Lowell High School’s “Open Campus”

At the recent Distinguished Alumni induction ceremony, Bob Kilmartin (LHS Class of 1976), one of the honorees, mentioned having an “open campus” at Lowell High during his time there.  Many current Lowell residents are unfamiliar with the “open campus” experiment so I asked Jim Peters, whose father Wayne Peters, was the Superintendent of the Lowell public schools at the time and who was the prime architect of the open campus, to give us a history lesson.  Here’s what Jim wrote in response:

    This story takes place over forty years ago, when I was a Sophomore, Junior, and Senior at Lowell High School and when Dick Howe, Jr. was in Elementary School.  I was very active in the life at the school, and had many friends who agreed with me, and conversely with my father, on the practice of an Open Campus program at the high school which was brought about partially to ease over-crowding.  In 1969, the City of Lowell consisted partially of 17,000 students in 32 schools of which the Lowell “Sun” stated that some members of the government at the time wanted all of those schools torn down.  My father was the School Superintendent then, and he knew that, while some schools were severely dated, we did not have the money or the resources to get the money, to rebuild that many schools.  Therefore, to ease over-crowding at the high school, he came up with an alternative plan, in which students would be allowed to leave the campus for a half hour or forty five minutes at a time in the hopes of alleviating some of the problem.
    There was not necessarily a strong legislative team which we now enjoy, to help come up with the money at the state level to rebuild those schools.  Therefore, we were stuck in place.  We had few resources, a great demand for action, and little pressure to put on the Boston-run legislature to help us.  Boston was having its own problems with busing, and very few legislators at the Boston level felt any strong compunction to work out problems in Lowell.  My father left a tenured position in Chicago (Harvey), Illinois to come out and try to run the Lowell school system.  There were those who thought he did a good job, including the Lowell “Sun” which stated, “Since coming to Lowell, Dr Peters has effected some meaningful improvements in the school system.” [Lowell “Sun” 3/7/72]
    In the same editorial, the “Sun” also said that, “He hs also been confronted by the impossibility of promoting any major program for modernization and construction of new schools because the city simply cannot afford to underwrite too much at once.” [ibid].  In short, the “Sun” was simply acknowledging that his hands were effectively tied.  Thus, at the high school level, he was stymied by a stronger union than the Elementary schools had, and at that time, there were two unions for teachers in Lowell.  When he introduced an “Open Campus” to use for the education of the high school students, it was bound to be roundly criticized by the high school teachers, and it did not work out very well.
    The idea was simple, and worked well in Illinois, where students of the day were allowed to go home for lunch.  In Lowell, they were not afforded that luxury, and many students, seeing an open campus as an opportunity to miss afternoon classes after their break, helped bring the system to a halt.  It was largely interpreted out here in Massachusetts that the school system had run out of viable options.  Perhaps it had.
    I had always attended my father’s schools, except for two years in Superior, Wisconsin where I went to a Catholic School for one and one-half years.  In every school system, we had the option of going home for lunch.  To us, an “Open Campus,” just meant a half an hour to eat outside the building and then a requirement that we come back to class.  To the teachers and adminstrators in Lowell (not all, obviously), it was chaos.
    Dick Howe, Jr. has asked that I write on the Open Campus.  I welcome the chance to bring it into some sort of perspective.  It was not an effort to undermine the teachers or the administrators at the high school.  Remember, at that time the over 2,000 students at the high school did not have the new building to use.  It had not been built yet.  When my father tried to talk about building above ground tunnels such as we have now, to a new wing of the high school on the lot across the canal, Locks and Canals proprietors told him that he would be unable to build because of the fact that Locks and Canals Corporation owned the “air rights” over the canals and no tunnels could be built in their air space.
    Again, the Open Campus movement was not an attempt to aggravate the average teacher, administrator, or parent.  It was an attempt to free up some space in the relatively small Lowell High School for the students to use in as adult a manner as possible.  Senior Class President Michael Viggiano was quoted in the Lowell “Sun” as saying that  a small walkout by students opposed to the plan had “no support” from members of the Senior class or the “rest of the school…He said their protest would increase administration and teacher disgust for the full open campus plan which both the rebel students and the more moderate class officers would like.” [Lowell “Sun” in an article by Delia O’Connor of the “Sun Staff”].
    A group of students visited the Lowell “Sun” offices and stated that “If the students do no work for the open campus plan by wearing their I.D. Cards, picking up their litter, and showing respect for the rules of the modified open campus plan, then they can kiss any plan they had for the open campus goodby” [Lowell “Sun” ibid.]
    Most moderate students supported the plan.  Some did not, which was their perogative, but most did.  They were pegged as “the moderates.”  Even students who were doing well with their behavior would go to Study Hall under the Open Campus plan.  That would be determined by their grades.  If they were failing a subject they had to go to Study Hall and not participate in an open campus.  Thus, the idea, while appealing, would not reward poor scholars.  School Committeeman George D.Kouloheras stated at the time, and in the same article, “Open campus is not to make it easy for the students, but to make it easy for us to house the students.  If we had a new school with lots of space, then I’d be all for the traditional school pattern.”  [ibid]
    I beieve that Mr. Kouloheras said it best.  The open campus idea was not to reward ignoble student behavior, but to reward good behavior and good grades.  My father and Mr. Kouloheras were destined to land on opposite ends of many spectrums, but on this point they agreed.  The “Open Campus” was an attempt to make up for many shortages that the school system was battling at that time.  Space was the major one.  Self-discipline was the other.  The fact is that the newspaper came out on March 7, 1972 in favor of giving him tenure.  “We think that parents and the rank and file of Lowell’s citizenry are willing to have him continue his work here in our city.” they wrote.
I have many strong and good memories of my father.  He was the only person in Plan E form of government to finish first in a School Committee and City Council race.  He beat his second place School Committee challenger by over 5,000 votes.  He stayed here to provide us a good city to call home.  He was Superintendent of Schools.  And, yes, he did introduce the Modified Open Campus.

One Response to Lowell High School’s “Open Campus”

  1. Marie says:

    As a young faculty member who spent many hours working on the “Open Campus” committee and the “plan”, this post revived many memories…. the space crunch occurred at a very touchy time as students and society were definitely in a state of transition from the more traditional to a more open society. In September of 1964 when I started teaching, disciplinary “no-nos” -warranting an “assignment card” – included ~ lack of a tie, an unbuttoned top shirt button, gum chewing, note passing and the like… in the 1969-1971 time frame infractions became more serious as students were testing themselves, school rules, dress-codes and society in general. Getting a more relaxed approach for class time, study time, on-campus requirements offered opportunities! BTW – the faculty was greatly expanded and many were young, inexperienced and feeling their own sense of freedom. There was internal faculty tension as well as tension with students. For the most part my memory is of a few problems – too much freedom in places like the auditorium, wandering about… but generally we all survived, adapted, adjusted and moved forward. I had those study halls, I worked the auditorium, I tried to express the situational angst of my fellow faculty members to the “committee”. My biggest problem with the “Open Campus” plan was that it was embraced for functional/logistical reasons but there was little flexibility to adjust the plan as difficulties were encountered… it was set and no way was it going to be changed… very short-sighted. BTW – I’m sorry that I missed hearing Bob Kilmartin! A great guy and student that every teacher would be happy to have in class… a role model as a Distinguished Alum!