Halliwell School closing after 62 years

Halliwell School closing after 62 years

A photo that hangs in the main office of Halliwell Memorial School shows the school as it looked when it opened in 1957.
Teachers, alumni remember beloved school campus

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Next Monday, June 17, students, teachers and parents will say goodbye to a school that has been a second home for the children of North Smithfield for more than 60 years.

After several years of plans and discussions, the Dr. Harry L. Halliwell Memorial School is slated to close after the current school year. On Monday, students, families, faculty and alumni will gather at 9 a.m. for a closing ceremony that will include a tribute to the memories shared at the school over the years.

For members of the three generations that called Halliwell home, those memories include making the trek between the school’s separated classrooms and outbuildings in all types of weather as they moved about their day.

When Palma Biron, a North Smithfield native, arrived to teach English at Halliwell in 1957, the first year it opened, the unique, California-style campus was a brand-new concept beloved by teachers and students.

“We were just two classrooms to a unit, so you didn’t have to worry about hall passes, you didn’t have to worry about hall traffic, you didn’t have to worry about hall noise, and every time the kids left the building, they got a bit of fresh air and it woke them up and invigorated us,” she said.

At the time, students attended Halliwell through the 8th grade, and Biron recalled Principal Paul Joyce, who later went on to serve as superintendent of schools, playing music for the students at a graduation dance. Early photos of the campus show a young tree, later the meeting place of generations of North Smithfield students, standing alone in the field beside the school.

The school was named in honor of Dr. Harry L. Halliwell, who two years earlier had succumbed to bulbar polio at age 33 while treating patients during the polio outbreaks of the 1950s. Halliwell, who had served as school physician in North Smithfield, was the pediatrician of many families in northern Rhode Island and is said to have traveled for many days almost without rest treating patients in the weeks prior to his own death. His widow, Obiella Halliwell, was honored following the dedication ceremony, which took place on Nov. 17, 1957.

Over the years, the school continued to serve as a gathering place for students and families who developed close relationships with teachers and staff. Robin Maloney, who attended Halliwell during the 1970s, said she particularly enjoyed the classes of Mrs. Michelina Branconnier, who inspired her to go into teaching. She also recalled the after-school antics of friends as they rode bikes down the Halliwell driveway and sleds into the athletic fields on “suicide hill.”

“I don’t know how we didn’t get killed, we were flying down that hill. That was the thing to do,” she said.

Eugene Peloquin, who served as principal from 1972 to 1989, has quite different memories of the Halliwell campus in winter. During the Blizzard of ’78, he and other school administrators hunkered down on Monday morning, watching as school cancellations poured in from around the state. When they finally made the call for dismissal, they crossed their fingers and prayed the buses would make it up the long driveway to Victory Highway.

“They did a tremendous job. None of them got stuck. At some schools in Rhode Island, about 3,000 kids got stuck at the schools,” he recalled.

While winter at Halliwell was always an adventure, one that usually involved dozens of pairs of boots in every classroom, summer on the campus offered a unique experience close to nature. Peloquin recalled one instance when a female box turtle came up from the brook to lay her eggs in the sand of the playground. After alerting teachers, students brought their chairs outside and spent an entire class period sitting silently around the playground watching the turtle build her nest.

“It was the best science/nature lesson we’ve ever had. How many principals across the country can say that?” he said.

Recollections of Halliwell include fond memories of the many individuals who kept the school running over the years. In addition to administrators and classroom teachers, they include longtime music teacher Michael Boday, art teacher Burl Dawson, who was known to decorate that school’s shrubbery like cupcakes in honor of students’ birthdays, and Margaret Fay, who worked in the office for over 25 years.

“They used to call her secretary. Well, that’s a misnomer. She ran the school,” said Peloquin.

While the school holds a special place in many families’ hearts, a lack of maintenance and changing educational standards have landed the buildings on a projected closure list for at least 10 years, according to Supt. Michael St. Jean. In 2017, a study commissioned by the Rhode Island Department of Education estimated the facility would require more than $11 million in immediate repairs and projected five-year maintenance in order to continue operating. Earlier this year, district administrators moved forward with a plan to add four classrooms on to North Smithfield Elementary School to allow Halliwell to close, a project funded by a $4 million school buildings bond approved by voters in 2014.

“There’s something very soulful and spiritual about the location, but to bring it back to where it should be is cost prohibitive,” said St. Jean. “And then there are different sensibilities today than there were back then as far as safety and security.”

In the fall, district 4th-graders will continue in the new classrooms at NSES, while 5th- graders will move to North Smithfield Middle School. NSES Principal Jennifer Daigneault said teachers are working to transition incoming 5th-graders to the middle school, as well as welcome 4th grade teachers to the new setting.

“We’re all very excited about it,” she said. “Here at NSES, I think we’ve been trying to build a culture that we’re going to be the only elementary school in the district, so we want this to be a place where families feel welcome.”

While no plans have been laid out yet for the Halliwell campus, town officials have indicated they plan to maintain the property for the time being. Various ideas for the property have included the possible creation of a town-owned community center.

Monday’s ceremony, which is open to school families and alumni, will include the opening of a time capsule created by Claire O’Hara’s class in 1996. Pam Authier, who has taught physical education and health at Halliwell for 28 years, recalled placing a bookbag in the capsule when it was sealed on the occasion of the town’s 125th anniversary. Authier, who now teaches the children of her former students, said it’s sad to see the end of a school that many thought would never close.

“Bittersweet, that’s how I phrase it. It’s hard for a change,” she said.

Students and community members, including former Principal Eugene Peloquin, second from left, stand in front of a school sign refurbished by the local Kiwanis Club in November 1986.