A group of Aiken alumni from the 1960s and 1970s spoke to current students, in person and via Zoom, about what the West Hartford school was like when they attended.
By Ronni Newton
Fifth graders sat on the grass in front of Aiken Elementary School in West Hartford last week, surprised to hear that a st of metal monkey bars had once been in that space, and eagerly hearing stories from previous students and asking questions about what life was like when they attended the school roughly 50 years ago.
“We had a lot of open classrooms,” said Judy Salm, who attended Aiken from 1968 through 1972. Not only were grades combined, but students with special needs were integrated with the rest of the students, she said.
“What stands out the most is the difference in the way the building looks,” noted Alan Kosberg, an Aiken student from 1969-1973. He also remembered the open classrooms, and metal baskets where students would store the clothes they changed in and out of for gym class.
And while he didn’t recall a strict dress code, students definitely dressed up more for school, with many of the boys wearing ties on picture day, Kosberg said.
Some of the events that were held were the same, such as field day and participating in the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, said Kosberg, who got some nods of agreement when he said that recess was his favorite time of the day. He said he also liked math, which at the time was taught through an individualized curriculum with the acronym “WIM,” which allowed students to learn at their own pace.
“I can remember every teacher I had here, from kindergarten through sixth grade,” he told the students.
Sevvy Stein said she started first grade at Aiken in 1968, and unlike Kosberg she didn’t like math (although she now teaches it to middle schoolers), but loved music. She told the students she played the violin and then the flute, and later was part of he Hall High School Jazz Band.
David Cohen brought a treasure trove of artifacts from the time he attended Aiken, including a metal “school bus” lunch box and an assortment of LP record albums. Students were eager to look at the display he had set up on tables on the lawn, as well as photos from the era that were also on display.
Cohen, who graduated from Aiken in 1971, was a member of the first class to attend the school for all seven years. At the time, elementary school was kindergarten through sixth grade.
“I feel like for our own students, it helps to broaden their perspective,” Principal Shannon Mlodzinksi said. The students have been fascinated thinking about all of the people who were in those very same spaces before them, and learning history from those who were there.
Pointing out one of the retractable walls that was once used to accommodate the open classroom concepts, she said students hadn’t ever noticed them before. “It makes that hands-on for them.”
The first-hand history lesson came about accidentally, Mlodzinski said.
Over the summer she was cleaning out a back closet of the school when she found a Kodak carousel of slides with photos taken at the school from 1966 through 1972.
“It was like finding a time capsule of our school,” she said, and out of curiosity she brought the slides to a camera shop to have prints made, copies of which she shared with the school community last week. Only one of the photos had a name visible, and Mlodzinski embarked on a Google search for that name – Ira Fagin – who was living in England.
A few weeks later, she heard back from Fagin.
“He was so excited to share that not only was the picture of him, but he was still in touch with all four of his fifth grade classmates that were in the photo. He asked to share the picture with them and within a few days I was getting emails from several Aiken alumni asking if I had more photos. I started a Facebook Group titled ‘Aiken Memories – 1960’s and 1970’s,’ and within a month it has grown to 106 members,” Mlodzinksi said.
Fagin, who now lives on the south coast of England, as well as Joel Reiner from Buffalo, Terri Grover from Portland, Maine, and Jonathan Reiner from Florida were too far away to visit the school, but participated in a Zoom call with Aiken fourth graders sharing some of the same types of experiences as those who visited in person, and responding to myriad questions about their school days.
Fagin said that while social media may have its problems, in this case it helped him to get in touch with 50 or 60 of his former friends from elementary school. Alumni in the Facebook group have enjoyed identifying not only their former classmates in the photos, but also reminiscing about the context in which the photo was taken.
Mlodzinksi was so happy to connect with the former students. “The pride they still have in the school is remarkable,” she said.
She’s hoping that the current students will eventually look back on their elementary school days the same way. “We want this to be their memories, to have them develop pride and joy,” Mlodzinski said.
The alumni shared that hope with the students.
Salm asked the fifth graders to take a look around. “I just hope that you have great memories of all of your teachers and friends,” she said.
The students eagerly raised their hands, asking many questions about favorite subjects, the playground, and other topics.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” one fifth grader said.
Aiken School opened in 1964, the last of the West Hartford elementary schools built – a new one every other year – to accommodate a baby boom that swelled the town’s school-age population to roughly 13,000 students.
Aiken closed in 1976 amid the “baby bust” of rapidly declining school enrollment, and reopened in 1990.
A link to the slide show Mlodzinski created can be found here: Aiken History.
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