On his first day of Kindergarten in the late 1920s, Quinto Erkoboni ran outside for recess on the playground of Eldridge Park Elementary School. But he didn’t stop there. He kept running for a few blocks until he arrived at his home, where his mother quickly scolded him and returned him to school.
Since Eldridge Park Elementary School opened 100 years ago, it has been an integral part of the Eldridge Park community in which it resides, hidden on its residential streets and next to neighboring homes. April 1 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the school’s opening in 1913.
The anniversary year has kept EPS librarian Michele Immordino immersed in researching the history of the building, its uses, and former staff and students. She has also spent the year working with a committee to promote fundraising.
Immordino and library assistant Patricia Nalbone turned mainly to the Lawrence Township library to begin piecing together the history of the school that saw several expansions, renovations and changes to class size and grade levels.
Over time, the EPS building has seen a multitude of changes, including continued expansion that eventually transformed the original entrance on Meadowbrook Avenue to the rear of the building, and built a new entrance at its current location on Lawn Park Avenue.
It opened as a two-room schoolhouse in 1913, expanding to four rooms in 1916 because of the increase in new homes in the area. A fifth room was added in 1920 when the one-room “Grove School” was moved and attached to the building. Three years later, the school was increased again to eight rooms.
By 1947, the Kindergarten through eighth grade school was overcrowded, and seventh and eighth graders were sent to Slackwood Elementary School, followed by fifth and sixth graders, until a “Raise the Roof” addition expanded the school enough for them to return in 1956.
The school’s presence in the neighborhood had been a big deal, as the families in the close knit Eldridge Park community finally had a local place for children to walk to school.
Even as the grade levels changed over the years, faculty and students still felt the school was the community’s safe haven.
In 1972, the building was turned into a district-wide fourth grade school, and in 1978, the school closed due to low enrollment, and Mercer County Special Services leased the building for the next 11 years.
Robert Bartoletti, who had been principal for two years at the time the school closed, said the reaction from families and staff at the plans to close the school were feelings of disappointment and sadness. Many community members immediately voiced their concerns at school board meetings and the teachers association petitioned the board to reconsider.
“For people to want to see it continue, I think it spoke well of the teachers that worked there, because children were only at that school for one year, then went on,” Bartoletti said. “There was a great a deal of sentiment.”
EPS reopened in 1990 once again as a fourth grade school under the leadership of principal Sheila MacDonald, who had worked as a teacher there before the close. The school was changed again in 1993 to a Kindergarten through third grade school, which it remains today.
MacDonald recalled the family atmosphere of the school and how her time there was a positive and “wonderful challenging experience.”
Stories like MacDonald’s seem to be the norm according to Immordino’s research and interviews with former principals.
“This school is just like a big family, and it seems from the research that I’ve done that it’s just always been that way at Eldridge Park,” Immordino said.
Despite the many years of the school’s existence, the number of principals who worked there is actually quite small. The first principal, Irene Pycraft Rich, held the teacher-principal role for nearly 43 years, up until 1956. When the school first opened, it was run by Rich and another teacher, Mary O’Brien Cleary.
Seven principals followed after Rich, including current principal Kathryn Robbins, who took on the role in 2005.
Erkoboni, 89, recalled Rich as a fair teacher who made absolutely sure her students were learning. At school assemblies, Erkoboni said, she would play the national anthem on the piano as all the students assembled in, and again as they were dismissed. However, she was a bit hard of hearing, and the sounds of the piano echoed through the entire school, until Erkoboni’s teacher would ask one of the students to go downstairs and inform Mrs. Rich they were all back in their classrooms.
When Erkoboni was growing up, the close proximity of the school allowed for better communication, because there were many residents who didn’t speak English. In person communication, Erkoboni said, helped teachers and parents develop relationships.
“Teachers and parents, they knew each other,” Erkoboni said. “If I complained to my mother that the teacher did something, she said, ‘You must’ve deserved it or she wouldn’t have done it to you.”
Immordino’s research into the school’s past has turned up some interesting finds that have provided even more information about the school’s history.
A faculty member uncovered a scrapbook from 1956-57, with meticulous records of events and school information to be submitted to the county and the state.
Just by chance, a package was mailed to the school containing a second PTA scrapbook, inscribed with handwritten and typewritten records of school functions and policies from 1950-51. The person who had dropped off the books had found the records in his attic—the man’s mother had been the PTA president.
Immordino also found a teacher’s school register book from 1956, with handwritten records detailing everything from students’ grades, lateness and absences to student health updates like dentist and eye doctor appointment results.
The findings reflect some of the changes and similarities in the workloads teachers still have now, Immordino said.
“It’s been really interesting for us here at Eldridge Park as the staff to see the changes in education, and changes in teachers and their role,” Immordino said, “and how much we contribute to the lives of the children, then and now. I think it really says something to what the school has meant to our community.”
Celebrations and fundraising for the 100-year anniversary began in the fall. The school hosted an Amateur Night in October that featured a host of performances and raised money for the anniversary fund. A school mural was also unveiled the night of the event. Students had worked with an artist to paint a mural inside the school depicting the past and present of EPS.
“When we did the mural, it was nice because [the students] were able to share with others things they learned, and things they decided they wanted to put on the mural and why and how that related to our history,” Robbins said.
The mural drew attention to two seemingly obvious parts of the building. The school’s two entrances from Meadowbrook Avenue are each labeled; one has the word “girls” above it, and above the other, “boys.” The labels remained from the school’s early years, when boys and girls used separate entrances and water fountains, and at recess were kept on opposite sides of the playground.
“When you played at recess, do not catch yourself on the girls’ side without a good reason,” Erkoboni said. “If we [were] playing ball, and it went on the girls’ side, we couldn’t go get it. It had to be the girls to go get it and give it to us. That was very, very strict.”
Though the rules separating the sexes were eventually discontinued, the labeled entrances still remain.
Many of the rules at EPS were strict at that time, Erkoboni noted. He recalled his 5th-grade teacher, who immediately dictated her rules for dressing up in the classroom: the boys were to wear ties, and the girls were to wear their best dresses.
“It pounded in my head that I have to wear a tie … She taught me to dress up everywhere I went,” Erkoboni said.
The teacher was the mother of current U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.
The school plans to host an old-fashioned country fair on Meadowbrook Field June 8 as part of its anniversary celebration.