Columbia High School is a four-year comprehensive regional public high school in Maplewood, New Jersey, United States. It serves students in ninth through twelfth grades, as the lone secondary school of the South Orange-Maplewood School District, which includes Maplewood and South Orange, neighboring communities in Essex County, New Jersey. The school has been accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools since 1928; its accreditation expires in December 2023.
As of the 2017-18 school year, the school had an enrollment of 2,007 students and 141.4 classroom teachers (on an FTE basis), for a student–teacher ratio of 14.2:1. There were 312 students (15.5% of enrollment) eligible for free lunch and 88 (4.4% of students) eligible for reduced-cost lunch.
Since the days of the Revolution, a one-room stone schoolhouse had stood on a grassy area known as the Common, located close to the present intersection of South Orange Avenue and Academy Street in Maplewood. In 1814, this building blocked the construction of a new toll highway from Newark to Morristown. The 73 "Proprietors and Associates" of the school met on August 3 of that year and resolved to erect a new school building near the site of the old one, naming seven Trustees to thereafter oversee the education of local children. The resolution reflected "the desire of the meeting that the said school should in the future have the name of Columbian School of South Orange."
The new schoolhouse was a two-story wood structure, topped by a thin steeple and a lofty weather vane. It was completed before the fall term of 1815. The Trustees decided "That the price of tuition in this school be fixed at $1.75 per quarter for spelling, reading and writing; for Arithmetic in addition to the above branches the sum of $0.25 cts and for Grammar or Geography the further sum of twenty-five cents." The cost of firewood was to be "divided equally among the scholars." On May 10, 1816, the Trustees adopted a seal for the school in the form of "a spread eagle standing on a globe with the word Excelsior underneath in Roman Capitals."
In the early years, students at the Columbia School were not separated according to grade. All were subject to the same rules, among them the following adopted by the Trustees on May 2, 1827: "Every scholar must be made to name every silent letter in his spelling when he spells a word with one in and mention every figure which is placed over a letter and be taught to know their uses and for every mistake or omission in such letter or figure shall be considered the same as spelling a word wrong and subject to the same usage.
"Every scholar that spells a word wrong or omits a silent letter or figure shall step in the rear of the class and there stand until the class shall have spelled through, then those that have spelled right are to move up in a solid body and those who are in the rear to move down and take their places at the foot."
For decades, the school was supported by tuition payments. But gradually the State began to assume a share of the financial responsibility. In 1820, a law authorized townships to levy a tax to pay the tuition of poor students. By 1828, townships had the power to tax for general school purposes. The State itself began to contribute money in 1830, and in 1846 every township was required to raise as much money each year for schools as the State itself contributed. The last tuition assessment for residents occurred in 1861, and thereafter the Columbia School was entirely supported by public taxation.
After the Civil War, improvements on the railroad contributed to a decided growth of population in the old Township of South Orange. The general character of the citizenry underwent a significant change and residents known as "commuters" began to emerge in numbers. In 1867, a state law required that Columbia become a graded school. By 1877, the old two-story wooden building erected in 1815 was found to be woefully inadequate for the growing community. One resident complained that "in very cold weather, with stoves at red heat, it is impossible to raise the temperature in the room above 55 degrees, and in such a place are sown the seeds of suffering, disease and death."
The Trustees responded in 1879 by resolving to erect a new brick building, of two stories, to accommodate between 220 and 240 pupils. The new structure was opened in 1880. The final cost of construction was $17,094.49. The building later became the northeast wing of the old South Orange Junior High School, demolished when the present middle school was built.
The separate existence of the high school began in 1885, when the Trustees decided "that in order to increase the efficiency of the Columbia School a new class of a higher grade shall be formed at the commencement of the coming term to be taught by the Principal." Lower grades continued to be housed at Columbia. The Trustees' minutes of May 31, 1888, reflect the principal's request "that a diploma be voted to Miss Etta A. Kilburn" and that, "on motion, a diploma was voted to Miss Kilburn, the first graduate of the high school.
