An 83-year-old school has served its community well, top-notch students and teachers deserve a dry gym and heated rooms -- a building up to their high standards.
The year was 1926. Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House. Unemployment was 1.8%. Pontiac manufactured its first cars, and Henry Ford instituted the five-day, eight-hour-per-day workweek (long after workers had demanded it). Here in Ewing, Kentucky, not far From the Banks of Poorhouse Spring, the new Ewing School opened, replacing an older structure.
“Shirttail” Thomas, my father, was in the third grade at the new school.
The Ewing School, for grades 1-12, was constructed on a side street in the community and built right: brick exterior, wood frame with lath and plaster interior walls, hardwood floors, large double-hung wood windows and a boiler large enough to heat it all. The gymnasium was as fine as there was anywhere near. The auditorium had folding wooden seats bolted to the floor and a stage with a room on each side, a top-notch setting for plays and other productions. The restrooms were as modern as 1926 could offer. Water for the building, pumped from Poorhouse Spring, offered a much better situation than most structures had at that time. “City water,” as the locals called the first public waterlines in the area, would not be available until the early 1960s.
The layout was as modern as any new school built in the mid-1920s. On the lower level were the restrooms, the kitchen and cafeteria, two classrooms and a janitor’s closet. The gym was accessed at either end of the hallway down a steep set of concrete steps, with the boiler room nearby. The coach’s office was at the end of the gym, opposite the boiler room. A small office and a storage room were located on the lowest level, and up a short set of narrow steps were the locker room and the showers.
A wide set of steps brought you from the front door to the main floor, with six classrooms and the large auditorium. On the top floor were six more classrooms and the dreaded principal’s office. As it was built in 1926, the school shows no trace of any handicapped accessibility or ADA compliance.
Natural lighting flooded every room on every floor. Five large steel-framed windows filled the gymnasium with sunlight and allowed the overflow crowd to watch the Ewing Pirates take on the competition in this grand facility. The large windows in the classrooms, when opened on a warm day, allowed a great breeze through to help beat the heat.
Ewing was as modern and as up to date in an educational way as any community school around. If it sounds like I know this facility well, I do. Shirttail was born in 1918 and went to school here until the eighth grade. After his father passed away in 1931, Shirttail, being the oldest son, stayed home to work the family farm.
In 1961, Shirttail’s oldest son started to school in this facility, now some 35 years old. Three years later, Shirttail’s second son started to school here and four years later, in 1968, his youngest son (that would be me) came here, too.
The facility changed very little from 1926 until 1968. The same wood windows were opened, or at least attempts were made to open them, on warm days. The same plumbing fixtures, including the trough in the boy’s restroom, were still functioning. The kitchen and cafeteria were still producing great meals every day of every school year. It was still a long walk from anywhere in the building to the dreaded principal’s office on the top floor.
Though the gym was not as modern as it had been, the Pirates still ruled the court. In the early 1970s, the large wood double-hung windows were replaced with some type of inexpensive, ugly, hard-to-operate aluminum windows — probably the rage among architects doing school renovations all across the country then. Later, the large steel framed windows that had flooded the gym with sunlight were removed and the openings blocked up. By the 1970s the only thing flooding the gym was rainwater because the pipes installed to carry it away were no longer functioning. When it rained, the corner of the court near the scoreboard became a pool. Home court advantage.
The kitchen and cafeteria were moved from the lower level up to the second floor, into the old auditorium. Its hardwood floor was covered with cheap vinyl tile (all of the hardwood floors were eventually covered with something) and the spaciousness and formality of the auditorium were gone. At some point, cheap, ugly window air-conditioners were stuck through the cheap, ugly aluminum windows from the early 1970s, and the powers that be thought we had a modern school facility again.
