(Sources: Lucky Seven - Written by Richard Match and This is Great Neck by The League of Women Voters of Great Neck)
"We moved here because...we wanted a quiet place, hygienic, with a good school, preferably public, and good air. We got it all."
-- Will Durant, Historian and Great Neck Parent, 1936
The Great Neck Common School District Number 7 was created in 1814, two years after New York became the first state in the country to pass a law that mandated a state-wide public school system. The Woolley's Brook School was built east of what is now Middle Neck Road opposite Old Mill Road. School was free of charge but did not become compulsory up to age 14 until 1874. It was common practice during this period for school to be in session six days a week for twelve months a year, divided into quarters so that students could drop out for a few months during crop season. Click here to see a historic map of the Great Neck area during this time period.
A second building near the middle of the village replaced Woolley's Brook School in 1830 but burned down in a fire eight years later. Great Neck educated its children in the Fairview Avenue School from about 1840 to 1869, when a two-room schoolhouse with a belfry and a white picket fence was established on the present Arrandale site.
According to Robert A. Ellard, who was a student at the Arrandale School, the bell rang at 8:00 a.m. Miss Brown taught three primary grades in the first room while the principal taught the older children in the second room. Since paper was scarce, students brought their own slate and sponge for individual work, sitting in double-row desks and seats. The curriculum consisted of reading, writing and arithmetic, including algebra, history and literature for the older grades. A schoolyard provided recreation for boys and for girls but on opposite sides of a fence. Boys and girls had their own entrance, cloakroom and cedar buckets with tin cups for drinking water. The buckets were filled by a student helper who had to walk to a nearby well.
On January 1, 1895, the district became known as Union Free School District Number 7 with its own Board of Education. The first chairman, Moses R. Schenck, served only a few months before being succeeded by John C. Baker, of Baker Hill. His wife, Elizabeth M. Baker was an ex-schoolteacher who joined the school board after her husband resigned about a decade later and eventually became a board president herself. On October 7, 1895, the Board created the district's first high school. The initial courses included drawing and higher literature. To qualify for Regents certification, the district bought a $29 microscope and models of the human eye, ear and heart in order to offer its first science course, entitled "Physiology."
In 1900, the district spent $24,500 to build a new three-story building on the Arrandale site which housed all the district's students from grades 1-12. The building burned down from yet another fire in the spring of 1920. With the opening of the Queensboro Bridge and the advent of the Long Island Railroad, Great Neck's population began to increase and the result was a second school that opened in 1905. School No. 2, with two stories and five rooms, was built on what was later referred to as the Kensington site.
Great Neck High School's first home of its own on the Arrandale property opened in 1914 with a gymnasium that was considered to be one of the finest in the country. Although the school did not hire a physical education teacher, students managed to organize a football team and played their home games on a cow pasture. The Kensington-Johnson School was built in 1921 on the corner of Middle Neck Road. During this period, many actors, artists and writers resided in the community, including F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was writing The Great Gatsby), George M. Cohan, Ed Wynn, Groucho Marx and Eddie Cantor. Many of them sent their children to Miss Johnson at the Kensington School. Once the district's population surpassed 4500 in 1922, it was entitled by law to hire a superintendent.
Great Neck High School (now John L. Miller Great Neck North High School) was constructed with a $1,500,000 bond issue on the former Brokaw estate on Polo Road and opened in 1929. It was considered a success and its architecture attracted newspaper attention and community approval. At the same time, the brick Lakeville School opened in Lakeville District 8 which served the Lake Success area. In 1932, Lakeville District 8 merged with District 7 to create the school district we have today.
May 12, 1938 was the most controversial day in the history of the Great Neck School District. About 800 out of 1200 students left their classrooms and gathered in the auditorium to hear angry speeches from student leaders denouncing the administration's decision to fire four teachers who had been teaching for many years. The press was present, having been alerted beforehand. After two and a half hours in which Principal Leon C. High and Superintendent Willis E. Dodge had been booed off the stage, students were persuaded to return to class on the promise that they could hold a mass meeting that night. The meeting drew an even bigger crowd of 1500 students and parents. The Board of Education met 11 times in a two-week stretch, appointed parent-teacher investigating committees, and then ultimately decided to fire everybody -- the four teachers, the principal and the dean. Superintendent Dodge submitted his resignation. Later that fall, the New York State Tenure Law took effect and the Great Neck Teachers Association was formed.
At the end of World War II, Superintendent John L. Miller had to deal with a district population that had quintupled to 25,000 in the preceding twenty years but which still had only four schools. Many new buildings were constructed over the next ten years.
In 1944, the Great Neck school budget was passed by a vote of 116-1. In 1945 it passed unanimously with 65 votes. In 1959 and 1963, two budgets were defeated with over 3000 no votes.
The biggest real estate deal of all was the acquisition in 1949 of the 124 acre South complex in Lake Success from the former estate of Henry Phipps, steelmaster and one-time partner of Andrew Carnegie. His mansion and nine acres were gifted to the district by the Phipps heirs and is now the Phipps Administration Building. The rest of the property was purchased for $279,000. In 1958, Great Neck Senior High School was renamed Great Neck North High School to differentiate it from the district's new Great Neck South High School. In the early 1980's North was renamed to honor John L. Miller.
Teachers College, Columbia University evaluated the district in 1948 and found that "Great Neck has an excellent school system as school systems go throughout the United States," but "not as good a school system as it could have." The firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton evaluated the district in 1960 and found the district's schools past record "superb," having "earned a national reputation for quality" -- but also expressed various criticisms. Dr. James Bryan Conant, former president of Harvard University, called Great Neck "one of the lighthouse school systems in America." That moniker has stuck with the district ever since.
Student enrollment peaked in the mid-1960's and decreased in half by 1990. By that time, the school board closed six schools, converted two into Adult Education Centers, and converted the junior high schools into middle schools serving grades 6-8 and the high schools educating grades 9-12. Additional schools and programs were initiated, including the Village School as an alternative high school, the School Within A School program and the Community School. Many changes in the district continue to this day, with a $26,500,000 bond issue having been passed by the community in January, 1998 which funded many building renovations, particularly in the elementary schools, and established a networking infrastructure in each school which will support increased utilization of instructional technology and the Internet.
Hundreds of thousands of students have attended classes, passed through hallways and graduated from Great Neck schools throughout most of the twentieth century, including many famous alumni. Although not all have achieved this level of notoriety, they did receive an outstanding education and many went on to become community leaders and respected professionals in their fields of endeavor. This is a testament to the intelligence, talent, diligence and commitment of the teachers, administrators, parents, community members and students themselves and is the most meaningful legacy of a school district that strives for excellence to this very day.
"Let us remember that we are building for a future we can hardly envision but which will hold us accountable."
-- John L. Miller, Superintendent of Schools, Great Neck, 1964