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Unearthing history at city school

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Posted: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 5:33 pm | Updated: 5:53 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

SOUTH PORTLAND – Somewhere on the front lawn of the South Portland’s Frank I. Brown Elementary School, a time capsule was buried 25 years ago, and for fourth-grader Nick Sutton, it’s hard to image what relic of the past it might contain.

“Maybe a typewriter,” he said with a sense of awe Monday, as if that was the oldest, most archaic thing he could think of.

According to library clerk Betsey Cummings, nobody’s quite sure precisely where the time capsule is located, but that’s not the biggest concern as the school prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The plan was to set up a display chronicling the history of the school at an upcoming fair, but there’s just one catch – there isn’t much history to be had. Except for four old photographs found in the basement, everything else has gone missing.

And so, Brown School is reaching out to the public, asking former students and staffers to send in anything they might have related to the their old alma mater, whether it’s pictures, classwork, or simply written reminisces.

“We’d love to hear from the public, including their fondest memories of Brown School, as well as any memorabilia they’d like to share with us,” said Margaret Hawkins, principal at Brown for the past seven years.

The school is collecting items in advance of its annual school fair on Saturday, May 18, as the capstone to Children’s Book Week, which runs May 13-17.

“We’re hoping to display anything we get from the people in the gymnasium during the fair and invite the public to come down that day,” said Cummings, who’s heading up the project and says any items shared will be returned after the fair, if requested. Alternately, she can scan items electronically and return them at once.

Already, a few items have begun to filter in, sent in response to letter students have emailed to local newspapers. On Monday, three of those letter-writers, including Sutton and his classmates Kiley Matthews and Teddy LeBlanc, spent part of their day reviewing the material.

“You know,” said Sutton, “this school is really old.”

“It’s interesting just to see how kids used to dress,” said Matthews, as she reviewed the 1940s pictures Cummings found, as well as class photos from the 1970s and 1980s shared by a Brown teacher of long standing.

Among the letters submitted is one from Mike Daley, who lived on Parrott Street in the 1940s when there were only three houses on the Cape Elizabeth side of the street.

“The rest was all orchards and farmland,” wrote Daley, who noted that, in those days, the city did not bother to sand Boothby Avenue in the winter.

“It was the best sliding hill around,” he wrote. “On especially icy days, I recall being able to slide on my sled all the way to FIB!! An unusual and memorable way to get to school, wouldn’t you agree?”

Another respondent, Miriam Nappi of Portland, recalled students being told to collect cat o’ nine tails during recess in 1942, when she was in the first grade.

“The government used the fluffy white tops for material in making parachutes for the war,” she wrote.

Hawkins says the school is using its 75th anniversary to drive curriculum this spring. Youngsters in grades K-2 are exploring the number 75 in various math exercises, she said, while older students are using material submitted by Daley, Nappi and others to fuel various research projects.

“Students are asking, what was it like 75 years ago to be a student at Brown School? What were they playing? What were they eating?” she said. “Then they’re comparing that to now and doing some predictions about what it will be like in another 75 years. So, we’re trying to make the most of it as an educational experience, as well.”

“The kids are really excited about it,” said fourth-grade teacher Jane McNeeley. “Some of them are big natural history buffs, but this is motivational to all of them because it’s about Brown School. So, that’s got more of them hooked.”

To that end, no detail seems too small, not even Nappi’s note that, in her day, students used to go home for lunch.

“They didn’t have our resources. We eat in the cafeteria,” said LeBlanc, with a double arch of the brow.

Built in 1937 at a cost of $78,237 – $1.3 million in 2013 dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – the Frank I. Brown Elementary School was expanded in 1958. That doubled the size of the school, and a 2004 renovation doubled it once more. 

“Today, it’s a nice mixture of the old and the new, “ said library information integrator Corinne Altham. “You can be in a room in the old section using a computer SMART board but at the same time see architectural features from 75 years ago.”

Originally built for “sub-primary” – what today we call kindergarten – to Grade 8, the school today serves 324 students in grades K-5 who live between in the intersections of Sawyer Street and Mitchell Road on one end of South Portland, and Highland Avenue and Evans Street on the other, as well as about 45 students bused in from the Brick Hill area.

The school was named for Dr. Frank I. Brown (1860-1933), a respected city physician who served on the Board of Education for nearly four decades, from 1895 right up until his death. Brown began his working life in education, serving as the high school principal in Norway, Maine, then in Hopkinton, Mass., before pursuing a second career in medicine. He lived at 41 Pine St., where he maintained his practice.

Beyond those basics, however, little is known about Brown’s life, says Cummings.

“I’m having a really hard time getting information. Even the historical society has limited items,” she said. “I’ve got a little bit of information on Frank Brown but so far we haven’t uncovered a lot, other than property tax records and things like that.

“If there are relatives still in the area, we’d really like to hear from them,” said Cummings. “That would be great.”

Meanwhile, Cummings hopes the time capsule, which Maietta Construction has volunteered to unearth free of charge, has survived the ravages of time.

“We’re hoping to do that the first week of May so that if the capsule is still intact, and if the items inside are intact, we can display them at the school fair,” said Cummings. “We’re also talking of putting a new capsule in, and marking it this time, rather than relying on people’s memories.”

As to what should go in the new capsule, Sutton, Matthews and LeBlanc have that covered, suggesting school supplies, an iPod, and a lunch menu.

“We’d just like to remind people how awesome Brown School is and of what a fun time they had here,” said LeBlanc.

Meanwhile, Sutton suggests adding in a few of Brown’s “YES” cards. An acronym for “Yourself,” “Each other,” and “the School,” YES cards are given out for each good deed performed and then read aloud during morning announcements.

Although students of bygone eras didn’t have YES cards, they did get the same style of instruction that often went beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

“We were taught the true joys that come from giving and sharing – great foundation tools for life,” wrote Daley.

“The school started me right for the world,” wrote Nappi.

“The thing that most people should know about the history of the school is that it has always had a very strong tradition of being a very child-centered, family-focused community,” said Hawkins. “The real strong theme is that this has always been a very tight-knit community.

“I know there are a lot of former Brown School students out there,” said Hawkins, “and we hope they’ll help us celebrate the 75th anniversary.”

Welcome to the discussion.