Looking back on... Downey High School

DOWNEY - Fred Peritore was just 14-years-old when his parents told him he was moving to California.As a native New Yorker, Peritore always dreamed of living in the Golden West where sunny oranges and shady palm trees seemed plentiful. Although Downey proved far from the warm, sandy beaches of the coast, Peritore's new school, Downey Union High School, was surrounded by vast, rich orange orchards, which stretched as far as the eye could see. "That's what I remember most about Downey High School - the smell of the orange trees," said Peritore, now 69. "Growing up in Downey in the 1950s was really special. It seems like only yesterday, but so much has changed - it's not the same." Peritore is just one of the thousands of people who at one time called Downey home and now refer to Downey High School, located on the corner of Brookshire Avenue and Firestone Boulevard, as their alma mater. Founded in 1901, Downey High School, like many other secondary schools in California, was established as a result of a state mandate. Enacted by the State Legislature in 1891, the Union High School Act required all public schools throughout California to accommodate 12 grade levels. During this time, most communities had several grammar schools that taught up to only ninth grade, offering little to no secondary classes for older teenagers. Downey was no exception. While the small, agricultural community sported many primary schools, including Gallatin, Alameda and Downey grammar schools, no formal high school existed. However, with nearly 45 students of high school age in the city, a group of residents got together and organized what was then called the Union High School District. The school district was composed of the five grammar schools (Alameda, Downey, Gallatin, New River, and Old River) with one trustee from each school making up the high school board. On August 16, 1901, Los Nietos Valley High School became the eleventh high school established in Los Angeles County. Classes began in September 1903 in the wooden auditorium of Downey Grammar School on Second and Dolan streets and continued there until a new building was ready for occupancy. The faculty consisted of one principal, A.E. Farlington, who earned a salary of $120 a month, and one teacher, Miss Gertrude Smith. Cloth sheets served as partition walls between the makeshift classrooms. The first graduating class of 1904 included just four students. By 1905, a new high school facility, at Second Street and Brookshire Avenue, was completed. The building, which faced Brookshire Avenue, was soon replaced by a two-story, white-washed structure in 1912 that featured large columns and numerous windows on the fa?ßade. By 1919, the name of the school had changed to Downey Union High School. The following year, the school got its first bus, since the only previous transportation had been supplied through a Mrs. Van Matre, who used her car to bring students who lived within a mile of the school. In 1922, a new two-story administration building, facing Firestone Boulevard, was built on the property and the original building was condemned as a fire hazard and torn down. In 1926, a gymnasium was built on the site that also contained both the boys and girls dressing rooms. In addition to evening basketball games, the gym also provided space for school dances. By 1930, the first building for junior high school students was built. Today, that original structure serves as the "R" building. In 1932, Downey High School adopted the name of "Vikings" for its athletic teams hoping to emulate the same spirit of adventure, boldness and vigor found in the early sailors. The 40s and 50s brought much change to Downey High School as the population gradually increased and the school became responsible for every junior and senior high school student. From 1940 to 1960, Downey's population grew from 12,000 to 86,000. With this influx of new students, new junior high schools were needed. On May 1, 1952, South Junior High School was dedicated as the first separate junior high school, teaching about half the students in grades seven, eight, and nine. The remaining half of the students stayed in what was then called Central Junior High School. In 1953, these student moved away to become North Junior High School, now Griffiths Middle School. The following year, a third junior high school, East Junior High School was formed. In 1957, a second senior high school, Earl Warren High School, named for Chief Justice Earl Warren, and a fourth junior high school, West Junior High School opened their doors. In turn, the original gymnasium was demolished in 1958, and Walker Hall, the current administration building, was constructed in its place. It was named in honor of William H. Walker, a retired teacher and former superintendent. On July 1, 1961, the Downey Union High School District was merged with the four elementary districts to form the Downey Unified School District. Today, Downey High School has an enrollment of more than 4,200 students and maintains over 150 faculty and staff members. Since 2006, the school has completed several renovations, adding modern classrooms, science labs, a large, state-of-the-art theatre, and a new track and field stadium. Moreover, Downey High School, which started in a small auditorium on Dolan Street, has grown into a celebrated institution of learning that has produced world-renown scientists, athletes and musicians. As another school year begins, one only can imagine the future yet in store for this 109 year-old high school.

********** Published: September 9, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 21