“Every inhabitant of this town, whether they be free of the town or not, shall have an equal right and privilege of sending their own children, and the children of others…under their care, for instruction and bringing up.”
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In 1767, the above quote accompanied a vote in Westerly which resulted in the construction of four school houses, three for small children, and one for “youth.” After 1767, the history of public education in this town is somewhat ambiguous until the 19th century, when several schools were established.
The most widely accepted date for the establishment of a school, that’s history and location are known, is 1792, when “the red schoolhouse” was established by the Pawcatuck Schoolhouse Company on what is today Union Street (where Congregation Sharah Zedek stands today). The schoolhouse, which came to be known as the Pawcatuck Academy, was named for Pawcatuck, a village of Westerly, that formed a portion of what is now downtown. The academy was officially chartered by the State of Rhode Island in May 1800.
Despite the 1767 quotation referring to “every inhabitant,” the Pawcatuck Academy served as an elementary school for boys only, where they learned reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. Any education a girl received at that time came exclusively in their home or in one of the several small private schools run by women in their own homes. The academy amended their charter in June 1832 and then continued to operate until 1835, when it closed its doors.
In June 1799, “An Act to Establish Free Schools” was passed in Rhode Island. This act stipulated how many schools each town in the state was required to form and maintain and for how many months each year. The act stated that Westerly must establish the equivalent of three free schools for a total of four months each year. The location and the fate of these free public schools is not known.
Pawcatuck Academy remained Westerly’s only private, independent school until 1816, when Union Academy was established. This school was also situated on Union Street, where the Fire Station now stands. According to the academy’s charter, a committee of three shareholders would be formed to oversee operations and to perform checks on the quality of the instruction. This resulted in the formation of Westerly’s first known school committee.
The charter also stipulated that the headmaster was to receive an annual salary of $400 (approximately $7,200 today). The school’s first headmaster, Charles P. Otis, performed so well, however, that his salary was increased to $500 annually. He remained with the Academy until 1824.
After Otis’ departure, the committee amended their charter, eliminating the headmaster’s salary. Instead, teachers were required to pay rent for the use of the facilities as well as a tax of 25 cents per student quarterly. Despite these changes, suitable teachers were still found, and it was considered an honor to teach at the academy. The Union Academy building outlasted Pawcatuck Academy by one year, closing their doors in 1836. The building was relocated to 27 Granite Street where it still stands today.
In 1820, the state granted Westerly $143.98 for the funding of the town’s schools. At some point during that decade, school districts were created with one public school catering to older children, and one elementary school in each district. In 1828, there were six schoolhouses (as well as the two academies) in Westerly which were open year-round and each school was limited to 30 scholars.
In 1835, Margaret Alcorn opened a school that was entirely free, serving those who could not pay regular school fees. The terms at this school lasted for 12 weeks, during which time students were taught to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. It is not known when Miss Alcorn’s school ceased operation, but the last known teacher, Miss Maria Burlingame served the school through at least 1841, when she paid $30 to rent the building where classes were held, as well as pay for the windows that the students broke.
The following year, the location originally occupied by the Union Academy became the site of another school, the Westerly Institute (commonly referred to as ‘the Academy’ locally). On the site, a new building was constructed at a cost of $2,800, which was funded by the Pawcatuck Academy Association. The school’s basement was constructed and owned by Westerly School District No. 1, which operated an intermediate school at the location. The building’s first floor was a high school until 1856, when it was voted to discontinue “that grade.”
One teacher at the institute was John A. Goodwin, who would later go on to be Speaker of the House of Representatives in Massachusetts. The Westerly Institute continued to operate at the same location until 1870, when it was closed. The building was then occupied by the Pawcatuck Library, which was demolished in 1893 to make room for the fire station.
In 1846, yet another primary schoolhouse was erected in Westerly. This facility was equipped with several of what were, at the time, considered educational amenities, including a blackboard spanning the entire length of the schoolhouse, slates for the children to practice their work upon, and a spacious playground. This schoolhouse accommodated 60 students with 30 desks. In 1849, it was noted that in addition to this schoolhouse, one other in Westerly educated the young children, while older children attended an ‘intermediate department’ and the local high school. It was said that “these schools, as at present organized and managed, meet the educational wants of the village.
1853 saw the construction of American Hall on High Street where the Barber Memorial Building (the home of Perks and Corks) now stands. The hall was built by P. and J. Barber for the original purpose of hosting events including lectures, balls and concerts. By 1858, the hall was home to the Westerly High School, where a man by the name of A.J. Foster was serving as principal. Foster was assisted by a trio of teachers who educated the school’s 180 pupils, a growth of 30 students from the previous year.
The school year was divided into four terms of 11 weeks, beginning in September, November, February, and May. Each term concluded with an examination, similar to today’s high school system.  The school’s stated purpose was to educate students for college, as well as prepare teachers and accountants. The students were divided into three major classifications: Common English (reading, spelling, arithmetic, geography, grammar, analysis, US History and Book-keeping), Higher English (ancient and modern history, physiology, botany, algebra, geometry, surveying, navigation, and book-keeping), and languages (Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish).
The fees for Common English were $4.50, while High English was $5.00 and Languages were $6.00 (approximately $130, $144, and $173 respectively). As for free services, lectures which were open to the public were often held at the school. Unfortunately, reduced enrollment during the Civil War led to the school’s closure in 1862. Total school enrollment in Westerly went from 240 in 1857 to just 77 in 1863.
1870 was a pivotal year in the history of education in Westerly. The year saw the closing of one school, the Westerly Institute, while also witnessing the opening of another, the Elm Street School. The Elm Street School, which later came to be known simply as the Westerly High School (and later became the site of St. Pius X School), was considered a much-needed establishment. At the school’s dedication, several prominent local men spoke highly of the virtues of public education, extolling its importance to the growth of young children.
It was apparent by the 1870’s that the belief in the value of education was growing. In 1875, Westerly’s school expenditures were $18,667.69 (approximately $428,400 in 2018), the most of any town in Washington County. That same year, 1,026 pupils were counted, representing only 2.6% of all students in Rhode Island.
After 33 years, it was agreed that there was a need for a new high school in Westerly. In 1903, a new building was opened at the corner of Broad and Granite Streets in downtown Westerly, part of what is now Wilcox Park, next to the Westerly Library and Memorial Building. The land where this school was built was donated by Harriet Wilcox, who, along with her husband, Stephen, were local benefactors who helped to shape the landscape of the downtown area. By the 1930’s, further growth of the student body required the construction of a larger building. As a result, Ward Senior High School was erected and is still in use today.
For more than 250 years, Westerly has been actively advancing its educational standards, supporting its growth and development. From humble beginnings in one and two room buildings, schools in Westerly have grown to accommodate a much larger number of students (Westerly High School currently has an enrollment just under 1,000 students). Despite the rapid growth of Westerly’s pupil population, the efforts of the town have kept pace with this growth, providing today’s students with a high-quality education which looks towards the future with great hope.