In 1894, the South Orange, Maplewood, and Hilton school districts were consolidated and became the South Orange and Maplewood School District, with borders essentially identical to those which presently exist. The district remained unified even after Maplewood and South Orange became separately incorporated as municipalities, although there was considerable pressure to split as early as 1904.
The close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th brought significant changes in high school curriculum and school management. The Board of Education had by now replaced the old Board of Trustees. In 1890, "manual training" was offered in school. By 1891, sciences had been added to the course of study. A tradition of excellence was beginning to evolve, and in 1892 two Columbia graduates were admitted to Cornell University. Musical enrichment was added in 1894 with the hiring of a singing teacher from New York City. Early in the 1900s the value of athletics was recognized and encouraged at Columbia by the organization of boys' and girls' teams. The student council was formed in 1912, and The Columbian student newspaper followed in 1915.
There was a reaction to these changes. Complaints arose over so-called "fads and frills"-inessentials said to be leading to the neglect of reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. New York papers read by local commuters campaigned for a return to the efficiency of the "little old red schoolhouse." But the changes were here to stay.
At the same time, pupil behavior was becoming less inhibited, much to the distress of the adult population. Henry W. Foster, superintendent of the district from 1900 to 1927, described the conditions in 1913: "Long before prohibition was adopted, venturesome boys were surreptitiously now and then bringing liquor to dances to add to the excitement. There was a decided reversion to animalistic excitement. Musical rhythm from the wilds of barbarism stirred the pulse. The dance abandoned the restraint and refinement of waltz and polka; Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, Fox Trot, and Shimmey began to reign."
The Board of Education reacted by banning all but "polite dances" on school premises. However, the proscribed behavior persisted, and the Board then stopped all school dances. That continued until it became apparent that students were going to outside dances anyway and the efforts at control were abandoned.
Many students and teachers were enlisted during World War I, which had a significant effect on life at Columbia. Pupils in assembly regularly delivered patriotic "four-minute speeches." Every room in the school had a full complement of war posters.
Epidemics raged during the same period of time. Polio spread around the country in 1916 and, at Columbia, resulted in the deaths of one teacher and several children. In 1918, the global influenza epidemic closed all of the schools in the district for three weeks and one teacher died.
In the early part of the 20th century most of the remaining farms in Maplewood and South Orange were sold and subdivided, leading to the present suburban character of the towns. The increase in population placed enormous pressure on the schools. In 1900, the total District school population was 792; by 1927, it had risen to 4,960, an increase of 526%.
The Board of Education initially responded by constructing a sizable addition to the old Columbia School in 1910, which building still housed primary school children as well as high school students. Seth Boyden School and the old Fielding School were erected in 1913 and 1914, respectively. By the fall of 1922 Marshall School was completed. First Street School followed the next spring, and Jefferson School opened in January 1924. Later that year the junior high schools were organized, and both the Tuscan and Montrose buildings were finished.
More was needed. The old Columbia School could no longer safely accommodate the student population. A magnificent new structure was planned. The design process was unique in that the faculty and all members of the staff participated by submitting sketches, drawn to scale, of the facilities necessary to satisfy their needs. In 1926 construction began on the present Columbia High School building. Work was completed in September 1927, in time for the fall term. So well-designed was this building that two years later its floor plan was described and pictured in the Encyclopædia Britannica in an article describing ideal American schools.
During this period of time Columbia gained increasing fame for its academic excellence. Educators generally considered it to be one of the most outstanding high schools in the United States. Much of that reputation was due to Henry W. Foster, superintendent from 1900 to 1927, and John H. Bosshart, principal from 1920 to 1927. Bosshart succeeded Foster as superintendent, and later served as the first head of the New Jersey Department of Education.
American public schools were all significantly impacted by World War II. In the words of Lt. General Brehon Sommervell, then Commanding General, Services of Supply: "The job of the schools in this total war is to educate the nation's manpower for war and for the peace that follows." Columbia High School met the challenge, primarily with curriculum changes designed to prepare boys for service in the military. The science department developed courses in aeronautics. In biology, students studied the effect of flying on the human body. A new modern history course emphasized the "historical background for an understanding of the forces which have caused this global war, of the necessity of destroying that for which our enemies stand and of the magnitude of the international problems which face the world." Even the music department offered a new program "to train pupils in the informal singing that grows out of wartime needs." Columbia had its own Victory Corps with the objective of encouraging pupils "to take some active part in their own community's war effort while they are yet in school.