Other changes (“improvements” in school-facility-speak) were made through the years. Beginning in the fall of 1974, the facility became an elementary school, for grades one through six. The new Fleming County High School opened and the former Fleming County High School became Fleming County Middle School (currently Simons Middle School named after Joe Allen Simons, the principal of Ewing Elementary and then Fleming County Middle School until his untimely death). The principal’s office was moved to the main level. Finally, the restrooms were remodeled and updated. An addition houses three more classrooms and a computer lab. The library was relocated, updated and outfitted with computers. An elevator was installed.
And this fall, 2009, Shirttail’s youngest granddaughter started second grade in the same school that Shirttail entered in 1926.
I love old buildings. I own more than my share and have made a large part of my living the past 12 years or so working on them. Old buildings are fine for any number of uses. They offer history, pride and proof that the old time finish carpenters were a talented lot. But 83-year-old buildings don’t make for good schools. They are not energy efficient. They are warm when they should be cool and cool, sometimes cold, when they should be warm.
Shirttail’s third grade granddaughter wore her coat during class for more than a few days last winter. Sometimes the boiler cooks the first floor and freezes the top floor. The next time, it doesn’t keep anybody warm. This past winter, the janitors spent many hours stoking the boiler virtually around the clock to keep the school up to a comfortable temperature. Roof leaks seem to be harder to find and fix on an old building.
Environmental concerns from a myriad of sources are hard and expensive to mitigate. The cheap, ugly aluminum windows from the 1970s need a lot of attention. There is no fire protection or sprinkler system. And structures like the old Ewing School, built, with wood, wood and more wood, can be tinderboxes. The hardwood floors were coated with an oil-type finish every year or so until they were covered up. What fuel for a fire. Chunks of plaster have been known to drop with no notice. The gym that was as modern as any is now a dark, damp-on-occasion, dungeon-like facility.
Ewing School is a stately and proud structure. It has educated a great number of people, maybe even a number of great people. It has educated three generations of my family and four generations of many families in the area. It has started doctors, lawyers, accountants, carpenters, electricians, factory workers, farmers, clerks, storekeepers, mechanics and probably every other profession you can list on a lifetime of learning. There have been a few hoodlums, crooks and bums pass through as well.
That is the history of Ewing School. Now let’s look at where Ewing is today. Schools today are judged on test scores. Test scores are the pitfalls of a poor performing group of educators. Test scores are the ladder to success for a high performing group of educators. Ewing’s principal and teachers are way up that ladder. It was not always so. Ten years ago, Ewing’s scores were bad. Real bad. Changes were made. The principal changed, changed again, and on the next change, third time being the charm, Mr. Greg Emmons arrived. A few teachers changed. Things started looking up. The state sent in a “professional” educator to help. Moods changed. Attitudes changed. It was fun again to be at Ewing School. The test scores got a little better. Then the test scores got a lot better.
In 2007, Ewing’s test scores were the best for any grade school in the region. 2008 results were similar. The state set a testing goal for 2014, and Ewing reached it in 2008. 2009 results bring us even higher.
A new facility has been discussed for some time. It has been needed for more time than that. The elected officials have worked diligently in Frankfort, the state capital, for the new facility, but we seem always to be just a little short, next on the list or the final one cut. Still we remain hopeful and confident.
The next struggle after we receive funding for a new facility will be to determine the location of the new school. I may be a bit biased, but I feel it is imperative that any new elementary school be built within the community of Ewing. School officials, local, state and federal, all say that a community needs to be part of a school. I agree. But the schools need to be a part of the community as well. The new facility does not need to be outside of town, or a mile or two from town. It needs to be within the community. There are a number of locations within Ewing that can meet the needs and demands of a new facility. I have watched too many small towns die from two things. One is the new highway by-passing the town to help save a few minutes of travel time. The second is the removal of schools, major businesses or pedestrian-heavy activities from within the community to areas that make them free standing and alone.
It is often said that surroundings, environment and conditions help to improve the educational experience. If that is the case, I wonder how well the students at Ewing School would do in a nice, new building? Can the better environment make us an even better school? I hope we get to find out.