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Fresno High celebrates 125 years
by Rachel Taylor
Fresno High School held its first classes on Sept. 16, 1889, but not in the building we all know and recognize today.
Instead, classes were held on the second story of the old K Street School that was once located on the corner of K (now Van Ness Avenue) and Santa Clara streets. The student body consisted of only 50 students.
Fresno High has changed significantly since then. This year, the school celebrated its 125th anniversary, making it the oldest high school in the Fresno metropolitan area.
Diana Carrillo graduated from Fresno High in 1976 and is now a special education teacher there. For her, the school is more than just an educational institution with a rich history -- it’s “home.”
She describes herself as being “very rooted in Fresno.”
“I still live in the neighborhood that I grew up in,” she says. “We still have the house my parents bought and they were the original owners of.”
Carrillo has seen many changes during her long relationship with Fresno High. When she was a student, there wasn’t a fence around the school and students were free to walk across the street for lunch at the hamburger and ice cream shop, long since closed. She says it was also commonplace for large groups of friends to gather on campus and that sometimes student bands would play small concerts during the lunch break.
Now, she says, students are required to stay on campus during school hours and big groups of students are often monitored for safety reasons -- precautionary measures not unlike those taken by K-12 schools in every other part of the city.
And the curriculum has changed.
“Right now, the focus is so much on reading and math that a lot of electives have gone to the wayside,” she says.
While the school still features a cooking class, wood shop and auto shop are gone, though she says this has happened at many high schools across the nation.
The school has also seen many improvements over the years, Carrillo says, including advancements in technology. She says the use of laptops and projectors alone has greatly enhanced the overall classroom experience and made teaching more interactive.
Warrior Park is another upgrade to the school. The recently renovated area near Royce Hall includes a grassy plaza and two new buildings reflecting the classical architecture of Fresno High.
“They’re absolutely beautiful,” Carrillo says.
As with many Fresno High alumni, Carrillo takes great pride in her alma mater.
“I think it’s pretty exciting that we have been around for that long,” she says, nothing the school’s 125 years. “It feels good to be a part of something that’s really historic.”
And Fresno High’s history is, without a doubt, extensive.
In 1891, Fresno High produced its first graduating class -- a group of seven students -- under the guidance of principal T.L. Heaton, who was also superintendent of Fresno City Schools. The school had only three teachers.
Later, after years of moving from building to building and pressure from increasing enrollment, the first Fresno High campus opened in 1896 on O Street. The building, which had a student capacity of 400, was finished at a cost of $53,000.
It wasn’t long until the O Street campus, too, became overcrowded, and plans were made to create an even bigger campus.
Finally, in 1921, the million-dollar Echo Avenue campus -- where Fresno High still stands today -- was opened and the O Street campus became Fresno Technical High School.
Throughout the years, Fresno High has also produced many notable alumni in the arts, academics and athletics:
• Tom Seaver, former Major League Baseball pitcher inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the highest percentage ever recorded
• Les Richter, former linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and previous senior vice president of operations for NASCAR
• Gordon Dunn, former mayor of Fresno (1949-57) and competitor in the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, where he won a silver medal
• General Frederick Carlton Weyand, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1974-1976) and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
• Sam Peckinpah, former American film director and screenwriter well known for his film “The Wild Bunch” (1969)
• David Harris, American journalist and author known for his activism against the Vietnam War and the draft
• Dick Contino, American accordionist and singer who was the first winner of the Horace Heidt “Original Youth Opportunity Program,” which was broadcast on national radio
• Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., former American pianist, singer, songwriter, actor, record producer and creator of “Alvin and the Chipmunks”
To celebrate this history and the school’s 125th anniversary, nearly 300 alumni and staff attended the Fresno High School Alumni Association’s 15th annual All-Alumni Dinner in May.
The dinner is one of three annual events the alumni association plans to honor the school and its alumni. The others are a Wall of Champions Dinner that recognizes athletes and coaches and a car show held in conjunction with the annual football game against Roosevelt High School.
“Fresno High has gone through many changes over all of its 125 years, but the pride of all those who have been so lucky to be a part of that history is heartwarming,” says Jackie Boyajian, co-chair of the alumni association.
In addition to honoring the school’s former students, the alumni association also strives to “connect students of the past with those of the present and hopefully those coming in the future,” Boyajian says. The association seeks to accomplish this by including current students in its events as helpers, guests and escorts.
While the alumni association is tasked with preserving the school’s history, it also reaches out to create a better environment for current students through financial aid.
“Our fundraising and financial donations help to further an enriched educational experience for current students,” Boyajian says. “We want them to have as much as we can provide. Hopefully, they will look back at some time and remember the help given to them and keep that alive for other students.”
Angela Romero, Fresno High’s current student council president, is one of many students who is likely to carry on the school’s legacy.
“We have a lot of history and tradition here, and for it to be continuing on for the 125th year -- not only is it historical -- it’s just beautiful,” Romero says.
It’s obvious that Romero, a senior who became involved with the student council in 2012 as a sophomore, takes great pride in her school. Both her mother and father, in addition to many other close family members, graduated from Fresno High.
In June 2015, Romero will graduate as a part of the 125th class, exactly 25 years after her mother became an alumna.
“It’s bittersweet,” she says. “High school has definitely been an experience for me, both good and bad. Thinking about it, I wish that it wouldn’t end.”
John Forbes, the 27th principal of Fresno High, says the school often becomes a second home for many students, especially those who come from broken households.
Those students, he says, become a part of the “Warrior family” and grow stronger through their struggles and achievements at the school.
Forbes says the 125th anniversary is a time for everyone to pause and recognize what makes the school unique.
Forbes, who became principal in 2012, attributes much of that uniqueness to Fresno High’s history, which both he and his staff try to emphasize to the more than 2,000 students who currently go to school there.
“They have to see themselves as part of a bigger picture,” he says. “Teenagers in general don’t have that perspective.”
Forbes says it is both a challenge and responsibility “to make good on all the people who have gone through here and care deeply about Fresno High” by teaching students about the school’s history.
For Forbes, the 125th anniversary is the perfect time to do just that.
“When there’s an anniversary or birthday that’s significant like 125, it brings up again that ‘wow, we really are a part of something that’s unique,’” he says. “I want kids to feel special every day that they’re here, that they’re part of something beyond themselves.”
Forbes acknowledges that grasping the meaning of 125 years isn’t always easy, even for adults.
“Kids hear that number and it’s like ‘wow, that’s a big number,’” he says.
To give students a visual representation of the milestone, Forbes says, the school held a ceremony Sept. 16 in Warrior Park and have 125 students stand up in front of everyone.
While the past is important, Forbes says, the future of Fresno High also looks bright.
Through investments from the community, the Fresno County Office of Education and the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, Fresno High has constructed a new swimming pool and new softball and baseball diamonds in addition to the buildings in Warrior Park.
The school’s International Baccalaureate program is also prospering, Forbes says. Now, all students in the 9th and 10th grades are taught with the IB philosophy, which aims to foster tolerance, respect and intercultural understanding among young people through critical thinking, problem solving and exposure to a variety of viewpoints.
There is a distinct enthusiasm in Forbes’ voice when he reflects on his role as principal of Fresno High.
“It’s unlike anything in my career,” he says. “It’s not just another position or job, it’s ‘You’re now part of a history.’”
Rachel Taylor is a recent graduate of Fresno State, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in mass communication and journalism. She is the editorial assistant for Central California Life.