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History of the Old Fairmount School

The Fairmount School, one of the oldest schools in the City and County of San Francisco, first opened its doors to students of the newly established Fairmount Tract in September 1864. The San Francisco Board of Education would soon organize the City’s schools into districts, and Fairmount was

assigned to the Mission District, along with Mission Grammar, Six-mile House School, San Bruno Road School, and Hayes’ Valley School. A Mr. Leonard was appointed principal of the district, and, in January 1865, Miss Agnes Manning appears to have been the first principal appointed to lead Fairmount School. In June of that year, the Board awarded a contract for the construction of a new schoolhouse to G.W. Tevo and H.C. Gay for $1,485. However, the contract was soon cancelled because Mr. Tevo had suddenly and unexpectedly left town and Mr. Gay stated he could not continue the job by himself. A new contract with another builder was soon approved.

[Click image to enlarge]

While the site of the first Fairmount School is unknown, its location was declared inadequate and was soon exchanged by the Board of Education for another lot “more convenient for school uses.” Once relocated, the Fairmount School became permanently established in a building owned by the City in May 1867. Described as being near the Four-mile House (San Jose Road and Randall Street), Fairmount School was noted to be in “prosperous condition” under the leadership of Mr. E. D. Humphrey, and “… enjoys the respect of parents and pupils.” Forty primary and 20 grammar students were enrolled, an excess of 10 students beyond the maximum of 50 assigned seats.

Unfortunately, this would foretell of challenges yet to come. Overpopulation of students would be an ongoing burden for Fairmount School as the neighborhood and surrounding areas continued to grow. In June 1871, it was announced that there was a “necessity for improved school accommodations.” By the end of 1875, the ten-year old structure was deemed inadequate, described as being, “… in a wooden building with two small and poorly arranged rooms. There are four classes, two in rented rooms, with an average attendance of 170 pupils.” Its library held only 33 books for students, and teachers had only four research texts to support their study planning.

Residents soon demanded that the Fairmount School be made “habitable.” The conditions apparently forced the janitor, “… to carry water on his head, like the ancients, a distance of several blocks, providing the neighbors will let him have it, to provide the pupils with the means of quenching their thirst; that the execrable condition of the establishment is calculated to quench their thirst after knowledge, to impair their health, and to demoralize them.”

In the fall of 1876, a recommendation was made to the Board of Education to build a new eight-class schoolroom with up to $7,000 believed to be available from the Board of Supervisors. The Board pushed back with a great deal of pessimism, predicting they would likely be dealing with a deficit in 1877 that might require some schools be closed. Then, San Francisco Supervisor Henry Haight responded that, “… it was high time to give the suburban primary schools some of the necessaries, the favored schools in the heart of the city having been supplied with all the luxuries of education.” While early pleas for a new school from Fairmount residents had fallen on deaf ears up to that point, within a month of Supervisor Haight’s declaration the Board of Education had agreed to advertise for plans to build the two-story, eight-room school. Plans and specifications were submitted to the Board of Supervisors for their approval, and a bid for construction finally went out in June 1877.

The new Fairmount Primary School at Chenery near Randall was dedicated in December 1877. “No school in the Department of Instruction in this city has been so continuously and prominently before the public … during the past year or more … The radical and apparently ineradicable trouble was that the school was being conducted in houses built and originally used for humble dwellings, and rented and made over by the School Department, but in no sense adequate or adapted to school purposes; pretty much like crowding the contents of a castle into a cottage. In fact, and in short, the public school facilities at Fairmount were miserable and abominable, having in no sense kept pace with the growth of the locality.”

The architect, Mr. Charles Geddes, was lauded for his design, providing, “… that growing and important portion of the Mission known as Fairmount …” with a building “… as thoroughly constructed and commodious as any in the School Department. The building is located on a slope, which the architect utilized to allow for a basement, which, as the needs of the school expand, can be fitted up for two additional class-rooms … The pupils’ desks are so arranged that the light falls over the back or left shoulder. Each class room has its separate toilet-room, which can be locked, preventing the possibility of theft of the pupil’s hats and shawls, by prowling thieves. The ventilation of the building is unusually elaborate and complete, securing a supply of pure air and an equal temperature at all times. The halls and stairs are spacious, and the interior is at once roomy, bright and cheerful. The exterior effect of the building is pleasing, and the recreation-yards, though too small, as is the rule at all the schools in the Department, are neatly fenced and planked. The residents of Fairmount have many reasons to feel proud of their new school-house.” To sum it all up, “The Fairmount Primary is regarded by the officials of the Department as one of the first class schools of the Department.” Each of the eight classes averaged about 45 pupils, with a total of about 350 students registered.

