Looking back at history, it is interesting how little known; long-forgotten individuals can unwittingly influence the development of a community. This is exactly the case with Miss Helen E. Westcott. When Westcott was hired as a third-grade teacher in 1910, no one could have predicted how she would have a long-lasting impact on the development of a
That year, the Oceanside Union Free School District was much as it is known today, except that it also included Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, Point Lookout and Island Park. The district consisted of approximately 450 students with a staff of 13 educators in one schoolhouse. While the district had received the authority from New York state to confer high school degrees upon the community’s vote to form a Union Free School District in 1899, very few students were continuing with their education through graduation. Additionally the schoolhouse was a remnant of a 19th century school structure.
The Oceanside School District also started off the school year with a new principal, Robert L. Weaver. While a relatively young man, Weaver came to the district with considerable educational and supervisory experience. A graduate from Hamilton College in 1902, Weaver was principal of high schools in upstate New York’s Sauquoit, Cohocton, Painted Post, and Churchville school districts before being brought into Oceanside.
While Westcott began the school year in a modest 1895 frame structure on the current Schoolhouse Green with an overcrowded student population in undersized classrooms, a modern structure was on its way. On March 20, 1911, the district opened a brand new structure – a three-story brick building, containing 16 classrooms equipped with modern fixtures and laboratories. This building was the Oceanside School District’s first foray into becoming a modern 20th Century Union Free School District. This structure, which would end up commonly being referred to as “Central School” and School No. 1, eventually morphed into the district’s high school, junior high school, elementary school and sixth-grade center before being closed and demolished
In March 1911, Weaver submitted a list of names of teachers being recommended for the following school year. It was customary at the time for principals to do this annually. But Weaver’s list to the Board of Education did not include Westcott. His reasons for not including her name were that she was showed a lack of energy, did not meet the standards of the other teachers in the school and had failed as a disciplinarian.
This move set off a firestorm in the community.
The next Board of Education meeting which addressed the teachers’ appointments included Westcott in attendance along with 40 others demanding that she be reinstated the following year. Her roommate Charles Kessler accompanied her and was responsible for garnering support for Miss Westcott and taking up her fight to stay employed. He was also in favor of bringing back former principal J. Anthony Bassett. While not publicly mentioned, it was known that Weaver’s son was a student in Westcott’s class. She believed that Weaver’s son had misrepresented her abilities to his father and was the cause of her termination.
The board ultimately dismissed Kessler and Westcott’s petition for her to be reinstated and retained Weaver. But the incident splintered the community. Kessler would go on to be elected to the board a few months later, and in the next few years, four out of the five Trustees on the board would change.
While Weaver made it through this controversy, another arose the next month when he sought to terminate another teacher. He resigned as principal after the 1912-13 school year and would go on to be principal in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, and later teach at Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge high schools in Brooklyn before his death in 1945.
In the aftermath this incident would lead to a chain of events in the Oceanside community that shaped the future of the district and its surrounding community into what it is today. This is one story that lays the groundwork for many stories to come.
As for Westcott, after teaching third grade in Oceanside for one year, her future is unknown. She, along with the others have become forgotten pieces of Oceanside history.