Early Schooling in the the San Ramon Valley
By Beverly Lane - February 2007
Schooling was important to the valley's early pioneers. They valued education and were familiar with one room schools in the mid-west and east. For some, having a special school building meant that their community was established for good. The 1849 California state constitution called for a system of common schools which reflected advanced thinking for the mid-nineteenth century.
In the 1850s several settlers hired teachers and set up neighborhood schools for children, among them the Stone, Norris, Glass, Bryant, Howard and Harlan families. Bret Harte, the famous western writer, tutored Abner Bryant’s children in Tassajara Valley in 1856 when Harte was 20. Bryant told Harte that "he didn't want his four sons to grow up like range-cattle."
For most settlers a basic grammar school education was enough. Literacy was by no means universal and young people learned to read from Bibles, dictionaries and other books at hand. Most of the hard-working Portuguese immigrants could not read, but they made sure that their children could.
When school houses were built and teachers hired, the school year had to accommodate both the farmers' seasonal labor needs and often impassable roads during rainy season. Four and five month school years were the norm well into the 20th century. The one room school house became the community’s focus, a place for learning, meetings, voting, dancing and special events. Everyone attended school Christmas programs, May Day celebrations and school closing exercises.
Grammar schools are established
Six grammar school districts were established in the 1860s in Alamo, Danville, Green Valley, Sycamore, San Ramon and Tassajara. Voters within each district passed bonds to pay for schools and furnishings; teachers were paid with a combination of funds from the state, county and local school district. Fundraisers for extras were held at the school or the Danville Grange. These helped to pay for organs, books or play equipment. Teachers usually boarded with families.
In Contra Costa County histories, the first school houses mentioned were in San Ramon (1852), Alamo (1854) and Danville (1858); these were probably very simple, basic buildings. James D. Smith, who was later a professor, wrote the most interesting accounts of these early schools since he attended most of them as a young boy. In 1869 when he was 24, he taught the Glass and Harlan children for two 5-month terms for $100 a month.
By 1870 there were 35 grammar school districts in Contra Costa County. Green Valley and Tassajara built schools in 1865, Sycamore’s went up in 1866, San Ramon and Danville’s new one room schools opened in 1867, and Alamo’s downtown school was built in 1876. The San Ramon Grammar School was used from 1867 to 1950, the longest active period for any grammar school. Tassajara’s second school, built in 1889 and now restored, is the only nineteenth century school still standing.
Student counts in 1866 and 1908 were:
According to Maevis Wood, longtime teacher and principal in the valley, the era of the one room schools came to an end when Danville voters approved $20,000 to build a new elementary school in 1922. This new school had four rooms and was opened for classes on Love Lane in January, 1923. Green Valley merged with Danville in 1930 and Sycamore joined the Danville Union School District formally in 1932.
Alamo and San Ramon debated joining, but voted to keep their individual school districts. In 1946 Tassajara students came to Danville.
Education beyond grammar school
For parents who wanted their children to have high school education, students were sent to board in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco. R.O. and Mary Baldwin's son Robert went much further and became a physician. William Langdon went to Sycamore and San Ramon grammar schools, received a higher education and ultimately became a California Supreme Court Justice.
The one period during the nineteenth century when higher education was available in the valley was from 1860 to 1868 when the Union Academy, a boarding high school (with day students) initiated by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, was built in Alamo. The three-story Academy was the largest valley building of that period. Its curriculum was based on the advanced San Francisco School Department academic standards. In 1861 George McCamley's farm diary talks about going to church and to other events in the “School House.”
According to the Contra Costa History of 1882, "It had a short life, and died a natural death; it was too far in advance of the times and the wants of the community who then resided in the beautiful San Ramon valley." The Academy burned down in 1868 during school vacation.
A new public high school
Forty years later, in 1909, citizens from the Danville Grange set up a committee charged with organizing a public high school in the valley. In 1910 voters from the Alamo, Danville, Green Valley, San Ramon and Sycamore Grammar School District formed the San Ramon Valley Union High School District.
A teacher and principal were hired and school began in a Danville house in 1910. Thirty students attended, using three rooms. Six courses were taught at first: commercial, history, English, German, mathematics and physical geography. In 1912 a fourth room was added for a chemistry and physics laboratory.
Just east of this house, the Grange and International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) built a new Social and Fraternal Hall late in 1913. This hall hosted the high school graduation of five girls the following spring; they were the first students attend San Ramon Valley Union High School for 4 full years. The new Fraternal Hall left vacant the old IOOF hall which was upstairs in a building owned by Lillian Close on Front Street. After some renovations, the high school’s 48 students and 4 teachers moved to the new rooms on August 10, 1914.
The School Board had been searching for a new high school site and, in 1915, they settled on a 10 acre location just north of the village of Danville. A $15,000 bond for the school passed by 254-7 in 1916. Architect Norman R. Coulter was hired, the school was built and classes began in March of 1917.
This handsome mission-style school was built around a court. The Contra Costa Gazette for Feb. 15, 1917, said “…the trustees plan to make it a model agricultural high school. It is located in the center of a 20-acre orchard.” In 1920 Tassajara and Highland students joined the District.
Gradually more buildings were added to the campus: home economics (1927), shop (1936), gym (1939), sport fields. In 1949 the original building was declared unsafe, a bond act passed for $250,000 and the building was taken down. In 1950 the new classroom building was ready as were more athletic fields. Other additions were: 4 tennis courts (1951), more classrooms (1951), music building (1953), swimming pool (1953), more classrooms (1953-54) and new boys’ gym (1957.)
The valley’s population had hovered around 2000 for the first part of the twentieth century, but after World War II the numbers swelled. In 1950 there were 4,630 people, in 1960 – 12, 702, in 1970 – 28,090, in 1975 41,095. The 1951 elementary population was Alamo 302, Danville Union 675 and San Ramon 50, according to the Walnut Creek Courier. Total school population was 7,200 in 1968 and 14,500 in 1985. New schools were built to meet the new residents’ needs.
In 1964, the SRV Unified School District was created by voters in the two grammar school districts, one union school district and one high school district. The new District had six elementary schools, one and one-half middle schools and one high school. Two new high schools were built soon after -- Monte Vista High School in 1966 and California High School in 1973. With unification came a whole new era in valley schooling.
Butz, Inez, The Founding and Early Years of the San Ramon Valley Union High School, Danville, California; talk on May 1, 1984
Contra Costa County History Center: notebooks on schools have extensive newspaper clippings and are categorized by school.
Harte, Bret, Letter to his sister, 1856
Histories of Contra Costa County 1882 (p. 434, Union Academy), 1926 (p. 31, attendance figures; 159 schools numbers in 1965)
Jones, Virgie V., Historical Persons and Places … in San Ramon Valley (1977) p. 50, 159
Museum of the San Ramon Valley: school archives; George McCamley Farm Diary (1861, San Ramon)
Newspapers: Contra Costa Gazette 3-11-1875; Walnut Creek Courier 9-27-1951
San Ramon Valley Historical Society talk, Jan. 17, 1973 (Mrs. Wood)
San Ramon Student Handbook, 1959-60 (high school building additions)
Smith, J. D. (Drummond, G. B., ed.), Recollections, Early Life in the San Ramon Valley of J.D. SmithJ.D. Smith