2012-04-06 / Community

The origins of South Portland High School

By Kathryn DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society


This photo comes from the Etta Gregory Watts collection and shows the town hall building, with the high school located on the second floor, at the corner of Sawyer and Ocean streets. To the right of the building is the old South Portland Heights School on Sawyer Street. (Courtesy photo) This photo comes from the Etta Gregory Watts collection and shows the town hall building, with the high school located on the second floor, at the corner of Sawyer and Ocean streets. To the right of the building is the old South Portland Heights School on Sawyer Street. (Courtesy photo) It’s hard to imagine a time with no high school and yet, in the mid-1800s, children were enrolled together in a neighborhood school all the way through “graduation.”

Of course, many students used to graduate at the end of the eighth-grade year and go to work on the family farm or in the family business. Starting a public high school was not viewed by everyone as a positive move; the argument against having a separate high school was that the top level students were seen as role models for the younger children, so the fear was that starting a high school would be a detriment to the school system.

Despite these fears, when a grant program was developed by the Legislature in 1873 to encourage communities to start their own free high schools, the people of our community (which was called Cape Elizabeth at that time) decided to take advantage of the grant money available. The new Cape Elizabeth High School started in fall 1874. With no specific high school building available, the first two terms were held in temporary facilities – first at the Turner’s Island (Pleasantdale) school building, then moved to the Point Village (Willard) school building. Meanwhile, the town completed construction of its new municipal building at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets in late 1874 (where Hamlin School now sits), and it was decided in March 1875 to outfit the second floor of the town hall for use by the high school; the high school finished out its 1874-1875 school year in this new school facility.

Although 98 students enrolled in the 1874-1875 school year, only four students progressed enough to graduate by the end of the school year in 1877. Those first four graduates are documented in an exhibit at the South Portland Historical Society’s museum. One of those four graduates was Edward C. Reynolds, who would later become a judge, served as a state senator, and was also South Portland’s first mayor. Reynolds also wrote and published a book in 1892 documenting the history of the high school.

When the current-day town of Cape Elizabeth broke off in 1895, our community changed its name to South Portland and the high school name was also changed. Our high school remained in that town hall building until the building burned down in 1921. Classes met at the Broadway (Henley) School while a new high school was built at the corner of Broadway and Ocean Street. The new South Portland High School building was an impressive structure and considered one of the finest in the country when it opened in 1924. The high school would later move to Highland Avenue in 1960, when it was decided to have the high school and junior high switch facilities.

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When I reach at university

When I reach at university postgraduate, I can always reminisce my high school years in which I had lots of fun, friends and I would say that I learn so much from those years and experience almost everything that has to come at my age.