Fairfield 375: A primer on the history of Fairfield's schools

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fairfield, established in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest communities. From its settlement 375 years ago by English colonists on "four squares" of land that Native Americans called Uncoway to the vibrant town of 60,000 residents that it is today, Fairfield's history is a chronicle of compelling events and colorful characters.

The Fairfield Citizen will highlight vignettes from that rich history throughout this 375th anniversary year on a regular basis.

Fairfield began providing education for town children early in its history -- but only for children in what are now called the elementary grades. As early as 1695, a grammar school was opened in a building provided by the Fairfield town government. But the control, supervision, financing and regulation of the schools was handled by different entities through the years.

The town maintained several schoolhouses and town officials hired the school masters in the early 1700s. But in 1712 the Connecticut General Assembly decreed that Fairfield's schools should be handed over to the town's church parishes, except for one grammar school. For much of that century, parish schools, such as the Trinity Parish School, educated local children.

But oversight of the town's schools changed once again in 1795 when a new regulation was passed creating four "school societies" to manage the schools. They were the Village of Fairfield School Society, the Greenfield School Society, the Green's Farms School Society and the Stratfield School Society.

The schools were mostly one-room schoolhouses with a pot-bellied stove, and their upkeep and repair -- as well as the educational standards imposed -- varied from school to school depending on the individual societies who ran them. There was only one uniform educational requirement for Fairfield schools in the early 19th century -- that schools be open 30 weeks a year. Tuition for the town schools was 25-cents daily.

The individual school societies often operated more than one school. Some of the schools where Fairfield children attended classes in the late-18th century, according to historian Thomas Farnham, were: Black Rock, Jennings Woods, Middle, East of Middle, Mill Plain, Mill River, Hull's Farms, Center, Bulkley, Burr, Banks, Sherwood, Deerfield, Hoyden's Hill, Stratfield and Green's Farms.

Two private schools were also opened -- Greenfield Academy, established by Timothy Dwight, who left Fairfield to become the president of Yale College, and the Fairfield Academy on Town Hall Green, a large school that operated for more than 100 years.

The first unified school district for the town of Fairfield was established in 1887 when the individual districts were merged into one school administration under one school committee. The school committee adopted a uniform curriculum for the schools, and in 1899 William Wheatley was hired as a school superintendent to supervise Fairfield and later also Westport schools. Among the changes he made to the educational system included spending more public money on education, and changing the names of some of the schools: Southport School (which had been the largest school) became Pequot School, Centre School became Sherman School, Mill Plain School became Lafayette School and Greenfield School became Dwight School.

Some of today's public schools in Fairfield still bear the names of the original schools, and some were named later for historical figures prominent in Fairfield's history. They include: Roger Minot Sherman, a lawyer, judge and legislator in the early 1800s; Timothy Dwight, an early educator who became the president of Yale College; Gideon Tomlinson, the 25th governor of Connecticut who lived on Bronson Road, and Andrew Ward, one of the first eight men to establish the colony of Connecticut, and later a judge.

Two Fairfield schools -- Roger Ludlowe Middle School and Fairfield Ludlowe High School -- are named after Roger Ludlow, an English lawyer, businessman and adventurer who was a deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony and, after leaving there, helping to establish the Connecticut colony and, in 1639, was among the founders of Fairfield and a leader of the early settlement.

Other schools, including Jennings Elementary School and Burr Elementary School, carry the names of prominent Fairfield families who influenced the town as it grew.