The History of Columbia High School

In 1806, the Township of Orange was carved out of the old Town of Newark. The area was almost entirely agricultural, and, until 1861, “South Orange” was merely a hamlet within the Township of Orange. No road had yet been developed over Orange Mountain, and travelers from Newark to Morristown had to turn south on RidgewoodRoad and proceed through the little settlement of Jefferson Village, then included within the Township of Springfield. Jefferson Village later became part of Maplewood, as did the North Farms (or Hilton) section.


Since the days of the Revolution, a one-room stone schoolhouse had stood on a grassy area known as the Common, located close to the present intersection of South Orange Avenue and Academy Street. ln 1814, this building blocked the construction of a new toll highway from Newark to Morristown. The 73 “Proprietors and Associates” of the school met on August 3 of that year and resolved to erect a new school building near the site of the old one, naming seven Trustees to thereafter oversee the education of local children. The resolution reflected “the desire of the meeting that the said school should in the future have the name of Columbian School of South Orange.


The new schoolhouse was a two-story wood structure, topped by a thin steeple and a lofty weather vane. It was completed before the fall term of 1815. The Trustees decided “That the price of tuition in this school be fixed at $1.75 per quarter for spelling, reading, and writing; for Arithmetic in addition to the above branches the sum of $0.25  and for Grammar or Geography the further sum of twenty-five cents.” The cost of firewood was to be “divided equally among the scholars.” On May 10, 1816, the Trustees adopted a seal for the school in the form of “a spread eagle standing on a globe with the word Excelsior underneath in Roman Capitals.

In the early years, students at the Columbia School were not separated according to grade. All were subject to the same rules, among them the following adopted by the Trustees on May 2, 1827:
“Every scholar must be made to name every silent letter in his spelling when he spells a word with one in and mention every figure which is placed over a letter and be taught to know their uses and for every mistake or omission in such letter or figure shall be considered the same as spelling a word wrong and subject to the same usage.

“Every scholar that spells a word wrong or omits a silent letter or figure shall step in the rear of the class and there stand until the class shall have spelled through, then those that have spelled right are to move up in a solid body and those who are in the rear to move down and take their places at the foot.”

For decades, the school was supported by tuition payments. But gradually the State began to assume a share of the financial responsibility. In 1820, a law authorized townships to levy a tax to pay the tuition of poor students. By 1828, townships had the power to tax for general school purposes. The State itself began to contribute money in 1830, and in 1846 every township was required to raise as much money each year for schools as the State itself contributed. The last tuition assessment for residents occurred in 1861, and thereafter the Columbia School was entirely supported by public taxation.

During most of the 1800s, the center of the area now known as Maplewood was still called Jefferson Village. The Morris and Essex Railroad arrived in 1836 and stopped in Jefferson Village at the Old Stone House’ only when the train was flagged with a handkerchief by day and a lantern at night. In 1860, local residents decided to build a regular station and purchased an acre of land for that purpose south of Baker Street. A name was needed for the station and the residents fixed on “Maplewood,” probably because of a large maple tree which stood nearby.

South Orange Township was incorporated in 1861 and came to include the present area of Maplewood. In 1904, the Village of South Orange withdrew from the Township to become a separate municipality. Maplewood continued to be part of South Orange Township until 1923 when the residents voted to officially change the name to the Township of Maplewood.

After the Civil War, improvements on the railroad contributed to a decided growth of population in the old Township of South Orange. The general character of the citizenry underwent a significant change and residents known as “commuters” began to emerge in numbers. In 1867, a state law required that Columbia become a graded school. By 1877, the old two-story wooden building erected in 1815 was found to be woefully inadequate for the growing community. One resident complained (perhaps hyperbolically) that “in very cold weather, with stoves at red heat, it is impossible to raise the temperature in the room above 55 degrees, and in such a place are sown the seeds of suffering, disease and death.”

