‘It’s a Family and a Home’: Center Schoolers Gather To Remember a Special Place and Time in New Canaan


This banner welcomed visitors to "Center School Day," held June 8, 2019 at the New Canaan Historical Society. Credit: Michael Dinan

Cady Carroll knew ahead of time that this weekend’s gathering in New Canaan of her former elementary school community would be emotional.

Jessup Burton (with a Rubik’s Cube) and Cady Carroll at the “Center School Day” gathering, on June 8, 2019. Credit: Michael Dinan

Yet in reconnecting with fellow Center School students, parents, faculty and staff during a first-of-its-kind remembrance held at the New Canaan Historical Society, Carroll said she found it “so much more emotional than I thought it would be.”

“There is no way to describe how much anybody who went to Center School connects with someone else who went to Center School, it’s on a level that you can’t explain,” Carroll said from a bustling conference room filled with Center School photos, news clippings, memorabilia and displays. “It’s a family and a home. And when I see a brick, a Center School brick, I am immediately transported into sadness that the building isn’t there anymore. And I can’t visit it. I want to revisit it, and revisit the memories.”

The rebuilt Center School, ca. 1910. Courtesy of the New Canaan Historical Society.

Built in 1909, Center School stood near the southeastern corner of South Avenue and Maple Street until 1983 when district officials, lacking foresight among other things, decided to tear down the building to make way for a municipal parking lot. 

Even so, the mark that Center School made on its educators and families has sustained, and on Saturday, hundreds of former Center School community members journeyed to the Historical Society under clear, sunny skies to reconnect with each other and experience movies, slideshows, sing-a-longs, bread-making and a formal introduction of the cherished school’s educators during the all-day event. 

Herb Taylor and Mary-Ellen McDonald at the “Center School Day” gathering, on June 8, 2019. Credit: Michael Dinan

Conceived by Hazel and Mike Hobbs, Gail and Bailey Stewart and Bill and Mary-Ellen McDonald and realized with help from many volunteers (see below), “Center School Day” for former principal Dr. Steve Rubin was “a wonderful reinforcement of a terrific time.”

“ I just love the interaction among all the staff,” Rubin said from the shade of a tree on the Historical Society’s front lawn, where teachers gathered to embrace each other and their former students throughout the day.

Dr. Steve Rubin at the “Center School Day” gathering, on June 8, 2019. Credit: Michael Dinan

“I have tears in my eyes,” Rubin said.

Mary-Ellen McDonald, who led the organizing effort for this Center School Day, said after the event that it was “fabulous.”

“Everybody had such a great time,” she said. “It was wonderful to have so many Center Schools all together.”

At once highly innovative and anachronistic, the school under Rubin’s stewardship developed a unique approach to curriculum and education that fostered a dynamic, interdependent environment for teachers and that saw students learn in individually tailored and hands-on ways. 

Inside the Janet Lindstrom (another Center School parent) Room at the New Canaan Historical Society during “Center School Day,” held June 8, 2019 at the New Canaan Historical Society. Credit: Michael Dinan

As often as they remember a “ski school”-style math system that allowed students to progress through lesson segments taught by different teachers throughout the school, those who attended Center talk about the “Knockout Pit,” a sanctioned form of dodgeball played in a narrow, sunken cement corridor. A red rubber kickball of the kind that kids whipped across the Knockout Pit’s centerline—sometimes with rather violent results (Mary-Ellen McDonald said she inquired about re-creating the Pit for the celebration but was told it could not be insured)—was on display for the event, along with dozens of class and other school pictures, beloved musical recordings playing through a PA system, an old classroom desk, original brick and 1974 informational video created by educator Hazel Hobbs that spotlighted a curriculum of musical composition, computer programming, a student-manned weather station and the school’s singular educational approach.

L-R: Marysue Rucci, Debbie Rucci and Hazel Hobbs at the “Center School Day” gathering, on June 8, 2019. Credit: Michael Dinan

“Center’s pervasive philosophy is that each child as a separate and particular person is special,” Hobbs is heard saying in the video. “Here we no longer speak of ‘remedial’ or ‘enrichment’ programs for a small percentage of children. Rather, each student is treated as a unique blend of talent and needs which the educational program must meet by individual means.”

Center School educators who attended the event included Hobbs and Rubin as well as Cady Carroll’s mom, music teacher Priscilla (Carroll) Barnes (they teamed up to sing favorites such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon” outside), Shelly Senator, Gail Mann, Rindy Higgins, Herb Taylor, Charlie Milot, Elaine Dormer Halas Scott, Joanne (Amelung) Lavista, Holly Phillips, Betsi Shays, Marie Pinchbeck, Fred Carpenter, Suzy Fenwick, Charlotte Smith, Liz Blasko, Eleanor Cilo, Carolyn Fischer, John Fitzsimons, Peggy McCulloch O’Sullivan and Betsy Sullivan.

Center School students each had a red hard plastic folder with this form stapled inside, tracking our progress through an individualized system of learning math. This display from “Center School Day,” held June 8, 2019 at the New Canaan Historical Society. Credit: Michael Dinan

Hobbs said she hoped people would watch the video and “see a different way of having education.”

“It’s a very special way that allows people to go much further, year-by-year,” Hobbs said.

Cady Carroll said that Center’s math system helped her gain confidence as a child.

“And I never had that in school after that,” she recalled. “I was confident in math and then Center School was closed, and then I hated math from then on. I couldn’t do it any more. And it just breaks my heart, because I needed that.”

Ugh. Syd Greenberg photo part of the collection shown during the June 8, 2019 “Center School Day” celebration, held at the New Canaan Historical Society.

