Martinez Junior High School:

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary

By Harriett Burt

Part One Beginnings

Originally published in the May 2006 Martinez Historical Society News Letter.


Martinez Junior High School celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  For 75 years the school has been deemed worthy by the community to be built, made safe, improved, expanded, and changed. It has been more than a building to students, staff, and community. To find out how much more, just ask those who went there, who sent their kijrcirca1931ds there, who worked there.

Looking back to my arrival in 1962, I realize that I was hooked the minute I walked onto the campus at the intersection of Court and Warren streets and looked across the broad expanse of lawn and up at the stately Spanish­ style buildings with the decorative tile accents, the tile roof, the shrubs and trees placed all around with harmonizing beds of annuals and roses. The building was 31 years old that day and I was 22 and unknowingly adding my life to the flow of the town's past, present, and future as embodied in the "junior high."

In early 1929, both Martinez Elementary School on Henrietta Street (currently the City Hall) and Alhambra Union High School on E Street over looking Alhambra Avenue (formerly Smith Street) were bulging with 40 to 50 students in each class. In addition, students were housed in annexes on Alhambra Avenue (the current Boys and Girls Club of the Diablo Valley) and at Susana and Court streets (presently the Martinez Unified School District administrative offices). The number of incoming 9th graders increased each year with students from the small Vine Hill, Briones, and Franklin Canyon elementary districts, a couple of which were classic country one­ room  schools.

To solve the problem of growth, the Alhambra Union High School District's Board of Trustees voted early that year to present  a $240,000 bond  issue for the community's approval to construct a junior high school to house the 7th – 9th grades. The decision provided a possible solution to the overcrowding of the high school but also reflected contemporary expert thought on how best to meet the educational and   social needs of early adolescents. The citizens accepted the educational expert opinion and passed the bond.  An architectural firm soon submitted plans for a Spanish style complex featuring a large main building, a modem gymnasium that seemed half the size of the world at the time; two technologically modem by1930 standards "shop" buildings, a full auditorium, and a comfortable library.

jrbuilding tileDecorative enhancements still visible today include lovely tile plaques on the outside of the main building and gym, decorative tile­ lined bays for drinking fountains, and hand-painted artistic motifs  around the auditorium's proscenium arch and on the library's beams  as shown to the right.

The site for the school was Brown's Hill, a wide expanse of pastureland nestled in a curve of Alhambra  Creek, about a quarter of a mile south of  the county courthouse and about four blocks north of the Christian Brothers Seminary and winery, which were being packed up to move to Napa  Valley.

Construction took 8 months and 15 days, and the campus was ready for students the first week of February 1931. The first 9th-grade class moved from Alhambra for the spring semester. It included Phyllis Butcher Wainwright, mother of current city council member Bill Wainwright and daughter of Phillip Butcher, one of the board members who voted for the bond issue. The first 7th and 8th grades moved over from Martinez Elementary and included the late Martinez News-Gazette columnist, Al Perry, whose reminiscence at the 50th anniversary of the school opening appears on page 3 of this issue. To celebrate that event, all the students and the faculty posed for a panoramic picture in front of the brand new building with landscaping installed by AUHS district building and grounds director Manuel Dutra.  The architects won a statewide prize for their work and went on to design schools all over the state modeled after the MJHS blueprints.

The teachers moved from the high school and the grammar schools. Some, like Ruth Bulger, the new counselor, and Roma McKenzie Norton, English and physical education teacher, were natives of Martinez and graduates of local schools them­ selves. Others, such as Mary Gillespie, arrived in Martinez in 1919 with a San Francisco Normal School credential in hand to teach 7th grade social studies first at the grammar school and then at the junior high, staying for 43 years until she was replaced by a rookie teacher from Fresno State - - me.jrlibraryroof

The office support staff came from the Alhambra Union High School business classes.  The first school secretary was Elinor Aljets, who had just graduated from Alhambra herself. When she went to the Sheriff’s Department to work in 1934, AUHS class of '34 graduate Lena Bartolini Cerri replaced her.

Lena, now 90, was a member of the original MJHS 9th grade class with Phyllis Butcher. She remembers the first principal, Arthur French, standing in the hall admonishing the students as they walked by "Now everything is new. Don't touch anything."

"The kids were thrilled," Lena recalls. "It was a beautiful building." It cost $160,000 to construct and $37,000 to equip, and included heavy one-piece stained oak student desks made by prisoners at San Quentin.



Martinez Junior High School:

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary

By Harriett Burt

Part One Changes

Originally published in the July 2006 Martinez Historical Society News Letter.