The Trustees responded in 1879 by resolving to erect a new brick building, of two stories, to accommodate between 220 and 240 pupils. The new structure was opened in 1880. The final cost of construction was $17,094.49. The building later became the northeast wing of the old South Orange Junior High School, demolished when the present middle school was built.

The separate existence of the high school began in 1885 when the Trustees decided “that in order to increase the efficiency of the Columbia School a new class of a higher grade shall be formed at the commencement of the coming term to be taught by the Principal.” Lower grades continued to be housed at Columbia. The Trustees’ minutes of May 31, 1888, reflect the principal’s request “that a diploma be voted to Miss Etta A. Kilburn” and that, “on motion, a diploma was voted to Miss Kilburn, the first graduate of the high school.

In 1894, the South Orange, Maplewood, and Hilton school districts were consolidated and became the South Orange and Maplewood School District, with borders essentially identical to those which presently exist. The District remained unified even after Maplewood and South Orange became separately incorporated, although there was considerable pressure to split as early as 1904

The close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th brought significant changes in high school curriculum and school management. The Board of Education had now replaced the old Board of Trustees. In 1890, “manual training” was offered in school. By 1891, sciences had been added to the course of study. A tradition of excellence was beginning to evolve, and in 1892 two Columbia graduates were admitted to Cornell University. Musical enrichment was added in 1894 with the hiring of a singing teacher from New York City. Early in the 1900s the value of athletics was recognized and encouraged at Columbia by the organization of boys’ and girls’ teams. The student council was formed in 1912, and The Columbian followed in 1915.

There was a reaction to these changes. Complaints arose over so-called “fads and frills”- unessentials said to be leading to the neglect of reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic. New York papers read by local commuters campaigned for a return to the efficiency of the “little old red schoolhouse.” But the changes were here to stay.

At the same time, pupil behavior was becoming less inhibited, much to the distress of the adult population. Henry W. Foster, Superintendent of the District from 1900-1927, described the conditions in 1913:
“Long before prohibition was adopted, venturesome boys were surreptitiously now and then bringing liquor to dances to add to the excitement. There was a decided reversion to the animalistic excitement. Musical rhythm from the wilds of barbarism stirred the pulse. The dance abandoned the restraint and refinement of waltz and polka; Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, Fox Trot, and Shimmey began to reign.”

The Board of Education reacted by banning all but “polite dances” on school premises. However, the proscribed behavior persisted, and the Board then stopped all school dances. That continued until it became apparent that students were going to outside dances anyway and the efforts at control were abandoned.

World War I profoundly affected life at Columbia. Pupils in assembly regularly delivered patriotic “four-minute speeches.” Every room in the school had a full complement of war posters. Quite a number of boys signed up for the Army and the Navy. All male teachers enlisted.

Epidemics raged during the same period of time. Polio spread around the country in 1916 and, at Columbia, resulted in the deaths of one teacher and several children. In 1918, the global influenza epidemic closed all of the schools in the District for three weeks and one teacher died.

In the early part of the 20th century, most of the remaining farms in Maplewood and South Orange were sold and subdivided, leading to the present suburban character of the towns. The increase in population placed enormous pressure on the schools. In 1900, the total District school population was 792; by 1927, it had risen to 4,960, an increase of 526%.

The Board of Education initially responded by constructing a sizeable addition to the old Columbia School in 1910, which building still housed primary school children as well as high school students. Seth Boyden School and the old Fielding School were erected in 1913 and 1914, respectively. By the fall of 1922 Marshall School was completed. First Street School followed the next spring, and Jefferson School opened in January 1924. Later that year the junior high schools were organized, and both the Tuscan and Montrose buildings were finished.

More was needed. The old Columbia School could no longer safely accommodate the student population. A magnificent new structure was planned. The design process was unique in that the faculty and all members of the staff participated by submitting sketches, drawn to scale, of the facilities necessary to satisfy their needs. In 1926 construction began on the present Columbia High School building. Work was completed in September 1927, in time for the fall term. So well designed was this building that two years later its floor plan was described and pictured in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “the ideal floor plan for secondary schools in the United States.”

