telescope, statuary, and architectural fragments including the original 1883 brownstone owl, the school’s official mascot. Recent extensive renovations have been carried out at the school. In an ambitious project, the building was stripped back to its frame and rebuilt with many of the historic features of the old Hopkins Street building loved so much by the community. The renovations were completed in 2008.
Hartford Public High School has about 1,500 students in grades 9-12 and offers studies in four academies or smaller learning communities: Green Technology and Engineering, Law and Government, Nursing, and Freshmen. The Freshmen Academy is for grade 9 students, while the other three academies focus on specialized studies for those in grades 10-12. The school is known for producing sports champions in football, basketball, athletics, swimming, and wrestling. It has also produced two Hartford mayors, George Athanson and Eddie Perez.