Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Washington School

Mahoning Youngstown Washington

Washington School. Source unknown, reproduced from Old Ohio Schools website: (no attribution given)

Labor Day marked not only the end of summer but the beginning of a new school year. I grew up on North Portland Avenue on the lower West side. For my first seven years of school (1959-1966), this meant walking down the street to Washington School, at the corner of North Portland and Oakwood Avenue. My mom bought our house while my dad was in the service during World War II and she and her father chose it to be near the school.

Washington School was an old building even when I started school. The original part of the building was built c.1912 with possible additions in 1914 and somewhere around 1918-1920 when longtime superintendent of schools N. H. Chaney retired (from whom Chaney High School got its name). At that time, there was a twenty room addition in process. The building formed a giant L and my hunch is that the side facing N. Portland was built first. The east-west wing connecting to the south end of the wing on Portland was probably built later. There was a drive or alley between the school and houses on Portland and Lakeview Avenues.

Like so many of these old school buildings, Washington had big windows, high ceilings, wood floors in the classrooms and steam heat that heated classrooms through radiators. No doubt there were huge amounts of asbestos and lead paint (how did we survive?). There were two floors of classrooms. The school office was just inside the front entrance off of Portland. There was a basement with a cafeteria. What I most remember about the basement was the PTA Bazaars that were held there every year. When I was young I looked forward to those bazaars because they sold small toys, candy and would also have prizes.

School assemblies and class pictures would take place in the auditorium which was way down in the sub-basement. It seemed like we would descend endless flights of stairs whenever there were one of these functions. I think this was also one of the places we would go for civil defense drills (this was the era of the Cuban missile crisis).

The playground was located on the inside of the “L” filling the space bounded by Oakwood and North Lakeview. The playground and the sides of the building bordering it looked out over the steel mills as well as an entrance ramp to I-680 off of Oakwood, once this was built. Many of us might look at those mills and think of fathers or relatives who worked there or of the expectation at the time that someday we might work there. I still have memories of dodge ball, kick ball and all the other games we played. In the summers, my friends and I would play baseball there, until we had matured to the point that we were constantly knocking the ball onto Oakwood or the freeway.

What I most remember is all of the teachers I had and the foundation of a good education they gave me. Kindergarten was Mrs. McDermott. I missed about half of that year due to repeated illness, until I had my tonsils out. First and second grade were Mrs. Smith who could be stern but really cared and recognized even then that I loved to read. Third grade was Mrs Fusek. Between her and the school nurse they figured out that I was seriously near-sighted and needed glasses. Miss Adamiak was my fourth grade teacher. I particularly remember her love of science, and sitting in her classroom in November of 1963 when the announcement came over the PA that President Kennedy had been shot. Mrs. Vidis was our fifth grade teacher. She was strict and tough and when she saw I was being lazy pushed me to work harder and up to my ability. In sixth grade, I had Mrs. Welch, who was somewhat thin and wispy but could control a class of rambunctious pre-teens. For some reason what I most remember of that year was a unit we did on the United Nations.

Miss Stage was the principle during much of the time I was at Washington. She was a formidable gray-haired woman and you didn’t want to be sent to the office. Discipline was strict, you walked in lines to cafeterias and bathrooms but under it all, I had the sense of having teachers who really cared about teaching us and giving us what we would need to succeed in life. I also remember Mr Kollar, the custodian, who kept the heat on in that old school and kept it spotless. That must have been hard work!

The site where Washington School once stood is now a gently sloping field. In 1964, there were 26,000 baby boom students in Youngstown schools. With declining enrollments, Washington School was closed sometime around the early 1980’s, and I believe the students who would have attended there were sent to West Elementary or Stambaugh. For a time there was talk of it being turned into apartments but I suspect the costs would have been prohibitive. The windows were broken and boarded up. For a time, it continued to serve as the neighborhood precinct as a room off of Oakwood was opened for voting. Finally, the heating became unreliable and that, too, ended and the building was torn down, like a number of other schools.

While I was saddened to see the school go, I understood. Times had changed. It was too expensive to operate with inefficient heat and other problems. One could dwell on this, but I prefer to remember the good teachers, the classmates, and experiences that made this a good place when I was there.