A Tale of Two Schools: Kingswood Oxford’s Long History of Moving Towards Diversity and Change Both Then and Now

Investigative

Amidst a year with substantial change at Kingswood Oxford, ranging from dealing with a prolonged pandemic, to issues of social justice, in this investigative piece, we take a look back at our school 100 years ago, while detailing the major changes that have led to the school known today.

The home to the majority of KO’s rich history is the archives, located in the basement of the Nicholson building. In the archives, artifacts and pieces of the school’s history have been carefully cultivated by Archivist Brenda Semmelrock. Recently, she has focused her time on documenting this unprecedented time in the school’s history. “I mean, as the archivist, I’m keeping all the information about [COVID-19],” she said. “It’ll be interesting in years to come to go back and pull out these boxes and read about how KO responded during the pandemic.”

Kingswood Oxford began as two schools, the Oxford School, founded by Mary Martin in 1909, and the Kingswood School, founded by George Nicholson in 1916. Both schools originally started out as an alternative to boarding and public schools, such as Hartford High School, for elitist and wealthy families in the Hartford area. 

Culture at both schools was very different during its early years, 110 years ago, as students were subject to rigorous standards, social conventions and academics. When the Kingswood School started, they enrolled students as young as eight years old, Alumni Hall was a chapel outfitted with pews and frequent religious services, and teachers wore formal robes in their classes. “One aspect was how rigid and formal the students’ lives were in the beginning,” longtime history teacher Rob Kyff said. “At Kingswood, the boys always had to wear a jacket and tie all the time, while the teachers wore these black robes.”

Meanwhile, at the Oxford School, tradition and academics were combined to form a school that fostered the interests of young women in the area. The school contained a prominent athletic program, with an added focus on the arts, performing a Christmas play every winter, with Methodist Christian roots. The school also had a tradition called the Greek games. “They had something called the Greek games every spring, where they’d have kind of a festival day where they had Greek chariot races, reading of poetry, art exhibits, and things like that,” Mr. Kyff said. 

Drawing a striking resemblance to the culture of KO in the modern day, both schools were impacted by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. The Oxford Chat, the Oxford School’s newspaper, noted that the school was forced to shut down for a mere four days. The flu also affected the quiet world of the Kingswood School, operating in its third year, and located at the famous nearby Mark Twain House on Farmington Ave.

In 1922, the Kingswood School finally moved to its current location in West Hartford. This would begin a prolonged era that would usher in momentous change to the KO community. From now until the 1970s, the school would begin to integrate different cultures and groups of people, starting first with Jewish students, before then admitting Asian and African American students, and ending with the decision to become a coeducational institution with the Oxford School. “I think, to the school’s credit, it has changed with the times,” Mr. Kyff said.

Before coeducation and the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, both the Kingswood and Oxford School had admitted students of other ethnicities starting in the late 1950s. While these students marked the start of a turning point in the school’s history, the change had a long way to go, as programs such as the Community Scholars Program in the 1980s. While today 32% of the KO student body is students of color, KO still has a long path ahead of them, as issues of social justice and racial inequality have sprung up in conversations across campus.

However, the change KO students are most familiar with occurred in 1969, as the Kingswood School and the Oxford School merged. The merger came slowly at first, as Ms. Semmelrock described a gradual transition into coeducation. “Some girls were coming up here, and some boys were going down [to the Oxford School] for certain courses,” she said. “I believe it was English, and it might of had something to do with the arts.”

Eventually, this transition took effect, and the Kingswood-Oxford School was born. “It took about five years to fully achieve coeducation, with the Upper School graduating its first co-ed class in 1974,” Mr. Kyff said.

While the Civil Rights Movement and the movement towards coeducation at KO represented a larger and growing belief the nation shared at the time period, many individuals involved with the communities at the traditional schools were skeptical, while others believed it was a necessary step. “Some thought it was great, some didn’t like it, and I think that’s the way a lot of people thought during that time period,” Mrs. Semmelrock said.

Students have also looked back at KO’s history of integration and social justice issues, and how the school has responded to these movements in 2020. The school has promoted discussions relating to this topic in the classroom, and curricula have been continually modified to become more inclusive. Recently, the history department announced that they will offer a course relating to African American history in the 2020-21 school year. While this movement has spanned the course of a century, KO has always attempted to be at the forefront of it, and students have appreciated that sentiment. “There’s always things you can improve on, but I think they did well in diversifying here,” junior Max-William Kanz said.

Another momentous time of change and adaptation at KO is occurring right now as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout its history, KO has never had to address such a large scale public health crisis directly, as the Spanish Flu of 1918 only had a minor effect on the Kingswood and Oxford Schools. 

Members of the community remain confident that the school will continue to adapt and make the necessary changes, as they have in the past. “I think the recent pandemic is a great example of how the leadership team at KO mobilized to work out the situation last spring with online learning, to devise a plan for the fall, which has kind of become alternating between in-person and online, and I think that’s one of the great strengths of the school over the years,” Mr. Kyff said. 

Many other teachers also have acknowledged the swift response of the school, including Ms. Semmelrock. “I think KO has done a fabulous job in every way of taking on the challenges of the pandemic from day one,” Ms. Semmelrock said. 

The response to KO’s handling of the pandemic has been mostly positive, with many of the changes that have been made making a positive impact. All the information regarding the pandemic is being preserved in archives, and students in future generations will be able to visit the archives and see how the school responded with COVID-19 changes, creating a link between the years. Whereas in the past there was no official archives system, presently, the archives are active in preserving all aspects of KO history, from small events to those as large and momentous as the present pandemic. 

Mrs. Semmelrock is optimistic that this chapter in KO’s history will be looked back on as a time of significant change that reflects the core beliefs of the school. “It’s a testament to what KO is doing,” Mrs. Semmelrock said. “Not only just faculty, staff, and administration, but the students and families too, taking it seriously and knowing that it’s really good to be able to be here, and to see each other in a classroom.”

 Just as present-day students are able to look back in the archives for information about momentous changes in KO’s history, such as the merger, future students will be able to look back at the COVID pandemic and other issues that have arisen this year in great detail, showing how the school has transitioned and changed over its rich history.