It wasn’t long, however, before the student body outgrew this structure, too. By 1891, classrooms at Fairmount were overflowing. There were reports that one class at Fairmount had 74 pupils and another 60, when each should exceed no more than 40. Teachers were reported willing to give up the lunchroom to accommodate 30 students, and there were some “old box seats at the carpenter’s shop that could be used for the time being.” This scramble to accommodate an increasing number of students went on for several years. Many students were making their way in from the new Sunnyside district, a neighborhood established in 1891 about a mile southwest of the Fairmount Tract that did not yet have its own school. By 1902, Sunnyside residents were insisting schools be built in their own neighborhood, recognizing that congestion at Fairmount School could also be reduced. In 1905, not only were too many students crammed into Fairmount classrooms, but 90 pupils were forced to attend class in the school yard!

School directors across the City urged the Board of Supervisors to provide for the building of several new schools in 1907. A total of $5,000 was specifically requested for Fairmount School. Two classrooms and a “manual room” were added in 1910, but construction of a new school would still be years away. An article appearing in the San Francisco Call in May 1911 stated, “The old Fairmount School stands as a menace to the health and safety of the pupils who are compelled to attend it. Nearly 50 years of age and one of the very first schools built in San Francisco, it has long since outlived its usefulness.” In the same issue, the Mission Promotion Association, comprised of several homeowners’ associations in and around the Fairmount Tract, announced they would be requesting a budget allowance of $50,000 to build a new school on the Fairmount School lot.

Images of students of Fairmount Grammar School in the early 20th century: (top left) 1909, (top middle) 1910, (top right) 1915, (left middle) 1923, (center) 1924, (right bottom) 1928, and (left bottom) 1929. All images courtesy of the Bernal History Project except 1915, which is courtesy of Barbara Clarke (in the 1915 image, Irene Noblitt, who became Hollywood icon Irene Ryan, is in the third row, fourth from the left). Click on gallery to view larger images.

The Board of Education continued to drag their feet in consideration of this critical need. In the meantime, Fairmount residents demanded the installation of water fountains for their students at the school in 1912, and better exits “in case of fire or panic” in 1913. Finally in 1916 – a good quarter century after the need for additional educational space had first been recognized – $12,000 was appropriated for plans and specifications for a new building for Fairmount School, and $40,000 for the purchase of additional land immediately adjacent. In early 1917, several adjoining lots were purchased by the City, and plans and specifications for a new school were at last approved. A total of $110,000 was secured for construction, and bids were announced soon after.

After decades of residential consternation over the dilapidated state of a structure that had once been declared a model for the City, the new Fairmount School was officially completed a full month ahead of schedule in November 1917. This new brick school would serve the residents of the Fairmount Tract for 60 years before being replaced by a new, award-winning structure in 1977. Now in existence for over 155 years, Fairmount School holds a historic place of honor among educational institutions in the City and County of San Francisco.

On August 28, 2018, the name of Fairmount School was changed to Dolores Huerta Elementary School. The school has been serving as a pre-kindergarten through 5th grade Spanish dual immersion program for an ethnically diverse student body of 400 children from across San Francisco since the mid-1990s. The name change to Dolores Huerta Elementary School is intended to offer inspiration to these students, and give them a hero they can look up to. As cofounder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta to this day continues to be a tireless advocate for immigrants, workers, children, gender equality, and the environment. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work by President Barack Obama in 2012. She is also the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights, and is an inductee in the National Women's Hall of Fame, in addition to many other honors.

Read more about the transition to Dolores Huerta Elementary School.

[Originally published April 16, 2015]


1 Comment

May 23, 2023

I'm looking to see if there was a teacher named Mrs. Hanlon at Fairmount School circa 1929 or so. I came across a book, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with possibly my mother's name ("Grace D.") written inside the cover, with Mrs. Hanlon's name, Fairmount School, Room 17. I cannot recall how I came into possession of the book!

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