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Willoughby: Aspen High School graduating classes — telling numbers

Aspen High School used the D.R.C. Brown family house on Hallam Street from 1900 to 1942 when, using WPA funding, the Red Brick School was constructed. Willoughby collection/Courtesy photo

Aspen High School graduates from its beginning to around 1960 would likely total around a thousand over a span of 71 years. The graduating class sizes, when looked at in isolation, suggest the town’s demographic swings, but digging deeper it is a history that also illustrates changes in educational expectations.

For decades schooling for most children growing up in Aspen ended in eighth grade. The eight-grade graduation ceremony was on equal status with high school graduations. The first graduation of any kind was in 1886 for nine girls and four boys in eighth grade. The first high school graduation was in 1889. Nine students graduated in 1891 and there was not another high school graduation until 1894. That was a milestone as commencement ceremonies filled the Wheeler including isles and stairways. Aspen High School has had a graduating class every year since 1894.

Aspen had three primary schools in town originally called the East, West and Central schools but later named Garfield, Lincoln and Washington. The three schools totaled 1,215 students in 1898. By 1904 school enrollment dropped to 791 students with 137 first graders, 115 in second, 101 third, 84 fourth, 69 sixth, 75 seventh, 47 eighth and the high school with 78. 1905 had an enrollment of 753 with 12 high school graduates.



Another interesting comparison is for 1910. In 1910 Aspen schools’ total population was 700 with 70 in eighth grade and 113 in high school. Colorado University that same year had 1,200 students. My great aunt, Ethel Frost, and my uncle John Herron, graduated that year in what up to that time was the largest graduating class with 26 students. The educational expectations were climbing, but primary grade teachers only needed to be high school graduates and that held until the 1920s.

Graduating numbers vacillated after that with senior graduations of: 29 in 1915 a record that held for 50 years, 25 in 1916, 18 in 1920, but then they grew even though the total Aspen population dropped considerably between 1918 and 1922. Educational expectations changed and the number of 8th graders continuing into high school rose from about 10 to 20% before 1900 to around 40% to 50% through about 1920, then climbed to 80% or higher by 1925.




My parent’s classes are good illustrations. My father’s class had 20 in 1925 and the high school totaled 95. My mother’s class in 1926 had 26. There was a large drop down to only 5 in 1928 and it stayed low during the Depression because of both population decline and family economic challenges.

The Aspen School District included rural primary one-room schools. Up until 1926 there were seven (not including ones that would now be in different school districts): Woody Creek, Upper Capitol Creek, Upper Snowmass, Brush Creek, Owl Creek, Lower Capitol Creek and Snowmass. Most students in rural schools did not attend high school. Those that did boarded with an Aspen family, like longtime Aspen teacher Hilda Anderson who graduated with my father’s class. Later more ranchers had cars and the district began bus service enabling rural children to attend high school.

There were 11 graduates in 1930, 16 in 1935, 18 in 1941, 7, all boys, in 1948. The 1950s had similar numbers but slightly higher with 11 in 1956 and 18 in 1958 and the 1960s began with 19 in 1961. Then numbers began climbing rapidly with the first class to have 30, the largest since my mother’s class in 1926, in 1965, and my own class breaking that record with 32 in 1966, then 33 in 1967 in a new Maroon Creek campus built to accommodate the growth. It continued to climb year after year after that.

A final unrelated note- in researching these numbers I discovered that Aspen High School chose its mascot name ‘Skiers’ in 1946. The name was picked in a student fundraising event with ticket purchasers voting among: Skiers, Mountaineers, Eagles, and Miners. (Great choice!!)

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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