Have you ever wondered about the origins and history of Yorktown High School? We did too! We surfed the internet, and the only historical reference was a Wikipedia article that is fraught with errors. There is a fond remembrance from a former YHS teacher, Jim Allen, written in 2002 but it focuses on Yorktown after it became a high school in 1960.
Then there are our collective memories. For example, several YHS ’68 classmates remembered that there was initially a Greenbrier Elementary School on the site. This sounded logical since we strolled around the school premises and confirmed that Greenbrier Park is adjacent to YHS. But a few classmates from Mrs. Fleming's 4th grade at James Madison Elementary School recalled that they attended Yorktown Elementary School for the first two months of the school year until the construction of James Madison was completed.
For a concise and complete history of our alma mater, some of your classmates took the bull by the horns and visited the Center for Local History at the Arlington County Library on Quincy Street. Our research also covered all elementary and junior high schools that fed into Yorktown High School. We want to extend our appreciation to the staff in the Center for Local History for aiding us in our research.
We trolled through a 1964 Grenadier Yearbook, PTA letters, handbooks dating mostly from 1969 to the 1980s and other memorabilia held by the Center for Local History. Not wanting to leave any stone unearthed, your YHS grads waded into the large and cumbersome Plat books prepared in the late 1940s. A plat book is a public record of mapped land showing its division into blocks, lots and parcels. Once approved by the local government, it becomes the legal description of property used in its purchase and sale, and for taxation and insurance purposes. These books are also required to ensure compliance with land use plans including for public use such as parks. For example, a section of the plat book from 1952, showing “The Yorktown School” is shown on the right.
We also scanned through the minutes of the monthly meetings of the Arlington County School Board, starting in the late 1940s. This was a time-consuming effort, but it really paid off. Besides the history of YHS, we learned three important things:
But back to the subject at hand, here is the timeline we unearthed:
July 1, 1949: Our school is born as the Greenbrier School
The minutes stated that the School Board accepted the low bid of Allen C. Minnix & Sons for “the construction of a school building presently known as the North Greenbrier Elementary School, at North 28th Street and North Greenbrier Street for $281,594.00." In 2016 dollars, this figure is equivalent to $2.6 million! Yes, inflation since 1949 has increased by 911.1%!
October 1, 1949: The school was officially named The Yorktown School
Before it was even built, the Board changed its name. The minutes stated, “the County Planning Board … was ready to print the county maps and wanted the (final) names of the schools at Greenbrier, Vacation Lane, North Fairlington and Glencarlyn. Mrs. Campbell suggested that the Greenbrier School be called the Yorktown Elementary School. It was pointed out that the location of the school would help people find it. Dr. Joy stated that he had discussed names with various people and that the younger generation wanted names that would be good in yells. Mr. MacPherson seconded the motion which was carried unanimously.”
As a side note, Dr. Joy had also compiled a list of famous Virginians and related names which he submitted to the Board as relevant to naming other schools: the North Fairlington School was named Abingdon after the home of Nellie Custis; the school on Carlin Springs Road was named Glencarlyn; it was proposed that the Vacation Lane Junior High School be named for Franklin Roosevelt, but it was suggested and agreed that Stratford was a more appropriate name because it was Lee’s home and could be tied up with Lee Highway.
January 1950, The Yorktown Elementary School building opened
It was a brand new, one-story elementary school located on 12.34 acres. It wasn’t until YHS was built in the late 1950s that an additional 17.5 acres was purchased to accommodate the much larger high school campus.
1951-52 Arlington School Enrollment Explosion
The Arlington County School Board minutes noted that with the “war babies" born during 1942-46, enrollment in the Arlington school system would increase from 16,100 pupils in the 1949-50 school year, to 17,400 by 1951-52. Coupled with the already crowded classroom situation, this meant that no permanent class space would be available for 3,200 children for the 1951-52 school year. Housing the forecasted rise in the school population would require 50 new classrooms a year. We were surprised to learn that back then, there were two high schools in Arlington County: our future rival, Washington and Lee which opened its doors in 1925, and Hoffman-Boston, an African American Junior/Senior High school in South Arlington established in 1916.
1952-1958 Arlington School Board Construction Plan
In the early 1950s, the Arlington County School Board embarked on a long-term capital development plan to meet the education needs of the growing population. Concerning senior high schools, the construction of Wakefield Senior High was to be built in two phases during 1953/54, large enough to accommodate 2,000 students. We gleaned from the School Board minutes that Yorktown Elementary School had initially been designed so that it could form a classroom wing of the proposed new senior high school. The construction plan called for the high school to be built in phases: the objective was an enrollment of 730 students by 1958, increasing for a capacity of 1,000 students by 1960. Similarly, Hoffman-Boston was to be enlarged to educate 230 students in a combined junior/senior high school by 1958.
