The Elementary Lab School Unique and Memorable

Although I don't remember my first walk to school, it can certainly be assumed that I walked with at least one of my siblings as they were responsible for getting me to school — safely and on time — for a few years. (And, I might add, I didn't like it any more than they did. I found a friend to walk with quite early.)

It was September 1950, and I was a month away from my 5th birthday. My parents had enrolled me in kindergarten at the Elementary Laboratory School on the campus of New Mexico Western College in Silver City, New Mexico.

Shown here are the first three buildings built on the newly-formed campus in 1893. The lab school is in front, but the steps I stood on are not visible.

I was led to a small set of rounded steps with a door at the top. I was told, "Go stand at the top and wait for the teacher to come and get you."

I don't remember how long I stood there, but it wasn't forever, though it might have seemed like it. Someone did come and get me (probably my teacher) and, of course, I got through my first day of school. In 1950, a new school for us was almost complete. I spent only a few weeks in the old school building I would enter that morning.

Only the year before, my parents had moved from Fairbury, Nebraska to Silver City, New Mexico, where my father took the position as Registrar and Dean of Men at New Mexico Western College. The elementary school was originally called the Elementary Campus School (we were on the campus of NMWC), but it was changed to The Elementary Laboratory School when I began Grade 3.

It sounds a little like we were inside test tubes in a laboratory, but that's not the case. We were not being studied — but our many student teachers were being observed as they taught us. That is because New Mexico Western College was originally a teachers' college, established by the state legislature in 1893, and the elementary school was built so that college students learning how to be teachers could do their student teaching with small groups of students — a laboratory, so to speak — and observed and guided by highly qualified and trained teachers.

We were not a private school — anyone could put their name on the waiting list to attend — but we were also not a public school — we were mostly funded by the college with state funds. The teachers were well-educated, usually holding masters degrees in education. It was felt that they were best-suited to work with student teachers. The students in my class came from families within the city, though about half of my classmates were sons and daughters of college employees.

This was the new school we moved to in 1950, though this photograph of the building was taken much later. (Photo by Bob Ingraham)

There was a limit of fifteen students per grade, and only Kindergarten did not share a room with another grade. There were never more than 30 students in a classroom — considerably smaller than the large numbers in public schools at the time. Shortly after I began Kindergarten, the entire school was moved to the new building which was over a hill and down the other side. I remember carrying books and small items from one school to the other.

The kindergarten room in the new school was at the back of the school and there was a large playground, separated by a wall, for just the kindergarten children. There were four other large classrooms: one each for the combination of grades one and two together, three and four together, five and six together, and seven and eight together. There was also an administrative office, a small classroom where we got our instruction in Spanish, and a large multi-purpose room where we held concerts, had band lessons, and graduation ceremonies.

Miss Sechler's handwriting on my First Grade Report Card.

These were my teachers:

My brother and I were just a year apart in grades, so every other year we were in the same classroom, but not in the same grade. My two sisters — four and six years older — were also in the Lab School, so I did not find myself the only Overturf in the building until I reached Grade 8.

The building is still being used today, though not in the same way: it provides space for several community child care organizations, a day care, and a pre-teaching career program for local high school students. You can read about it here. It is no longer called the Elementary Laboratory School. It is now the Sechler/Rhoades — Glaser Building. Miss Rhoades, Miss Sechler, and Miss Glaser were all professors at WNMU and I knew and worked with all of them.

Miss Sechler's signature on the front of my report card for First Grade.

Miss Sechler was my first and second grade teacher at the Lab School. She was a professor of education and specialized in the teaching of reading and language arts. She was also an ardent supporter of teaching phonics. She was my supervisor when I did my student teaching at WNMU nearly 16 years later. Miss Sechler is remembered most for her very high standards and expectations, and she passed them on to me.

Miss Rhoades was the seventh and eighth grade supervisor at the training school for several years, but I met her and worked as her secretary when she taught English and speech classes at the college and directed children's speech clinics. I also took a course from her — Speech Correction and Clinical Practice in Speech Correction.

When I got married, I asked Miss Rhoades and Mrs. Besse, my former Grade 8 teacher, to serve at the reception. Miss Rhoades is on the right, Mrs. Besse on the left.

Miss Glaser was the long-time professor and chair of the home economics department at Western. She is honored by the University as Emeritus Professor. When I was in the 8th grade, the girls in my class walked from the Lab School up to the university campus in order to take a home economics class from Miss Glaser.

I liked all of my teachers at the Lab School, though my favourites were probably Miss Ashton and Mrs. Besse. Miss Ashton taught us how to weave on a loom; these were small looms that sat on a desktop, and we could work on them in our free time. Better yet, when you got 100% on your spelling test, you were allowed to go with her and the other 100 percenters into a small, dark room and look at the "stars" on the ceiling projected by her star-projector. Mrs. Besse was simply just so incredibly kind. She taught me discipline, a love of learning, and the importance of patience.

I corresponded with Miss Sechler, Miss Rhoades, and Mrs. Besse for years — and occasionally went to visit them when I had the chance. Unfortunately, they have all passed away now.

I spent nine years at the Lab School — from kindergarten to Grade 8 (from 1950 to 1959). I made a best friend — Shirley — and most of us went all the way through high school together.

Not public, not private, it was a great place to get an education.


In no particular order, here are other personal articles I have written:

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