Back to School Bells Are Ringing Taking a Look at Whiting Public Schools
By Frank Vargo August , 2019
Remember when the start of August meant that you had only one more month of summer vacation? Remember when school ended the week of Memorial Day and started the day after Labor Day? Since Labor Day was always observed on the first Monday of September, if you were really lucky, you had an “extra” week of summer vacation when Labor Day was on September 7. Presently, some school districts begin classes on or around August 1. The Whiting Public Schools start on August 15th this year.
This article will take us back to the beginning of education in the Whiting area. Not too much is known about the early schools, but our records indicate that there was a one-room school house at 115th Street and Atchison Avenue (where the city of Hammond pumping station is now located) from about 1860 to the 1870s. John Quincy Adams Sparks was the teacher.
In the 1870s and 1880s, a schoolhouse was located in the Berry Lake area across from the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. The picture shows the students dressed for a party at the school. Notice the number of stars on the American flag. This school was also used as a polling place for voters on the south side of Whiting.
The first mention of a school near downtown Whiting was in the wild “Oklahoma” area in 1889. This two-story building housed the lower grades, taught by Miss Winslow, on the first floor, while Mr. Meyers took care of the upper grades on the second floor.
The “Old High School Building” was constructed on the corner of 119th Street and Oliver. At first it wasn’t a high school at all. Rather it housed elementary and junior high students. Behind the building were some woods, sand and a small swamp.
In 1898, it was decided that the eight pupils attending neighboring high schools formed a sufficient number to start a local high school. All eight students were housed on the upper floor of this “Old High School Building” and Whiting High School was born. In 1900, the first commencement was held in Goebel’s Opera House on John Street. Five students received their diplomas, four girls and one boy.
There was a Manual Training building on Oliver Street to teach boys the trades and crafts that would hopefully lead to a skilled job at the Standard Oil Company. Also on Oliver Street was the McGregor Elementary School for the lower grades. This building was dedicated on April 3, 1901, and served the pupils of Whiting for many years. McGregor closed in 1975.
In 1909, the cornerstone for the new Whiting High School was laid and the school opened in the autumn of 1910. The first class to graduate from this new building was the Class of 1911.
As more students started to attend WHS, the need for more room prompted the School Board to look for solutions. They began planning for a Junior High School building. In 1923, construction began and all went well until a rain and wind storm partially demolished the large smokestack during that summer. The problem was overcome and the Junior High was completed in 1924. It was located on the corner of Ohio and New York Avenues. The building boasted a large auditorium, a modern gymnasium and a swimming pool.
Also in 1923, South Side School opened in the Goose Island area of Whiting. The school had Kindergarten through 6th grade classes. The main entrance was on 127th Street, but the footprint of the school and playground extended for an entire city block all the way north to 126th Street. Its east and west boundaries were White Oak and Birch Avenues.
The school served students from both Whiting and Robertsdale. In back of the school was a large playground with swings and other playground equipment, as well as a baseball diamond and a concrete area that was flooded for ice skating in the winter. The school itself was a spacious one-level building with each classroom having a door to the outside where teachers could take their classes to sit on the lawn for an outdoor learning experience. A large common area in the middle of the building was used for gym classes and as an auditorium for plays and assemblies.
South Side School closed in 1976 when the new Nathan Hale School was opened on Oliver Street. Today the area consists of single family homes. In 1926, another primary building was built on 119th Street and is still in use today. The Memorial Gymnasium was built in 1950 and is one of the best gyms in the Calumet Region for watching athletic contests in comfort with individual seating in the upper levels. Nathan Hale elementary was opened in 1975.
The junior high and high school buildings underwent major renovations in 1984. New construction also included a Kindergarten, Administration Building and Physical Education Complex, including Ray Gallivan Stadium, which gave Whiting a physical plant which is the envy of many schools in Northwest Indiana. This complex is located on Center Street.
Things have changed a great deal since most of us were in school. With all the new technology utilized in the teaching curriculum, we would hardly recognize the classrooms of today compared to those where we learned the basics with simple instruments like a pencil/pen, paper and ruler, which have carried us throughout our adult years. Yet just as we felt then, when that first school bell began to ring, most students of today would probably agree with our cry of: “Summer can’t be over already!”