Looking back on... Alameda Elementary School

DOWNEY - Before Downey was established as a city, several thriving communities were already established and growing in Los Nietos Valley.Founded in 1868 by Methodist settlers, College Settlement, located on the corner of Paramount Boulevard and Alameda Street, was one of those communities, known throughout the region for its excellence in education. As opposed to the Gallatin Settlement in the north, College Settlement developed around the first Protestant college in Los Angeles County, Los Nietos Collegiate Institute. Though the college provided education for all ages, John Ardis, an eager settler and Methodist minister, felt that the settlement could use a newer, separate grammar school for the community's growing population of children. Using his own funds, Rev. Ardis purchased a plot of land on Paramount Boulevard and built a small schoolhouse that would eventually become what is known today as Alameda Elementary School. In the late 1860s, early settlers in Los Nietos Valley were concerned about the education of their children who were being raised in new communities that did not have formal schools. In order to ensure quality education, community leaders formed the Silver School District, which included the vast area between the Rio Hondo and Rio San Gabriel rivers. However, the large district proved unmanageable overtime as the population steadily increased. In 1869, the Alameda District was formed by petition and carved out of the original Silver School District. While the new school district assembled, Ardis' Alameda schoolhouse began to grow. In 1871, Ardis, who came to California in a covered wagon, built a larger one-room schoolhouse on Lover's Lane, which is now Imperial Highway, almost directly south of the school's present site on Alameda Street. It was called the Sandridge School and was built in California box style with long boards placed vertically for walls. During this time, Ardis hired a Miss Russell of Los Angeles to teach at the school. Russell was followed by the Rev. Samuel Adams who had only taught a year before a violent Santa Ana wind knocked the schoolhouse down. The destruction called for a new school to be built. Looking for a better location, Ardis moved the school from Imperial Highway to Alameda Street. Working with the Alameda School District, new land was acquired for the school in December 1877 and by 1880, a sturdier structure was erected where the present Alameda School stands today. After the first two months of its operation, school administrators paid a total expense of $166.73. In an annual report, one Alameda School principal wrote that, "the falling off of attendance in the last two months was caused by the hay harvest as the irrepressible boy is an indispensable auxiliary in haytime." By 1887, the building was overflowing with students from the area and administrators began adding more rooms to the school. In 1901, a modernized three-room school was built, but burned down years later in a fire. Finally, in 1922, a $25,000 brick building was constructed that would become the facade of Alameda for decades. In 1923, Elbert Warren Ward became the principal at Alameda School and would leave a lasting legacy at the school and the district. During his tenure, Ward provided sound leadership and vision for the growing school district. These skills were tested after the devastating Long Beach earthquake of 1933, which debilitated several schools in the region, including Alameda and Gallatin. In the months following the quake, Principal Ward had to use an old-fashioned hand-bell to call the students to class at nine 'o clock and again at one. Miss Ethel Donaldson, a teacher at Alameda for many decades, remembered the aftermath of the quake. "Many school buildings were declared unsafe, including Alameda School in Downey. Tents were the solution then, as now," Donaldson said. "It was a cold, rainy year, and the tents were neither well heated nor lighted…children sitting near the heater roasted; away from it, they froze." According to Donaldson, a relay solved the problem. "One-third of the class near the heater, another third, then the last third," she said. "By that time the first group needed re-warming. A bit complicated, but nobody got pneumonia." After more than 15 years at Alameda Elementary, Ward went on to become the superintendent of the Alameda School District, ultimately retiring in 1955. But of all the elementary districts, Alameda grew to become the largest. The Alameda District oversaw the construction of the Ed Lewis School in 1950, the E.W. Ward School in honor of Ward in 1952, the C.C. Carpenter School also in 1952, Imperial School in 1954, the Lynn Pace School in 1955 and Gauldin School in 1956. In 1956, the elementary school districts merged with the Downey Union High School District, which had began establishing several junior high schools in the city, to create the Downey Unified School District known today. Currently, Alameda Elementary School, which was remodeled several years ago, has an enrollment of nearly 630 students. This year, in fact, Alameda Elementary School, along with Price Elementary, Unsworth Elementary and Ward Elementary, was named a California Distinguished School by the California Department of Education. Moreover, Alameda has the privilege of being among an elite class of local organizations and institutions that predate the establishment of Downey. Founded in the late 1860's, Alameda School demonstrates how one man's vision can see past the present and affect generations of children yet to come.

********** Published: June 11, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 8