For many years following its opening in 1927, the high school physical plant was more than sufficient for the needs of its population. Although four classrooms and a shop were added to the structure in 1939, it was not until 1958 that a large addition (now C Wing) was constructed to accommodate a burgeoning student body. By 1964, the dimensions of a new population explosion were perceived, and a special Board of Education committee was formed to investigate the needs of Columbia High School in the 1970s. As a result of this study, it was calculated that further additions would be required. During the 1970−71 school year, B and D Wings were added at a total cost of $5,250,000.
The total high school population was now approaching 2,400. The same committee which concluded that physical additions were needed also recommended a new organizational plan to prevent students from feeling depersonalized in such a large system. What grew out of this was the House Plan, which, in 1970, divided Columbia into four sub-schools (or "houses") of approximately 600 students each. The goal was to provide the intimacy of a small school within a large plant, and each of the houses had, for example, its own student council, intramural athletic teams, and newspapers. All of these were in addition to the traditional school-wide activities.
Student reaction to the Vietnam War was a nationwide phenomenon, and Columbia provided no exception to the pattern. A Student Peace Group was organized at Columbia in 1968, and over 300 students actively participated. Members wore black armbands on April 26 of that year, and a community rally was held the next day with faculty members present. On March 27, 1969, a group of Columbia students were suspended for distributing leaflets in school opposing the Vietnam War, without the approval of the school's administration. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed to defend the students, but the issue became moot as the students were reinstated, though the State Commissioner of Education ruled in June 1969 that the leaflet ban could not be sustained in its original form and that a new policy would need to be implemented by the school board.
The Vietnam era generally coincided with a time of protest against all things establishment. One manifestation of this was the ascendancy of Ultimate (also known as Ultimate Frisbee), which became popular around the country as an alternative to varsity sports. The game was conceived of by Columbia students in the late 1960s. It is said that the first organized game took place in 1968 between the staff of the school's student newspaper, The Columbian, and the Student Council. An annual CHS Ultimate Alumni game is played in the student parking lot on the night of Thanksgiving. The event has drawn former CHS Ultimate players from as far back as the original 1968 team to return to "The Lot" to play against the current incarnation of the team.
By the late 1970s, student populations around the nation had entered what proved to be a period of extended numerical decline. The Board of Education organized a citizen Educational Task Force, which conducted a District-wide demographic study and ultimately recommended a series of school closings and consolidations. One of the results was the entry of the 9th grade into the high school in 1980. Declining enrollment, as well as cost considerations, led to the discontinuance of the House Plan in 1982.
Columbia High School was the first school in the nation to observe Earth Day, on April 17, 1970. Due to the fact that Columbia was on spring break on April 22, when Earth Day was scheduled for national observance, the presentation was known as Earth Day Minus Five and a specially prepared flag was run up the main flagpole. The all-day observance, which was coordinated by biology teacher Jeffrey Himmelstein, began with Congressman Joseph Minish as the keynote speaker; several noted scientists from the area conducted seminars. Featured was an assembly with films and slide shows that were created by several students and environmentally themed folk songs were sung.
For the 1992−93 school year, Columbia High School received the National Blue Ribbon Award of Excellence from the United States Department of Education, the highest honor that an American school can achieve.
Columbia was ranked the 36th best high school in New Jersey in 2012 by U.S. News & World Report.
In the 2011 "Ranking America's High Schools" issue by The Washington Post, the school was ranked 43rd in New Jersey and 1,358th nationwide. In Newsweek's May 22, 2007 issue, ranking the country's top high schools, Columbia High School was listed in 1192nd place, the 39th-highest ranked school in New Jersey.