In late 1957 and early 1958, diverging views were expressed by Board members about Yorktown High School. Some Board members felt that YHS may not be needed until 1963-64, while other proponents cited the overloaded capacity of W&L and Wakefield High Schools. Other topics that were debated included keeping Arlington’s school architect or going for a competitive bid (Rhees Burket’s architectural contract was terminated – but he was eventually re-hired); and discussion on whether the Virginia code and previously adopted construction standards for Williamsburg and Gunston Junior High Schools, and Wakefield High School should be changed or lowered.
In February 1958, the Arlington County School Board approved the plans for Yorktown High School, a 181,000 square foot facility for 1,400 students that would cost about $3.5 million ($29.2 million in 2016 dollars) and would take an estimated 30 months to plan and construct. The cost estimate was $15.85 per square foot based on Gunston Junior High construction costs and contingencies. Construction of YHS commenced on December 1, 1958.
1950-60 Arlington County Population Growth
According to the Arlington County Historical Society, in 1950 (the year in which most of us were born), the population of Arlington County was about 135,449 inhabitants. By 1960, the US Bureau of the Census reported a population increase in Arlington of more than 20%, to 163,401 – the year that YHS opened its doors. In 1958, Arlington County high school enrollment in W&L and Wakefield High Schools was 23% above their capacity, which meant overloaded classrooms.
1960: Yorktown opened as a High School
Yorktown High School opened for the first time in September 1960, with only Sophomore and Junior classes. Those students who attended Wakefield and W&L High Schools as 11th graders and were in the revised school boundaries for YHS, would remain in their respective high schools to complete the 12th grade. YHS’s first graduating senior class was in 1962, which is also the year the first Grenadier Yearbook was published.
At that time, it was the policy of Arlington County School Board to own physical education facilities. When the YHS bond was issued, it was understood that the Greenbrier playground facilities would be available for YHS, and that the bond issue would provide funds to make appropriate improvements to the park for a fence, track, seating and lights. Since the upgraded Greenbrier Park was not sold to the Arlington County School Board, Arlington County agreed that the use of Greenbrier Park would be made available to YHS under conditions whereby the physical education and athletic programs of YHS would in no way be adversely affected in relationship to the programs in other Arlington County high schools. The Greenbrier Park has continued to remain home to the Yorktown Patriots.
1967: Yorktown High School lost a tree, but gained a library
In 1967, construction started in the center courtyard for a new school library. According to a web article, one tree can make 2,000 books. So to fill the library, not to mention make room for it, Yorktown lost its beloved and majestic Locust Tree, affectionately known as Elihu Fribble. While there was nary a mention of Elihu’s demise in the Arlington County School Board minutes, it was immortalized in a song by General Lillard’s Senior Skiffle Band, entitled “Mighty Fallen Elihu.” It was sung to the Kingsmen’s version of “Little Latin Lupe Lu."
June 1968: Yorktown High School's Class of 1968 graduated! Based on the 1968 Grenadier Yearbook, there were around 516 seniors in our class - or close to 1500 students in the 10th through 12th grades.
Fall 1968: The new YHS library in what was formerly a central courtyard, was completed.
From what we gleaned from published articles on the internet, an external wing to YHS containing classrooms and computer lab was built in 2003 and the athletic fields at Greenbrier Park were renovated in 2007. In May 2006, the Arlington County School Board approved a preliminary design to rebuild and renovate YHS. In February 2007, the School Board agreed to the schematic design for the new Yorktown High School following the approval of a $100 million bond. In January 2012, Phase II of the construction was completed, including three floors of classrooms, an eight-lane pool with diving well, a wrestling room, weight room and new main gym. Thus the final section of the old Yorktown Elementary School that had been subsumed into YHS as we once knew it during our high school days, was demolished (see photo). As of the 2013-2014 school year, the last wing was completed along with the courtyard.
Did you know that the Yorktown Aquatic Center is owned by Arlington County and operated by the Parks, Recreation and Community Resources Division (see photo of entrance below)? It is also available for use by the YHS swim teams and physical education programs, and for students of neighboring middle and elementary schools.
