The crossroads of education in one Ridgewood neighborhood has a new name, but it's a moniker quite familiar to village residents. California Street has been officially designated as Willard Way, and a brown-and-white street sign bearing the new name was unveiled during ceremonies Tuesday afternoon.
The sign dedication commemorated the 100th anniversary of Willard School, the oldest of the village's six elementary schools. The program, which also included a student assembly and video highlighting the school's history, was the kickoff to a series of centennial celebration events that will continue through the end of the academic year.
"This is the first of many celebrations for Willard's 100th birthday. It's such an exciting time for everyone," said Heather Middleton, president of the Willard Home and School Association (HSA).
Originally known as the Upper Ridgewood School and later renamed after Harry S. Willard, a longtime Board of Education president and local eye doctor, the school has a long history that includes everything from expansion, destruction, rebuilding and addition. The original structure opened in 1912 along a dirt road within the town's woods. It housed approximately two dozen students in its single classroom.
As Ridgewood's population grew, additional classrooms and grade levels were added. A fire in 1926 razed the building, but the school was fully restored soon after and expansion continued throughout the decades. Willard's biggest changes came in the mid-1980s, when the school became a K-to-5 building and sixth graders were sent to Benjamin Franklin Middle School. Also during that time, the main entrance was moved from beneath the pillars facing California Street to the façade along Morningside Road.
"I think the school is getting better and better. From the staff to the parents to the students, no one is satisfied with being 'good enough.' Willard is always getting better," said Principal Marianne Williams, the school's 15th head administrator.
"I think that there's no substitute for the good, solid tradition that this school has built up," Williams added. "There's a lot of pride from the parents. I went here, my parents went here, my kids are going here."
Willard School has been one of the leading educational institutions since Ridgewood was incorporated in 1894. To Mayor Keith Killion, the quality of education in the school and district directly correlate with the village's growth.
"It's been an anchor in town for many years. Many kids have gone through the school, many have gone on to better and greater jobs. It's a bastion for education," said Killion, who attended Tuesday's event.
"The town has always been known for its schools. Many people, when they're looking for a place to live, they come to Ridgewood because of the education system," the mayor continued. "We've always had pride in our schools and we strive to maintain and exceed our education standards."
Several teachers, members of the HSA and volunteers put together Tuesday's assembly and sign dedication program. The assembly included a trivia contest, which quizzed the school's 470 students on other things that are as old as Willard School. The students learned that 1912 also saw the birth of the state of Arizona, Boston's Fenway Park, LifeSavers candy and the L.L. Bean retail company.
"We get an incredible amount of support from the community, and the Home and School Association is amazingly active," Williams said. "The nice thing is that [the HSA] works with the teachers so that we come up with something that everybody agrees is in the school's best interest. That's our biggest vision, to continually move forward."
Upcoming centennial celebration events at Willard School include an April theme day, in which students will be "transported" back to the year 1912, an auction for parents of Willard's students in May, and a family fun day for everyone in June.