In the 75 years since its opening, the Junior High School has served differing grade levels (7-9 until the late 50s, 7-8 until 1980 and 6-8 since then). It has had as many as 900 students in the late 60s and now (the current enrollment is 922) and as few as 600 in the early 80s. The Junior High  - the building, the students, and the teachers - inspired a critically praised novel which became required reading in many high school and college classes. Ella Leffland, author of Rumors of Peace, used her own junior high years in Martinez during World War II as the setting for a coming-of-age story featuring the pink palace  on the  hill, as she called it. Even though the town is named Mendoza in the book, for legal reasons, the school, its students, the staff, and various incidents of the story are recognizable to those who were part of the student body during those years.

jrcirca2006The campus opened before the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 that spurred passage of the Field Act, which strictly specified school construction standards to resist earthquake damage.   In the mid-1960s the state legislature updated the Field Act, forcing school boards either to retrofit buildings constructed before 1933 or to remove them. By that time the Martinez elementary and Alhambra Union High School districts had merged into the Martinez Unified School District. The school board, faced with personal liability if the buildings were not up to code when an earthquake struck, in 1967 authorized submission of a $500,000 bond issue to rehabilitate the junior high buildings. The law mandated that voters be given the choice of approving the bond for the retrofit or not approving it, knowing their children might have to attend school in tents. Despite annoyance at the threat, which lingers to this day, the community passed the bond measure. The school operated in double session in the first semester of the 1968-69 school years while the roof of the main building was firmly attached to the walls and other seismic and cosmetic changes were made. Shirley Ellis, who taught home economics at the school from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, remembered being in the auditorium with her students in 1956 when a moderate earthquake struck. They were all terrified as the chandeliers swayed and the walls shook. She was in that same auditorium in 1980 when an earthquake of similar magnitude struck and no one realized it until they heard about it later on the news.

In 1980, declining enrollment and the effects of a property-tax-limiting initiative (Proposition 13) on district revenues nearly doomed the school just before its 50th anniversary. The district administration presented two choices to the school board: The first was to close the junior high and leave all the elementary schools open.  The alternative was to   close John Muir School and bring all the district's 6th graders to the junior high to form a 6th to 8th grade middle school. After weeks of deadlocked discussion the board voted for this alternative, controversial as it was. Then, with the dedication and hard work of faculty, support staff, and administration, plus support and growing enthusiasm of parents and students and the addition of dynamic faculty from the district's elementary schools, Martinez Junior High School flourished as a middle school. It was named a California Distinguished School in 1988.

But when school financing declined maintenance was often the first item cut in annual budgets throughout the school district.  Somehow the junior high always seemed hardest hit. First, the beautiful landscaping was allowed to all but disappear and the wide entry lawn was covered with portable class­ rooms. Then the interior of the building-the plumbing, the paint, the boiler, the wood window frames, the home economics and shop equipment, the gymnasium shower rooms, and much else all began to deteriorate. Popular social studies teacher Ted Arden  (on the staff from 1966 to 2001), an audiovisual expert, developed a dramatic slide show in the early 1990s to show the school board some of the dangerous and unhealthy conditions of the physical plant.

Once again, as it had in 1929 and again in 1967, the community rallied around to pass a junior high bond issue, this time for $23 million, including rehabilitation of various elementary sites and the reopening of John Muir School. Of this amount, $16 million was earmarked to restore the junior high and add new classroom buildings and a gymnasium to house a now-growing student population. Joann deGraef Tool, a graduate of the school and the parent of students there, was asked to chair the steering committee. She recalls that it was a large committee, with many outspoken members, that required a firm hand to keep everyone focused on the central issue:  the need to repair the existing structures and add additional buildings to the junior high to accommodate over 900 students. "We had everybody working together because they knew what terrible shape it was in. The single most important issue was the bathrooms.   The service clubs helped, the school board, the city council, teachers, PTSAs, teenagers . . . everybody from everywhere,” she recalls.

The payoff and the assured future of the school came on election night in 1995 when the bond passed by a record 84.5% of voters. The secretary of state's office called that night to inform county election officials that the junior  high bond  (as it was always  called, even  though  elementary  renovation was included) had passed  by the largest majority of  any school bond issue on the ballot  in the entire state.

In November 1999, after three years of construction, the expanded Martinez Junior High School campus was officially opened with its historic buildings restored and new buildings added that were designed to harmonize with the original prize-winners, down to the inclusion of authentically copied decorative motifs. This is a point of pride with current principal Helen Rossi, who first came here to teach math in 1994 and whose husband and son assisted with the preservation and duplication of the decorative tiles.

All through these 75 years, the junior high has been where the town comes together and where the common memories of growing up here, parenting here, and living and working here are formed.

Visitors to the campus on a typical school day in 2006 see a clean, orderly campus with a good atmosphere and the gracious touches of a proud history well preserved while staff and students work to pre­ pare for the future.

Approximately 50,000 kids have walked through these halls, raced up the stairs, run across the fields, filed into the auditorium, and sat in the class­ rooms. It is the nature of the junior high age and experience that for some it is the hardest time of their youth  and for others the turning point  when  they knew  for the first time what they could become.  For no one is it an unimportant time.  For 75 years Martinez Junior High School has been central to them at that time, and central to the community.




Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160