During this period of time, Columbia gained increasing fame for its academic excellence. Educators generally considered it to be one of the most outstanding high schools in the United States. Much of that reputation was due to Mr. Henry W. Foster, Superintendent from 1900 to 1927, and Mr. John H. Bosshart, Principal from 1920 to 1927. Mr. Bosshart succeeded Mr. Foster as Superintendent and later served as the first head of the New Jersey Department of Education. (Dr. William L. Librera, Principal of Columbia High School from 1980 to 1983, has followed in Mr. Bosshart’s footsteps- he is currently serving as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education in Trenton.)

American public schools were all significantly impacted by World War II. In the words of Lt. General Brehon Somervell, then Commanding General, Services of Supply: “The job of the schools in this total war is to educate the nation’s manpower for war and for the peace that follows.” Columbia High School met the challenge, primarily with curriculum changes designed to prepare boys for service in the military. The science department developed courses in aeronautics. In biology, students studied the effect of flying on the human body. A new modern history course emphasized the “historical background for an understanding of the forces which have caused this global war, of the necessity of destroying that for which our enemies stand and of the magnitude of the international problems which face the world.” Even the music department offered a new program “to train pupils in the informal singing that grows out of wartime needs.” Columbia had its own Victory Corps with the objective of encouraging pupils “to take some active part in their own community’s war effort while they are yet in school.

For many years following its opening in 1927, the high school physical plant was more than sufficient for the needs of its population. Although four classrooms and a shop were added to the structure in 1939, it was not until 1958 that a large addition (now C Wing) was constructed to accommodate a burgeoning student body. By 1964, the dimensions of a new population explosion were perceived, and a special Board of Education committee was formed to investigate the needs of Columbia High School in the 1970s. As a result of this study, it was calculated that further additions would be required. During the 1970-71 school year, B and D Wings were added at a total cost of $5,250,000. Among the additions was a spacious new library resource center.

The total high school population was now approaching 2,400. The same committee which concluded that physical additions were needed also recommended a new organizational plan to prevent students from feeling depersonalized in such a large system. What grew out of this was the House Plan, which, in1970, divided Columbia into four sub-schools of approximately 600 students each. The goal was to provide the intimacy of a small school within a large plant, and each of the houses had, for example, its own student council, intramural athletic teams, and newspapers. All of these were in addition to the traditional school-wide activities.

Recently, the D Wing has undergone further development with the construction and opening of a new Black Box Theater in the space that formerly contained the wood shop and industrial art classrooms, and is accessible from the front parking lot on Valley Street. The Black Box theater saw its inaugural performance of Neil Simon’s “Fools,” produced and performed by the Parnassian Society in October, 2004. The space on the Academy Street side of the C Wing that housed the original Black Box Theater and other offices during the house system as well as a teachers’ lounge has been converted to state of the art classrooms complete with white boards in lieu of chalk boards.

Student reaction to the Vietnam War was a nationwide phenomenon, and Columbia provided no exception to the pattern. A Student Peace Group was organized at Columbia in1968, and over 300 students actively participated. Members wore black armbands on April 26 of that year, and a community rally was held the next day with faculty members present. On March 17, 1969, 43 Columbia students were suspended for distributing leaflets in school. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed to defend the students, but the issue later became moot when, over a period of time, the students were reinstated.

The Vietnam era generally coincided with a time of protest against all things establishment. One manifestation of this was the ascendancy of ultimate frisbee, which became popular around the country as an alternative to varsity sports. The game was conceived of by Columbia students in the late 1960s. It combines elements of football, basketball and soccer, with the object of advancing the frisbee into an end zone. However, players are not allowed to run with the disc, but must pass it to their teammates. It is said that the first organized game took place in 1968 in the lower Parker Avenue parking lot, between the staff of The Columbian and the Student Council.

