Willoughby: School demographics remain dynamic across generations | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: School demographics remain dynamic across generations

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Junior and senior students of Aspen High School, 1926.
Willoughby collection

School funding depends on district tallies. As school opens each year, a new count of student numbers forms a baseline to predict future enrollment. Four generations of one family’s history suggests anything is possible.

Over a century ago, Aspen named each school after a president: Garfield, Washington and Lincoln. John Sheehan, my grandfather, entered first grade at the Lincoln School in 1893. I did not find school enrollment numbers for that year. But by 1898, Sheehan joined 73 other sixth-graders. Split into two groups, they shared a single room, perhaps with two teachers.

Aspen’s population dropped between its peak in 1892, and 1898. But the student population did not decrease at the same rate as that of the city overall. Many bachelors, lured by better pay, left Aspen for Cripple Creek’s gold mines or Montana’s copper mines. Aspen’s silver mines had lowered their wages after demonetization of silver in 1893.

Back then, eighth-grade graduation ranked as big of a deal as high school graduation does today. Fewer students reached 12th grade, yet Sheehan graduated from high school in 1904.

Wilmina Sheehan, my mother, started first grade in 1914 at the Washington School. She remembered about 90 students in her class. Both Lincoln and Washington offered one teacher for each grade, first through fourth. At each school one teacher taught a fifth-sixth grade class, and one taught a sixth-seventh grade class. A dwindling number of students comprised only one eighth-grade class. During 1916, six high school teachers taught those who stayed in school beyond eighth grade, around 40 students.

Unlike my grandfather’s experience, my mother’s class numbers changed radically as she progressed through the grades. Over half her classmates left school during fourth and fifth grades. Influenza took its toll, including on my grandfather. And Aspen’s largest mines closed between 1918 and 1919, an event that drove families out of town in search for work.

Mother’s class continued to dwindle as families moved and as students dropped out. Her class of 1926 graduated 26 students. Most of those who remained had lived in Aspen for many years and continued to do so. Her class included Dan Kelleher, whose father operated Tim’s, an establishment that later became the Red Onion; Steve Marolt; Alma Erickson, who married longtime Aspen postmaster Alton Beck; Lawrence Elisha, son of the proprietor and owner of the Hotel Jerome, and Svea, Elisha’s wife.

Aspen’s schools offered no kindergarten when I started first grade in 1954. About a dozen kids joined me. Aspen’s population began to grow around that time. By sixth grade, 34 students filled my classroom. One building, now called the Red Brick, housed all grades. Around my fifth-grade year, the school added four classrooms and the gym.

Families from other parts of Colorado, Texas and California moved to Aspen during the 1960s. As our class sizes grew, Aspen added a building for the elementary grades. After my senior class of 1966 graduated 36 students, and class sizes increased rapidly. A new building for the high school opened in 1967. By the 1970s, Aspen’s first-grade class numbers had returned to the size of my mother’s 90-student, first-grade class.

When my son registered for Aspen’s kindergarten, three sections totaled around 75 students. I felt echoes of continuity as I walked him through the same front door where I first counted as a student, The Red Brick School. But numbers are only part of the story. Who can predict what will happen over the next four generations?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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