The volunteers who helped put on Center School Day included Pinchbeck and Mary-Ellen McDonald as well as Luann Bianco, Halas Scott, Pete Stair, Debbie Rucci, Liz Blasko, Betsy Swanhaus Kittell, Margy Mellick Reilly, Gail Stewart, Pat Stewart, Barbara and Brock Saxe, Kathy Johnston, Alice Jennings, Diane Lynn, Taffy Rodell, Philip Greenberg, Chris McDonald, Mike Hobbs, Leo Karl and Alex Stewart and the Stewart family.

Elaine Dormer Halas Scott said after the gathering that it felt similar to a family reunion.

Some of the displays outside during “Center School Day,” held June 8, 2019 at the New Canaan Historical Society. Credit: Michael Dinan

“It was like a family—we have always said that Center School was a family, and it felt like that when we came back,” she said. “There were parents that I saw that I hadn’t seen for 35 years. And you just embraced every one. The kids came back—they’re adults now, they came back with children of their own. There just wasn’t a dry eye. People were just so excited to see each other, and hugs all around.”

Doug Stewart, who attended kindergarten and first grade at Center before it was shuttered, said the celebration brought back memories of the school.

Some of the old “Shine On Center School” T-Shirts, on display at “Center School Day,” held June 8, 2019 at the New Canaan Historical Society. Credit: Michael Dinan

“It was such a special place, so there’s a lot of nostalgia and just the fact that we are able to have such a great turnout, with all of the teachers and the principal, it’s just a special feeling,” he said. “I was glad to bring my son by, and show him as well.”

Asked about the prospect, Mary-Ellen McDonald said all the displays created for Center School Day are being saved. Anyone who wants to organize an event in the future may borrow them, she said.

13 thoughts on “‘It’s a Family and a Home’: Center Schoolers Gather To Remember a Special Place and Time in New Canaan

  1. I went through elementary school at Center School. In kindergarten I was in Miss Hahn’s class. Then, years later I returned as kindergarten teacher and taught double sessions in that very same room. The flooring was dark red and green tiles. There were long window seats – the wood polished by many years of children and teachers. Picture-book stories were read from that window seat. We walked down wide concrete steps right into our own kindergarten playground, fenced off by the semi-circle driveway where our parents drove to deliver or pick us up. There was a jungle gym to climb and swing on, a tall slide, and a large whirly thing with bars to hold onto. In first grade Miss Kelly was my teacher; the beloved Miss Margaret (Griffen) in second grade; Mrs. Wilson in third; and the great Mrs. LaMothe in fourth. She wore silver bracelets and each class gave her another at Christmas. She taught me how to outline, for which I am eternally grateful. There were beautiful murals of a landscape painted on the walls down to the cafeteria. I remember all the hallways, the principal’s office, the playgrounds with their juniper bushes, and the stone wall in which we hid tiny dolls and other treasures. We played dodge ball at recess. Those years are still so clear in my mind!

    • Linda, Your comments about Miss Hahn’s class brought back some fond memories, for which I thank you.
      I went back to my old scrapbook and found what I was looking for: a picture of Miss Hahn’s class of ’49. I scanned it and would be happy to pass it along to you (and anyone else who might be interested) . . . but I don’t know how.
      Could you or someone else help me out?

  2. I was not able to attend last Saturday. Is there any chance that I could come and see the exhibits at some point. I went to Center School from 1st through 6th grade, 1963-1969. Thanks very much for the consideration.

    -Jed Drake

  3. I experienced the past, the present and the future at the Center School Day celebration.

    The past… I was a student from 1965-1972 and so blessed to start when Dr. Steven Rubin began as principal. The articles telling of Dr. Rubin’s re-structuring of the school’s educational design and Hazel Hobbs’ movie that were displayed reminded me of how my elementary school education was ground breaking. Looking at all the displays of our classes and fun projects reminded me of a simpler and fun time. When our creativity was nurtured and embraced.

    The present… To see almost all of my teachers was amazing. I can still feel the hugs I received from Marie Pinchbeck (2nd grade), Cilla Barnes (4th grade) and Betsi Shays (5th grade). Being able to thank Dr. Rubin for enhancing my education was long overdue.

    The future… I reconnected with so many of my school mates, even some who weren’t able to come, whom I had not spoken to or seen in years. We now have made pledges to stay in touch and get together as much as we can.

    So Shine On Center School. You are still standing tall and stately in my heart, mind and soul.

  4. When did Center School close down? I went there for K and half of 1st Grade, then moved to the new West School in Jan 1960.

  5. “…lacking foresight among other things…” How often this sad history repeats itself in New Canaan. What is wrong with us? It was a treat for me to see the scrapbook photo of my late husband, Dave Findlay, in the class of ’43 or so, with his friend Muffy (Finger) Marlio. He used to talk about going to watch for enemy airplanes with his Dad just behind his house where there was a viewing stand, now Soundview Lane. Thank you Mary-Ellen … Dave would have loved it!

    • My name is gerri (bertini) Carlson. Was born in 1944. Went to center school as a kindergardener. Than I. Went off. to south school l (loved the birds) went to Sax Jr high. Went one yr to new Canaan high Moved to norwalk and went 10th 11th and 12h my father worked at a barber shop we were very poor so never fit in. In 1963 we moved to southport. At 77 hanging in there but still trying to stay above.the curve. Doing my best. Hope all my piers are doing well!!! Very difficult world we live in!!! My love to all in the Town of New canaan!!! My home town 2nd to southport Some special and hurtful memories!!! I hope I can make a difference!!!!

  6. I was a student through school from 1944 through 1948. Then went on to Jr. High. I have a brick from the school which I treasure. My daughter also went to school there from 1965 through 1970. Wish I knew about the 2019 reunion even though I now live in Florida I would have loved being in attendance. My daughter bought me a t-shirt when they went on sale.

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