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When We Were Public

Rachel Saliba
 The 1939 Tilton School Commencement marked the end of a 95-year tradition of the school serving as the public high school for the towns of Tilton and Northfield. Like so many town academies and private schools in New England, Tilton School was founded before public education was mandated and provided a secondary education to students from near and far.
When the New Hampshire Conference Seminary of the Methodist Episcopal Church (NHCSMEC), (as today’s current Tilton School was named in 1845) opened its doors on September 3, 1845, more than half of the girls and boys were from Northfield, Sanbornton Bridge (later named Tilton) and Sanbornton. The majority of the remaining students came from other parts of New
Hampshire; a few students came from as far away as Boston and Lowell, Massachusetts.
At the time, Tilton and Northfield were manufacturing towns. Many children worked in the mills and factories along the river instead of attending high school. For those students who could afford tuition and wanted to become a teacher or attend college to study law, medicine or ministry, the NHCSMEC/Tilton School filled a great need. According to the New Hampshire Conference Seminary of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1845 Catalogue:
This Institution [Tilton School] is designed to impart a thorough and substantial English education—to give instruction in modern languages, and in the Latin and Greek languages, so far as necessary to fit students for admission to College; and, by the aid of lectures upon school-keeping, and particular instruction, from time to time, to prepare those who intend to teach, for the discharge of the office of an instructor. (NHCSMEC Catalogue, November 1845. Page 9).
For the first 40-plus years, local students and others from all over the area paid tuition to attend Tilton School. Many who lived far away boarded in local homes and then eventually in the schools boarding house. By 1863 they began staying in dormitories.
In 1896, the towns of Tilton, Northfield, and Sanbornton reached an agreement with the trustees of the New Hampshire Conference Seminary and Female College (Tilton School) to send their students to the school for a per capita fee of $40 per year. This fee covered the “basic” courses such as grammar, Bible, arithmetic, and U.S. history, but did little to cover the fees for classes such as French, Latin, music, and geometry. For private students, the “basic” tuition was $8.25 per term with the additional courses ranging in price between $2 to $15 per class per semester. While operating with a deficit in 1896, Tilton School continued to make improvements in response to the needs of the students.

Single-Sex Education Dominates the Landscape
At the turn of the 20th century, there was a growing trend for single-sex education in New England schools, and it became more difficult to enroll females into the college preparatory program as boarding students. By May 1927, the total number of female boarders who did not graduate and were eligible to return the next year had dropped to seven.
As a result, the Board of Trustees made the decision to end the girl’s boarding program starting in fall 1927 and become a boys-only boarding school. Female and male day students from the local towns were still able to attend the school as they still had their arrangement with the newly established Union School District.
As the new “day-girls-only” policy continued, the culture of the school shifted. Initially, girls continued with their literary societies, choir, field hockey, and basketball teams. They had their own “Girls’ Student Council,” but were not included in grade-level activities with the boys. As the years progressed, the girls’ literary societies and field hockey team were ended, as well as a few courses that were popular with the girls.
The Union School District was concerned that the school had adopted a policy to segregate the girls, not giving them adequate participation in school life. The school district also wanted to have more say in the non-college preparatory courses offered to the students. It was their responsibility to provide a good education to all residents—male and female—and to especially prepare them with skills they would need for jobs directly out of high school.
The relationship between the school district and the trustees were further tested due to the unpredictability of their contract. The towns were not always timely with their tuition payments, and their annual enrollment fluctuated as the population changed. The students in town were permitted to take classes at schools in Franklin, Concord, and Laconia, as well. The towns also wanted to pay a lower per capita fee in accordance with their changing demographics.
During the same time, the Tilton School Board of Trustees was still struggling with enrollment and balancing the budget. In the mid-1920s, the total enrollment averaged between 330 and 400 students a year. By 1936, total enrollment was down to 267. In response, the board voted during their meeting in April 1936 to establish a men’s junior college on campus to increase enrollment.

Tilton School Adds a Junior College

Tilton School thereby became a six-year school, whose graduates entered into their junior year at university (Board of Trustee Minutes, April 13, 1936. Page 509). The founding of the Tilton Junior College and other changes taking place at Tilton School were not lost on the school district leadership.
A few months later, the school district started making plans to build their own high school. They received a grant from the U.S. government for $70,020—almost half of the $155,600 estimated to build the school. The district was able to raise the remaining funds and started building its new school in December 1938. The building was completed by September 1939 (Annual Report of the Town of Northfield, New Hampshire for the Year Ending January 31, 1939. Page 76).
The school district notified the Tilton School Board of Trustees of its plans to build its own junior and senior high school, to which the board’s Executive Committee made the following recommendation:
The members of the committee concluded, therefore, that Tilton School would likely be able to take care of the financial loss sustained by the going out of the high school pupils of Tilton and Northfield. The following motion was then made by Mr. Duffy and seconded by Mr. Adams and unanimously voted that the executive committee of the Trustees of Tilton School looks with favor upon the proposal of the Tilton-Northfield Union School District to erect a junior-senior high school building for its own purposes with the understanding that Tilton School shall continue to furnish high school facilities as heretofore until said junior-senior building is ready for occupancy, (Board of Trustees, Executive Committee Minutes, August 10, 1938. No. 94 Page 1).
This break from a 95-year relationship with the towns ended with little fanfare. A brief article appeared in the alumni magazine, The Bulletin of Tilton School, in March 1939, titled, Tilton and Northfield High School, that read: It is expected that the high school now in progress for the Tilton and Northfield School District will open next fall. Then, for the first time in 95 years, Tilton will be without girl students and exclusively a boy’s school, (Bulletin of Tilton School, Tilton, N.H., March 1939. Page 2).
It is quite possible that Tilton School would not have survived its early years without the support of the towns of Tilton, Northfield and Sanbornton. It was a symbiotic relationship that provided high enrollment numbers and eventually tuition revenue for Tilton School. It also provided free high-level education for the students in the towns of Tilton, Northfield, and Sanbornton. Like so many other town academies, the relationship failed under the conflicting interests of the demands of public education to prepare girls and boys equally for jobs and college and Tilton School’s need to respond to the market demands for single-sex, college preparatory education.
Today, some of Tilton School’s highest achieving male and female students are residents of the towns of Tilton, Northfield, and other local towns. It makes one wonder what Tilton School would be like today if the towns had continued to pay the tuition for the local students who wished to attend college after high school.