The school was the 96th-ranked public high school in New Jersey out of 339 schools statewide in New Jersey Monthly magazine's September 2014 cover story on the state's "Top Public High Schools", using a new ranking methodology. The school had been ranked 47th in the state of 328 schools in 2012, after being ranked 75th in 2010 out of 322 schools listed. The magazine ranked the school 89th in 2008 out of 316 schools. The school was also ranked 79th in the magazine's September 2006 issue, which surveyed 316 schools across the state. Schooldigger.com ranked the school 150th out of 381 public high schools statewide in its 2011 rankings (an increase of 29 positions from the 2010 ranking) which were based on the combined percentage of students classified as proficient or above proficient on the mathematics (82.5%) and language arts literacy (94.6%) components of the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA).
The Columbia High School Student Council was named an "NJASC Honor School" for the 3rd consecutive year in January 2008. It also won a "Top 10 Projects" award for their event, 'School in Action Night'. They won the same honor the year before for their 'How to Start a Gay-Straight Alliance' presentation.
While thousands of schools were constructed in the same era with little more than local notice, the opening of the present-day Columbia High School warranted articles in The Architect, Architecture, Architectural Record, American School and University, The Brick Builder, Pencil Points, and The American School Board Journal. Rendered in the Collegiate Gothic style by James O. Betelle of the Newark, New Jersey architectural firm of Guilbert & Betelle, the school served as a standard in design as evidenced by the inclusion of a floor plan in a 1930 Encyclopædia Britannica article, and later design homages such as John Marshall High School (Los Angeles, California). Collegiate Gothic, or Academic Gothic, construction was prevalent among schools and colleges in the 1920s, and was Betelle's preferred building style for both its scholastically historic roots and practical considerations. The 1927 main building still garners recognition, including recognition by Architectural Digest on its 2017 list of the "Most Beautiful Public High School in Every State in America".
Prominent original exterior features include carved limestone detail, numerous false chimneys, steeply pitched slate roofs, and a seven-story clock tower. While it is not known for certain that Columbia High School was inspired by any earlier structures, there is a strong resemblance to Laynon Hall at Queen's University of Belfast. At the very top of the clock tower is a copper pyramidal structure. The entire pyramid structure rotates, and one side opens, serving as an observatory. The observatory is equipped with a large refracting telescope made by John Brashear. That telescope is no longer functional, but there is a more modern Celestron C11 reflecting telescope that is used by students. Two levels below are the E. Howard & Co. Style #3 clock works. Alongside the clock is an enormous bronze bell by the Meneely Bell Foundry. Inside the school can be found rooms with fireplaces, hallways with beautiful faience wall tiles by John Scott Award recipient Herman Carl Mueller of Trenton, and mosaic inlaid terrazzo floors in the front hall. The front foyer was recently renovated, removing non-period lighting and mid-century acoustic tile. The restoration included doors that more closely replicated the 1926 originals, a new terrazzo floor, and dramatic lighting of the zodiac-inspired plaster ceiling. Recently, dubious student art dating from as far back as the 1970s was painted over, among other improvements. The auditorium includes a three-manual Ernest M. Skinner Organ. Although it is little used and not completely functional, the organ is one of the few unmodified Skinners in existence and has received an Organ Historical Society citation. Regrettably, on either side of the stage the large plaster grills that hide the organ pipes were water damaged. The original auditorium chandeliers have also been removed. A similar story exists with regard to the swimming pool; while the original vaulted Catalan Guastavino tile ceiling remains, the chandeliers are gone, and a giant arched window is blocked by a later addition.
CHS has had a major addition every 20 to 30 years. In the 1930s, an industrial arts wing brought students the skills needed during the Great Depression. In the 1950s, a large addition, now known as "C-Wing", added classrooms to cope with increasing student numbers as well as a massive gymnasium (bringing the total number of gyms to three). In the early 70s, a projected enrollment boom and the need for new science, fine arts, and industrial arts space created the need for "B" and "D" wings. A new cafeteria, the largest public school library at the time, space for academic advising, a now-gone small movie theater and A/V room and a TV studio were built. With these additions, the earlier 1927 structure is only visible from the front facade and between later additions. In 2005, much of the space previously used for industrial arts such as wood shop and auto shop was transformed into a theatre performance and general use space. In 2009, renovations were completed on the main entryway, reviving original stone and woodwork, but with a conspicuous misspelling of the school's motto, "Excelsior", carved as "Excelcior" into the masonry floor.
