While Southold Town was established more than 350 years ago, one of its public school districts is just now celebrating its 50th birthday this summer. The Oysterponds School District was created in 1966 after the North Fork’s easternmost hamlets, Orient and East Marion, merged their school systems, which were each nearly 90 years old at the time.
During the 1960s, the state was looking to combine smaller school districts and had initially planned to consolidate East Marion with its western neighbor, Greenport. However, the Orient and East Marion districts ultimately came together as the Oysterponds Elementary School District, which continued to send secondary students to classes in Greenport — as it does to this day.
The Oysterponds school was then constructed and opened in 1966.
Amy Folk, archivist at the Oysterponds Historical Society, said the idea for the new district and school arose from Orient school officials’ desire to convince a beloved teacher to become superintendent.
“The old story is that the school wanted Don Boerum to be superintendent and he said to the Board of Education that as long as they could build him a new school he would do it,” Ms. Folk said.
After serving in World War II, Mr. Boerum earned a master’s in education and began teaching at the Orient school, Ms. Folk said, adding that the district later approached him to fill the vacant superintendent position because people considered him “a brilliant man.”
Both Ms. Folk and Linda Goldsmith, a graduate of the original Orient School District and a longtime member of the Oysterponds district’s school board , described the Orient-East Marion consolidation as inevitable given the low enrollment in both schools at the time. She said that although there was a lot of discussion about the idea, it didn’t encounter much opposition.
The original Orient school, which had a K-8 program, was built in 1872. It had just four classrooms and no library, Ms. Goldsmith said, adding that building once served as a studio for the late sculptor Robert Berks.
“I had a great education in that tiny classroom,” she said. “We all did. I can’t think of anyone that went there that didn’t do well. We had such wonderful teachers.”
Jill Muir of Orient, who graduated from the K-8 East Marion School District in 1956, recalled that each grade had between three and eight students. The former East Marion school, located on Kayleighs Court, is now a residence.
“It was a tiny, two-room schoolhouse,” Ms. Muir said, adding that students in grades 1-4 were taught in the “little room” and those in grades 5-8 were in the “big room.” A library connected the two rooms, she said.
Ms. Muir recalled that her East Marion elementary school teacher would often allow her class to take long recesses to play softball. As for individual instruction, she said her teacher called each grade level up to a bench in the front of the room throughout the day to work with them at their skill level while the remaining students worked on other assignments at their desks.
“It was the greatest school I could ever imagine,” Ms. Muir said. “We had great times there. All our kids always did exceedingly well in Greenport because we had that individual attention that they didn’t get in the Greenport lower grades.”
Only a few years before the merger, the districts decided to send their seventh- and eighth-grade students to Greenport, Ms. Goldsmith said.
In 1983, about 20 years after the current Oysterponds school opened its doors, Ms. Goldsmith said the K-6 school changed its kindergarten program from a half-day to a full day, a decision she described as “progressive.”
“[Oysterponds] was a small, country school,” she said. “It’s really started to grow since 1990s.”
Today, Oysterponds also offers a half-day preschool program for 4-year-olds and, for 2016-17, will add a half-day pre-K class for students as young as 3. Additionally, Ms. Goldsmith said, the school is offering a transition program for students who are above kindergarten level but not yet ready for first grade.
She said she recalls that type of foresight occurred in the Oysterponds district as enrollment numbers continued to climb, with around 140 students in the late 1980s. The school built an addition to the building in 1988 to accommodate the growth, which Oysterponds is currently using for art, music and computer instruction.
During that time, she said, the district also began to enhance its special education program because parents wanted their children educated closer to home.
“It was a phenomenal program,” Ms. Goldsmith said, adding that it lasted 14 years. “But the kids aged out and people began to bring their kids back to their own districts, so it was time to disband the program.”
Now, 50 years later, Oysterponds educational programs are coming “full circle,” Ms. Goldsmith said.
When East Marion and Orient were separate districts, each school had multi-grade classrooms, but when they combined, a decision was made to make each grade its own class. A few years ago, however, the district went back to that multi-grade model as a way to address a trend toward lower enrollment numbers. The program has since grown with the arrival of tuition students from other districts, especially at the pre-K level.
Current Oysterponds Superintendent Richard Malone said that in the last few years, the school has focused on expanding its art, music and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and introduced a foreign language program.
Students have also gotten more involved with technology through the implementation of Oysterponds TV, a class in which fifth- and sixth-graders use the latest technology — including green screens — to film segments for an online broadcast.
The district is also in the midst of unveiling a districtwide individual learning plan. Introduced this year as a pilot program, it involves focusing small groups of students on an “essential question” asked at the beginning of each unit. Students then use three different approaches — audio, visual and kinesthetic, or movement — to answer it, starting with the one that best suits to their learning style.
“They spend the time answering that question in a multi-subject, thematic way,” Ms. Goldsmith explained. “If the question is about social studies, somehow math, English and science — even music — are worked into answering that question.
“We have small numbers and we have great teachers that are willing to try new things,” she said.
Mr. Malone added that these changes have increased enrollment significantly. When he became superintendent in 2012, district administration developed a five-year enrollment prediction that estimated about 63 students for the 2015-16 school year. However, he said, Oysterponds has more than 80 students this year.
As for celebrating the district’s accomplishments, Mr. Malone said the school is planning activities for next school year to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
Both Mr. Malone and Ms. Goldsmith both said they hope enrollment will grow even further and staff will remain as innovative in 2066 as they are today.
“Fifty years into the future, I think the school would still be thriving and that enrollment would level off,” Mr. Malone said. “I hope the school program is responsible for seeing that the students leave the school ready to take on what’s expected in a secondary program, wherever they are.”
Photo: The current Oysterponds school building while it was under construction in the mid-1960s. (Credit: Courtesy)