By the late 1970s, student populations around the nation had entered what proved to be a period of extended numerical decline. The Board of Education organized a citizen Educational Task Force, which conducted a District-wide demographic study and ultimately recommended a series of school closings and consolidations. One of the results was the entry of the 9th grade into the high school in1980. Declining enrollment, as well as cost considerations, led to the discontinuance of the House Plan in 1982.

In 1998, a group of students from the Columbia High School Astronomy Club spent their summer vacation refurbishing the rooftop observatory, including the retractable roof opening, which was part of the original 1927 building. The Brashear refractor telescope, purchased for the new building and considered one of the best amateur tools of its kind, was taken out of storage, put back in place and the observatory is once again an important part of the Columbia science department.

The total school population currently stands at around 2,000 students. The 2002-2003 New Jersey Department of Education Report Card reports that 6% of Columbia’s students speak Creole, 3.5% speak Spanish, and 1.2% speak Ibo. This diversity has led to the formation of organizations such as CHACA (the Columbia Haitian-American Cultural Association); and Facing Race, an organization dedicated to discussing cultural, economic, and class-related biases as well as issues of ethnicity and identity. Spectrum, an organization that also deals with issues of identity, provides a forum for discussing issues of sexuality and gender. Both organizations welcome all students and raise awareness among the student body. These are just three organizations among the dozens that already serve the high school community. Additionally, in 2004, the Student Council saw the election of the first female Student Body President.

Columbia continues its standards of excellence for which it was awarded the Blue Ribbon Schools award from the U.S. Department of Education in 1993 (only one of 260 schools to receive the honor) by achieving a 94% rate of students going on to two or four year colleges after graduation. Over 290 students achieved 3 or higher in Advanced Placement tests in 2003, and over 450 students are enrolled in 23 AP courses. Columbia has also sent many students to the distinguished Governor’s School of New Jersey summer program. Six different college campuses are home to Governor’s School, which focuses on a variety of subjects in humanities, sciences, and the arts. In recent years, Columbia has seen her alumni attend universities and colleges such as Columbia, Duke, Harvard, MIT, NYU, Princeton, Williams, Wellesley, and many other top tier schools. The class of 2005 saw early decision candidates accepted to Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. In sports, the Boys and Girls Fencing Teams have enjoyed years of successes. The Boys Fencing Teams has achieved back-to-back State Championships in 2003 and 2004; since 1998, Girls have held the State Championship every year with the exception of 2002.

In the fall of 2004, Matters Magazine of Maplewood published a story about the dozens of alumni who are currently giving back to the community by serving as faculty and staff in the District- a true commitment to the mission of Columbia High School. As we reflect on the past achievements of Columbia High School students, we recall our motto, “Excelsior,” which calls us to look ever upward in our efforts to produce educated, culturally aware students who are able to accomplish anything they encounter on the path they choose to follow. As alumni, our mission is to foster the tradition of excellence at our alma mater, a task for which Columbia has aptly trained us.



This history has been reproduced from that which was published in the 2000 Alumni Directory and amended by Alexandra Somers ‘97, President of the Alumni Association. Much of the information which forms the basis of this history was derived from the following sources: Foster, The Evolution of Public Education in a New Jersey School District (1930); Wenker, Education in Our Community (1935); Bates, Maplewood Past and Present (1948); High School Education in a Wartime Setting (1942); correspondence and conversations with Tom Jacobsen (Retired Assistant Principal), Judy Levy (District Communications Coordinator), Joe Fanning (former CHS Librarian), Tom Fleming (Retired Guidance Counselor), Avery Raube ‘25, Jack Bausmith ‘50, and Walter Santner ‘61. Important information was also obtained from student papers by Jessica Wolff ‘86 (The National and Columbia High School Protests against the War in Vietnam) and Tim Profeta ‘88 (Maplewood: A Progression Through Time).

The 2002-2003 New Jersey Department of Education Report Card may be found online at http://education.state.nj.us/rc/rc03/letter.html.