In each era of construction, the chosen design was seen as controversial. The D-Wing, the most recent and most obvious addition to the School, boasts a dramatic modernist design typical of the late-1960s and early 1970s. The clash between this new (and already out-of-fashion) style and the original architecture of the A-Wing is especially visible from Parker Avenue.
In 1956 (tied with Cranford High School), 1982 and again in 1990 (tied with Cherry Hill High School East), the school's chess team was the New Jersey high school team champion, winning the Father Casimir J. Finley Trophy.
The FTC robotics team 4102, founded in 2011, placed first in the New Jersey FTC state championships during its rookie year in 2011 and again in 2013, qualifying for the FTC World Championship both times and placing as a finalist both years. The team returned to the World Championship in 2017.
Columbia High School has won multiple Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for their musical program. Bethany Pettigrew and Tricia Benn won for Best Director in 2015 for Ragtime and "The Silly Girls" won Outstanding Featured Ensemble Group in 2016 for Beauty and The Beast.
Columbia High School has a series of clubs. The Columbian is a club where students write a newspaper for students and staff of Columbia High School that includes topics from in the school itself, but also includes current events from around the world. The paper was recognized by the American Scholastic Press Association in 2014–2019 with first place in its Scholastic Newspaper Awards.
The Columbia High School Cougars compete in the Super Essex Conference, following a reorganization of sports leagues in Northern New Jersey by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA). With 1,456 students in grades 10-12, the school was classified by the NJSIAA for the 2015–2016 school year as North II, Group IV for most athletic competition purposes, which included schools with an enrollment of 1,114 to 4,800 students in that grade range. Prior to the NJSIAA's 2010 realignment, the school had competed as part of the Iron Hills Conference, made up of public and private high schools in Essex County and Union County. Prior to 1972, the school competed in New Jersey's Big Ten Conference.
The school participates in a joint ice hockey program with Nutley High School as the host school / lead agency, under an agreement that expires at the end of the 2018–2019 school year.
Ultimate Frisbee was invented at Columbia High School in 1968. The ultimate team has won the state championship 11 times in the tournament's 13-year history. The team has won the championship every year since 2001 giving it a 12-year winning streak. The team has attended the Paideia cup tournament in Atlanta, Georgia, a nationally competitive tournament, every year since its inception in 2006, as well as the Amherst Invitational in Massachusetts. The men's team was recognized in town hall meetings and Board of Education meetings after winning the 2008 High school eastern championship. The women's team has won the state championship every year that it has been contested, beginning in 2007. However, the team is not recognized as a sport by the school and does not receive funding by the district.
The school's fencing team was started in 1982 and was included in the sport section of the yearbook for the first time. Prior to this had existed as a fencing club for a couple of years before. The girls' team record for the combined 1999–2005 seasons was 94−4. In 2006, the girls' fencing team defeated Bernards High School 19−8 to win the NJSIAA 2006 Girls' team fencing state tournament. Columbia won the 2007 Boys' Team Fencing state championship with a 16-11 win over Voorhees High School. In the 2008−09 season, the boys' fencing team took home the épée state title. In the 2009−10 season, the girls' team won District III, but finished 5th in the state, losing in the quarterfinals to Governor Livingston High School. The boys' team won the Cetrulo Tournament and the NJSIAA/Bollinger District 3 championships, earning them a top seed going into the NJSIAA state championship Tournament. The boys' team won state championships for the first time since 2007 in a 15−12 win over Bernards High School. In the 2010−11 season, the girls placed No. 3 in the team state championships after defeating Governor Livingston High School in the consolation meet. The boys won their second consecutive state championship defeating Montclair High School (New Jersey) in the final by a 14-13 score. In the 2012 NJSIAA/Bollinger tournament, Columbia lost in the final to second-seeded West Morris Mendham High School by a score of 14−13, ending the school's 49-match winning streak. The girls fencing team won the state team championship in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2015; the twelve team championships won by the girls fencing team are the most of any school in state history.
