Exeter Day School Marks 75 Years

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, May 27, 2014.

Modern parents take it for granted that early childhood education is important, but this wasn’t always universally accepted. The town of Exeter had experimented with Kindergarten in the 1890s during the stirrings of the Progressive movement. The program was, within a few years, deemed a bit frivolous and expensive. Several private pre-schools and kindergartens had popped up over the years, but by the early 1930s there was little available in town for children before their entrance into the public school system at the first grade level. Children in first and second grade were crowded into small classrooms – sometimes 30 or more students – with a single teacher. This was hardly optimal for youngsters who were just beginning their educational lives, but the belief was that younger children required less discipline and thus more of them could be foisted upon an exhausted teacher. After all, it was just ABCs they were learning – really more babysitting than teaching was required.

Parents, of course, knew better about youngsters. Not only are kids this age quite a handful to watch over, they also have a seemingly infinite capacity to absorb knowledge. It was with this in mind that a group of parents – mothers primarily – decided to open their own school for the pre-school set.

Katharyn Saltonstall, in her brief history of the Exeter Day School written in 1979 describes a morning in 1934 when she and three other Phillips Exeter Academy faculty wives watched their children playing together. “As we chatted,” she writes, “we discovered that we shared a deep conviction that the elementary school years are the most important in the educational process, for it is during one’s first exposure to school that one’s attitude toward future learning is formed.” Together they began to formulate the type of education they wanted for their children, “social adjustments to other children and adults on a cooperative basis in an unpressured setting, flexible enough for individual children to proceed at their own pace.” The school would need to be small, but the original pool of children was small – mostly the children of Academy families, although they did not limit it as such.

The first few years the Exeter Day School met at the home of Helen Bourn on Pine Street. A teacher, Constance Amsden, was hired to teach a kindergarten class of seven children. It was hoped that the school would eventually expand up through the fourth grade to avoid the over-crowded Exeter public schools. The founding families of the school each donated $400 and agreed to pay $150 per year for tuition, no small contribution in the early ‘30s. The second year, they lowered the tuition to $100 to attract more students, but it was still far above the amount most local families could pay. Scholarship programs were created early on to assist some students.

By 1939, it was obvious that the school needed more room than they could secure in rented space. The parents determined that the experiment was a success and decided to build their own school. The Exeter Day School was incorporated as an educational non-profit institution – this is the date used to mark the school’s 75th anniversary celebrated this year. A local site for the new school was found at the end of Marlboro Street on Academy land that was leased for $1.00 per year. An anonymous donor gave the seed money of $3000 to get the building project underway. The new school building was ready for students in late October of 1939.

As a private school, fund-raising was a necessary activity. They depended on generous donors for their very existence. Parents participated in nearly every project the school needed – from building cubbies and playground equipment to planting flowers and landscaping. The children were included in many of these activities.

As the student body grew, the educational programs expanded. Children who attended the school from the age of five tended to thrive in the small sized classes. By the early 1950s the school offered classes to children through fifth grade. But by that time, the town of Exeter had worked to improve the public school offerings and, after the construction of Lincoln Street School in 1955, parents at the Exeter Day School became more confident in the quality of education offered there. Numbers in the upper grades at the day school decreased and the school began to re-focus on pre-school, kindergarten and first grade.

On Thursday evening, April 1, 1976, a burglary and fire at the school was reported to the Exeter Police Department. Although the school was well insured and repairs were quickly made, the children lost all of the school projects that were left inside. Trustee Donald Robie reassured parents that the school would reopen soon. The News-Letter reported that “one of Robie’s responsibilities included presiding over a short burial for two white rats that died in the fire which took place in the back yard ‘amongst tears.’”

At 75 years, the school still reflects the mission of its original founders – a dedication to high quality education for children from two to six years of age.

Photo: Exeter Day School students pose c. 1940


Popular Posts