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Union Elementary School: The Early Years

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Students leaving the old Union Elementary School for the last time, in 1940. Courtesy photo.

You may have passed through the front hall of Montpelier’s Union Elementary School many times and never noticed it, a bronze  plaque with burnished lettering. If you lean in, you can make out the words “Civilian Conservation Corps” and the date “1939.” 

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s programs designed to energize the battered depression-era economy. Unemployed young men joined the CCC to work primarily on conservation projects, but in this case, they helped build a new school for Montpelier. There already was a Union Elementary School on Montpelier’s Park Avenue in the 1930s, but it was reportedly overcrowded and “outmoded.” The Board of School Commissioners decided a new school was needed and that it would be built right beside the original UES.  

On February 6, 1940, the students scooped up their pencils, their rulers, their penmanship notebooks, and maybe their well-thumbed copies of “Dick and Jane.” They walked out the door, down the cement steps, away from their old school and into their new classrooms. The city was proud of the spacious building and the grand auditorium with its curved woodwork and tall arched windows. The old school was razed, the only evidence it had ever existed were those cement steps which, for a time, led up to an empty lot. 

What was school like for those first students at UES? In the early 1940s, the world was preparing for war. Some of the children had older brothers leaving school early to enlist. No one seemed concerned about issues such as gender equity and, judging from the fact that there were two pay scales for teachers — one for men and one for women — no one saw much of a need for gender equity. 

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The population was overwhelmingly white, and most of the diversity was socioeconomic. The children of doctors, granite shed workers, politicians, and hardware clerks sat side by side. A former UES student, now in her 70s,  remembers “the orphans.” “We always knew who was from the orphanage,” she said. “There was just something about them.”  Kinstead House may have been perceived as an orphanage, but the building located on Upper Main Street was actually a shelter for children who may have been removed from their families or otherwise found themselves in need of care. 

There was another kind of diversity missing from UES in the early years. When you walked into its classrooms, you would have been unlikely to see a child with Down syndrome or one in a wheelchair. It wasn’t until 1975 that Congress passed Public Law 44-142, and American education has never been the same since. The law eventually was replaced by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but the basic tenet remained the same: All children have a right to an education in the least restrictive environment. Students with autism, students with hearing aids, and students with disabilities both visible and invisible now eat lunch in the UES cafeteria and sing at morning assemblies beside their classmates. 

If the school population of the past was less inclusive, it was also highly scrutinized. The Board of School Commissioners had an interest in all aspects of running a school, including housekeeping. A 1955 directive from the board instructs the janitors on the proper care of blackboards (to be cleaned once a week with diluted vinegar).

It was a different place in those early years, although a 1954 notice reminds us of the present day. On December 31 of that year, a special meeting of the board was held to address the “current polio epidemic.”