The school's cross-country team won the Group IV boys' title in 1960 and has had a number of individual state champions.
The boys' lacrosse team won the overall state championship in 1979 (defeating Montclair High School in the final game of the toournament) and 1982 (vs. West Morris Central High School).
The girls' track and field team won the New Jersey Group IV indoor relay state championship in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2004, 2013 and 2014; the 10 state titles are ties for the most won by any girls track program. The boys' track team placed 5th at the Nike Indoor Nationals in the 4x400 meter relay in 2009, making it the best in history for Columbia boys and breaking a school record. In the 2010 outdoor season, both the girls' and boys' teams went to the New Balance Outdoor Nationals, where the girls' team won, making them #1 in the country, and the boys placed 6th.
The boys' soccer team was coached by Gene Chyzowych, one of the most successful active scholastic soccer coaches in the nation. The 2007 boys' soccer team won the North II, Group IV state sectional championship with a 1−0 win over Westfield High School in the tournament final.
Columbia's varsity football team had been notably unsuccessful for several years, winning only two games over a span of five seasons, including three consecutive winless seasons from 2005 to 2007, but broke their 45-game losing streak with a 48−0 victory over Dickinson High School in the last game of the 2008 season.
In the mid-1970s the school district was sued for teaching Transcendental Meditation and its Science of Creative Intelligence course for credit. The U.S. District Court ruled in the case called, Malnak v. Yogi (1979), that TM was "religious in nature" and that its use in public schools was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which requires "separation of church and state."
In June 2000, writer Tamar Lewin of The New York Times wrote "Growing Up, Growing Apart", a lengthy feature highlighting how an ethnically diverse trio struggled to maintain friendships and cope with teen life at Columbia. The story trailed Aqeelah Mateen, an African-American Muslim, Kelly Regan, an Irish Catholic, and Johanna Perez-Fox, a Puerto Rican Jew; the group quickly became ambassadors for the school, and for their respective ethnic groups. The article wasn't controversial, per se, but directed national attention to the school district and to Columbia specifically.
In 2004, Columbia High School made national headlines when the administration amended a policy regarding religiously themed holiday songs putting more strict guidelines in place. Many people believed the new rules to be too strict. Radio personality Don Imus produced a song on his radio program entitled "Oh, Little Town of Maplewood", mocking the new rules of Columbia High School. The new guidelines were also mentioned on The O'Reilly Factor.
In the school year 2018–2019, 35% of the students were African American and 52% were Caucasian. Within this black-and-white composition are found a variety of ethnic backgrounds including Jamaican, Nigerian, Haitian, African-American, English, French, Jewish, Polish, Italian, and Irish. There has been much discussion regarding the Racial Academic Achievement Gap in the school district, and the tracking is often cited as the most glaring example of a racial disparity.
Columbia High School has also had many student-led walk-outs. In late March 2006 hundreds of students walked out after tensions with the principal regarding censorship issues and racial comments. The students were calling for her resignation. The next year a new acting principal was instated and the following school year she became the official principal. On April 27, 2010, hundreds of students participated in a statewide walkout of high school students protesting the budget cuts put in place by Chris Christie. On January 20, in protest of the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, hundreds of CHS students participated in a school walk-out and marched to the Maplewood Town Hall building.
In September 2014, instructor Nicole Dufault was indicted on 40 counts of aggravated sexual assault committed against six male students.
In October 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against Columbia High School and the South Orange-Maplewood School District in relation to its academic leveling and disciplinary systems, stating that the overuse of discipline and "zero-tolerance" policy, and implicit racial bias within the level selection system violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Claims were made that the suspension rate for black students was five times higher than that for white students, in a classroom environment in which black students were significantly underrepresented in AP and honors classes. In late February 2018, the non-profit The Black Parents Workshop filed a new suit concerning this same topic — systematic suppression of minority students via their academic opportunities.
The school's principal is Dr. Kalisha Morgan, whose administrative team includes four assistant principals and an athletic director.
The school has a hall of fame listing many notable alumni. They include:
Other notable alumni not currently in the hall of fame include:
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