US News and World Report gave Yorktown High School a rank of 13 within Virginia; YHS ranked 363rd in the nation. W&L was ranked 17th in Virginia with a 430 nationwide ranking nationwide – Go Patriots! The, student-teacher ratio at YHS is 16:1, and currently 1,943 students are enrolled in grades 9-12.
And don't forget - our 50th Reunion weekend will include a tour of Yorktown High School!
Interesting FACTOIDS about Arlington County public schools:
Arlington County Public School Integration
We would be remiss if we didn’t highlight the significance of the landmark Supreme Court Case of Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas handed down on May 17, 1954. The unanimous (9-0) decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and ordered states to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."
We were toddlers at this time and many families didn’t even own a TV. The Supreme Court decision became an integral part of the evolving education system in Arlington County. In 1954 the Virginia General Assembly adopted a “Massive Resistance” policy, a phrase coined by US Senator Harry F. Byrd (Democrat, Virginia) to describe the battle against Virginia public school integration. It led to many lawsuits and legal maneuvering that delayed school integration. With the State government threatening to close public schools that integrated under federal court orders, Arlington’s League of Women Voters along with other organizations including the NAACP, led the effort to keep Arlington’s public schools open. The “Massive Resistance” movement collapsed in 1959 when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that public education took precedence over segregation policy. In February 1959, under the protection of 85 police officers, four black students entered Stratford Junior High School in Arlington. The successful and non-violent occurrence was a waterfall event that led to the end of Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” and the closure of Hoffman Boston after graduating its last full class in 1964.
Remembrances from Jim Allen
Jim Allen, many of us will recall, was a biology teacher at YHS. He was also the boy’s soccer coach. And although we never beat Washington & Lee in soccer, it was less due to Coach Allen’s skills than the no doubt true rumor that W-L recruited its team from Bogota, Colombia.
Mr. Allen started teaching at Yorktown the day it opened. In 2002, he wrote a touching reminiscence of his experience at Yorktown, including what it was like to break in a new school. It can be found on the web, but we thought it appropriate to include it here in its entirety:
About Yorktown, by Jim Allen
Revised June 29, 2002
In September of 1960 the "New School" in Arlington opened its doors for the first time to students and staff. As a young biology teacher I shared with many of you the excitement of that time, something I continued to do until my retirement in l995 as the last original staff member.
During those 35 years I saw many changes to the building, staff, and curriculum. In the late 1960's a new library was built in the center court. The big locust tree there, affectionately known as "Elihu Fribble", came down for this but a cross-section of her trunk and her picture still hang in the library. The swimming pool was constructed in the early 1970's next to the tennis courts. A general renovation of the main building took place in the early 1990's. This included new windows and ceilings and central air conditioning. Yorktown is currently getting a $1 million new roof.
The staff has fluctuated in size and makeup over time depending upon enrollment and course offerings. The Title IX legislation required hiring more coaches because the athletic program doubled in size with the addition of girls' sports. Even though the program doubled, the facilities to accommodate the practices and contests have remained the same as they were in 1960.
In 1978 the 9th Grade was moved to the high school which resulted in increased staff and course offerings to accommodate four grade levels. Currently the need for more classrooms is tied not only to increased student enrollment but also to more specialized courses requiring smaller class size.
We were saddened by the death of our first principal, W. Ralph Kier, in 1996 at the age of 78. He had an active and productive retirement. Our second principal, Steve Kurcis, passed away in 2000 following a long bout with MS. Principal Kurcis was followed by Mark Frankle for two years. Mike Durso then served as principal from 1990 until the Fall of 1996 when he took a principalship in Maryland. After a year of national search, Dr. Raymond Pasi took over at Yorktown just this past summer and seems to be off to a great start.
I have had the good fortune to be associated with Yorktown High School since its beginning as a staff member and also as a parent. All three of our children were graduated from Yorktown. I am pleased that the Allen tradition continues at Yorktown as my nephew, Mike Allen, and his wife, Cecelia, are now both on the staff.
I look forward to many more years of involvement and hope that you will join us in developing and supporting our new alumni association, Alumni and Friends of Yorktown, Inc. Our association will assist Yorktown in continuing the excellence and pride that has been established over the years.
Jim Allen, YHS Ret.
Postscript: A fond memory from one of our classmates: “W&L recruited from all of South America - not just Columbia - as well as Europe and Australia for their teams. In the fall of '70, I had the privilege of being Coach Allen's Assistant Soccer Coach when the team tied W&L, and posted a 9-1-2 win record that year. Coach Allen cut up his "good luck tie" he'd worn for years only on Game Day into wee bits, and pasted a piece of it on everyone's trophy for winning the soccer championship.”