Portland High School is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Started in 1821 as a school for boys, Portland High School has been located on Cumberland Avenue since the 1860s. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Portland High School is marking its bicentennial, and the PHS community has been contemplating how far it’s come in 200 years.

Opened in 1821, as a school for 60 boys on Exchange Street, the now-co-educational institution on Cumberland Street is thought to be one of the oldest public high schools in the country and now serves close to 1,000 students.

Seniors and staff wore a pin with a special bicentennial insignia at the Portland High School graduation in June. Contributed / Sally Reagan

“As a history teacher here, it is exciting to work in a historical and beautiful building,” said social studies teacher Sally Reagan, a member of the PHS 200th Celebration Committee. “It is like a time capsule in many ways. Students, staff and guests can’t help but feel a sense of awe when they walk in our building because it can feel like a sacred space or a living history museum.

The 200th anniversary was a big celebration for the school, she said, and included special pins that seniors and staff wore and an overview of the history by Principal Sheila Jepson at graduation this spring. This year special historical facts will be read and alumni will be invited to athletic games. Reagan said school staff regularly used yearbooks and other school artifacts “to tie our school’s place in history to the larger themes and events of the United States and the world.”

“We can see the patterns of immigration throughout our country’s history reflected in our yearbooks and documents,” Reagan said. “Celebrating the 200th graduating class was a momentous occasion, especially during the pandemic and a time of remote learning, because it reminded us of our long legacy and of how so many generations of PHS grads had weathered difficult times.

“The class of 2021 endured many unexpected hardships and disappointments, but they are proud of their status as the 200th graduating class.”

The early days

The original Portland High school building on Cumberland Avenue opened in 1863, brought boys and girls into the same building for the first time. Previously boys and girls had been educated in separate buildings. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of VintageMaineImages.com, item number 19309

Education at the school looked much different than it does today. In the early days, classes were held Monday through Saturday over two semesters: September to March and March to August. The right to attend public school was not a given at the time. In order to attend PHS, students had to prove their spelling, reading and writing ability and recite arithmetic tables.

According to Peter Gribbin’s “A History of Portland High School,” of the 90 boys who applied to attend, only 46 were accepted.

The boys school moved to Spring Street in the 1820s, where boys continued to be educated for the next 40 years. In 1850, girls entered public education for the first time when a girls high school was built near the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Chestnut Street.

By the 1860s both the boys high school and the girls high school were running out of room. Gribbin said after debating the merits of co-education and the costs of running two schools, in 1863 a new school was built where PHS is now located.

According to “Portland: A Postcard History Series,” by Joyce Bibber and Earle Shuttleworth, “when Portland High School opened on Cumberland Avenue in September 1863, in its new Italianate-style quarters, the 135 boys and 161 girls were under the roof for the first time.”

But that didn’t mean the school was completely co-educational.

“The school committee agreed upon the building of one school, but only with the stipulation the site of the school be in a location which would allow two separate entrances on two separate streets,” Gribbin wrote.

The “new” 1919 addition to Portland High School contained additional classrooms, such as this lecture hall, and enlarged the school to be able to accommodate 1,300 students. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of VintageMaineImages.com, item number 5647

Boys entered on the Cumberland Avenue entrance and girls from the entrance facing the back of the First Parish Church on Congress Street. A brick wall was added to the school to separate the genders. The wall was soon taken down, but remnants of it can still be seen in the basement.

The former girls school property was repurposed as a school for teachers and then served as an elementary school until 1968. The building burned in 1974. In subsequent years it was used by the Maine School for the Deaf and the YWCA.

The transformative years

The new building underwent a complete overhaul in 1893 and reconstruction after a fire destroyed it in May 1911.

Portland education officials began planning for the future in 1912, after the city saw a population boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

After weighing the possibility of moving the school to Forest Avenue, Congress Street or sites in Deering Oaks and Lincoln Park, it was decided to add on to the existing school. Those plans were delayed due to World War I, but after the war, two additions were built to accommodate 1,300 students.

Since Portland High School moved into its Cumberland Avenue location, it has been expanded over the years, including in 1919 and in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the athletic wing, at right, was added. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The expanded school opened in February 1919, but less than a year later the original school building was once again hit by fire. Luckily the fire didn’t expand into the newly constructed additions, Gribbin said. But the fire did cause $125,000 in damages, the equivalent of $1.7 million today.

There was another student population boom during the Great Depression, when enrollment rose to just over 2,000 students, but by the end of World War II enrollment dropped dramatically. The baby boom caused enrollment projections to creep back up and enrollment grew to more than 1,200 in 1961 and more than 1,800 by 1965.

The 1960s also saw an expansion of the library and the creation of a guidance department. In 1976, vocational classes at the school were moved to the new Portland Regional Vocational Center (now Portland Arts and Technology High School) on Allen Avenue.

In 1989, the school underwent another large expansion when the John Ford Auditorium was built – named for the PHS Class of 1914 graduate and seven-time Academy Award-winning director  – and a new gym, classrooms, atrium and new cafeteria were built.

Throughout its history, Gribbin said, Portland High School has also served as a leader in curriculum development.

“Throughout much of the 19th century, when other towns and cities were in the process of establishing a public high school, they looked to Portland for leadership,” Gribbin wrote.

“It is one of the cornerstones of Portland’s and Maine’s history, said Reagan, the social studies teacher. “Many students and staff have family ties that go back for generations and our families are filled with stories related to PHS.”

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