Written by Hilary Mendoza ’71
Change, with balance and expansion, were the hallmarks of the Palm Beach Private School in the 1950s, when the country seemed like the perfect blend of nostalgia for the pre-war era culture and an anticipation of the boundless progress that lay before the country.
Many of the students who would become those who would shape the future of the country were part of the school community which had doubled in size, retained quality teachers with advanced degrees and impressive pedigrees, and kept alive the school’s traditions of the two-hour lunch, individual attention for students in the tutoring period after 2 p.m., and Field Day. New leadership under Headmaster Donald E.W. Niemann oversaw the changes of a school transitioning to a part-time resort school to a full-time school that catered to families who had made Palm Beach their permanent home.
At the outset of his tenure as headmaster in 1952, Niemann immediately set several goals for the school. These included further strengthening the faculty, improving the curriculum, expanding the athletic program, expanding extracurricular activities – especially drama – and improving relations between the school and the general public. Another group that precipitated change was the newly created Florida Council for Independent Schools (FCIS), which began unofficially in 1954, at a meeting of forty-three schools to create an association to regulate and accredit schools to improve the standards of independent education in Florida. After the first FCIS evaluation in 1956, the association noted the school’s key issues: the lack of a good school library and librarian, lack of a school newspaper, the use of test results to group children into classes, the length of the school year, and the lack of summer study by members of the faculty. In response, the library was established in what is now the office, a monthly school newspaper – The Portfolio – was established, and improved use of test results was implemented. The length of the school year and the daily schedule were controversial topics, especially the two-hour lunch, but summer programs for teacher education were not. The two- hour lunch stayed, and funds were found to accommodate summer studies for faculty. Although there were no recommendations for athletics and extracurricular activities, Mr. Niemann stressed their importance as, “vital to a child’s education, and at no time …frills and extras.”
Extracurricular activities had expanded to include: art, carpentry, Camera Club, Debating Society, Dramatics Association, French Club, Glee Club, the newspaper, the Privateer yearbook, and the literary magazine, the Atlantis. As for athletics, the faculty and sports were expanded, especially Field Day with events in tennis, swimming, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, and fencing. While not all events were held on campus, the culminating events were the father-daughter and mother-son events, followed by a luncheon, sponsored by the mothers.
Mr. Niemann was an important steward to take the Palm Beach Private School into the future as an island school that could accommodate seasonal students yet were focused on the families that had made Palm Beach their home. The 1950s ended with substantial educational changes as well as physical changes.