The Only Museum Within A High School
By Kent Sanctuary
The El Cerrito High School Archiving Project was established in 2005, to preserve the history of El Cerrito High School. It was formed by parents, alumni, and teachers who felt the traditions, artifacts, and legacy of the school had value and wanted to make it available to future generations. The group has continued the efforts for the last fourteen years, and also encourages future alumni through the awarding of scholarships. Since the group was established they have created a history museum inside the school and given out over $38,000 in scholarships.
El Cerrito High School opened in 1941 and developed a reputation for excellence. By the 1950s it was considered one of the best high schools in the United States. In addition to excellence in academics, the high school produced some prominent people, including Pumpsie Green (Boston Red Sox), John Thomas (San Francisco 49ers), Maria Remenyi (1966 Miss USA), and Roddy Lee (1972 Olympics). Perhaps the most well-known alumni were the four members of the rock band, Creedence Clearwater Revival (1963).
Preserving the history of the school
In 1989, after the San Francisco Bay Area was rocked by the Loma Prieta Earthquake, engineers were asked to check out the El Cerrito High School buildings. It was determined that some of the buildings had structural and/or design flaws, and the entire campus should be replaced. Plans were made to build a new campus. The PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association), along with several interested community members, decided to preserve as many physical objects from the old school as could be found. The school was systematically searched and everything was photographed, catalogued, and an online record of each item was created. The artifacts were carefully preserved and placed in storage. During the planning phase for the new school the decision was made to create a world-class museum to display the historical items in the new school. After more than four years the new campus was completed and opened in January, 2009.
In 2005, just before the old buildings were torn down, the Archiving Project hosted a three-day weekend event to say “good-bye” to the old school. It was called “Before the Wrecking Ball Hits the Wall!” There was a Friday night dance, reminiscent of dances in the 1950s and 1960s. On Saturday there was a citywide parade, a celebration on the sports field, tours of the old school, and a sale of extra items that were salvaged from the old buildings. The event concluded on Sunday with more tours, sales of artifacts, and an assembly in the gymnasium. Community members and former students came from as far as New York City to attend the weekend event.
“Green & White: The Gaucho Story”
During the planning meetings for the Wrecking Ball event, it was suggested a slideshow of photos be created to showcase the 60-year history of the school. One of the alumni volunteered to expand the idea and created a Ken Burns-style documentary. Past graduates from 1940 to 2005 were interviewed and their stories included in the film. “Green & White: The Gaucho Story” premiered during the weekend event. In 2007, the documentary won Honorable Mention at the Berkeley Film Festival. A DVD of the film is available for purchase.
Formation of the Archiving Project
The ECHS Archiving Project was an outgrowth of the weekend event. Several people met to discuss the outcome from all the activities, and the work that had been accomplished the previous year preserving the history of the school. It was decided to form a permanent group to continue the work and also provide scholarships to students.
The new campus and museum
The new buildings opened in 2009, with a 600-sq. ft. museum located next to the main lobby of the school. The museum is now open during school hours and has a display of permanent and rotating historical items and artifacts. Additionally, several display cabinets were placed throughout the school with more items, and a large Sports Wall of Fame was created in the lobby between the cafeteria and gymnasiums. Through the years the archiving project has maintained the museum, cleaning display cases and adding new displays. Beginning this year the museum has begun exhibiting historical items and artifacts from a single decade. Currently the 1940s are highlighted. In the future other decades will be highlighted on a rotating basis. Visitors are encouraged to come and see the museum.
Shadi Holiday Display
The Archiving Project also helps carry on one of El Cerrito’s fondest traditions, the Shadi Holiday Display. In the 1950s Sundar Shadi, an immigrant from India, started building a miniature re-creation of Bethlehem. Although he was not a Christian, he created buildings, animals, and people out of plaster of paris and stucco, and placed them on a vacant lot next to his home in the El Cerrito hills. Through the years the display grew, as more than 150 figures and buildings were added. Several years after Mr. Shadi passed away, the El Cerrito Soroptimists began setting up the figures on a large swath of vacant PG&E land. The site is in an easily accessible location which includes stunning views of the Bay Area. The Archiving Project helps act as caretakers and docents for the display, which continues to be a much-treasured Holiday tradition for people in the Bay Area.
Cultural diversity of the school
A company called Niche, which is a recognized source of statistics on schools, ranks El Cerrito High School as the 6th most diverse public high school in California, out of 2,435 schools. A wide variety of languages are spoken among the student body. The school is inclusive and students are encouraged to develop friendships with all.
Teachers and staff continue to pass on the legacy and traditions of the school, and strive to provide students with the best education possible. The success of their hard work is best displayed by their achievements. Many have gone on to prestigious schools such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and numerous other private colleges and public universities. The school also prides itself with several graduates from more than one generation of the same family, and there are at least twenty students who graduated from the school and came back in later years as teachers.
Ongoing Archiving activities
The Archiving Project continues to interact with the school. Its members maintain the museum displays, work towards providing scholarships for deserving students, and publish an online newsletter. The group also functions as a liaison to the city, providing speakers for various functions (e.g. the Rotary Club), hosting a booth at local city festivals, and promoting the high school wherever it can.
Any interested parents, community members, or alumni are welcome to join the group and help continue the efforts to promote El Cerrito High School. There will always be a need to help and encourage students for they represent the future. Any investment in the school and the students is a win/win.
For more information check out their website at: wccusd.net/Page/11954
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