Riverdale School District 51J dates back to April 24, 1888, when a small group of residents with foresight and determination petitioned Charles H. Gove, Oregon's Superintendent of Schools, to emancipate “fifteen scholars of school age” from larger District #13 “on account of the distance to the schoolhouse.” 640 acres of this land west of the Willamette River was the original land grant claimed by William and Mary Torrence in 1850.
Palatine Hill School
In 1891, property was purchased from Arnold and Mary Myers for $1,200 to build a one-room schoolhouse called the Palatine Hill School. The school was built in a shady hollow located southeast of the Palatine-Breyman intersection. In its first year of operation 15 students were enrolled in this rural setting. The Palatine Hill School continued to thrive and prosper for 28 years.
The Palatine Hill School was a dark and dank one-room building. It was located in a hollow and surrounded by trees, so the only sunshine was in the early hours of the morning. Alice Carey Rockey was a pupil at the old school and described it as follows: "As you walked up quite high steps and stepped inside the door, there were coatrooms on either side, one for the boys and one for the girls. Farther on in the main room there was a pot-bellied stove, which the boys kept fueled with wood. There were then desks, which stretched out to a platform in the front of the room, where the teacher could sit and look over the students.”
There were two outhouses behind the school. The lack of plumbing meant that two boys were chosen each day to walk down the hill to a spring and bring back a bucket full of drinking water. The water was full of polliwogs, which the boys had to drain off. Elizabeth Plummer Kiesz reminisced:
“Riverdale School had just one room with eighteen students from grade one to eight, taught by Miss Eva L. Campbell...we would start out from our house and others would join us until we had quite a group by the time we reached the school. When it was time to go in, Miss Campbell would come to the door with a big bell in her hand and ring it to call us to school.“
The Private Country Day School: 1913-1917
Some District residents did not want their children to attend the Palatine Hill School, considering it dark, dank and unhealthy with only a dirt floor.
In 1913, these parents opened a private school in the loft of a barn on the Thomas Kerr estate, which became known as the Country Day School. The loft room and its cupola, often confused in local lore to be the original public schoolhouse, still exists as a garage on S.W. Military Lane. Lady McDonald (the former Ann Kerr) remembered the schoolroom having two small windows and the later addition of a skylight. The room was equipped with a wood stove and ten desks in three rows.
This private school moved to two subsequent locations at the homes of the Corbetts and the Collins’. The children of Peter Kerr, Thomas Kerr and C. H. Lewis attended this school. In addition, four children from the Latta and Johnson families were rowed across the river from their Waverley Heights homes by John the Boatman. Roughly 17 students eventually attended this private school through 5th grade, when they transferred to secondary private schools in the city. After several years of operation, the parents of these students felt that the public program at the Palatine Hill School offered a more complete education for their children and the Country Day School was disbanded.
The children from the Country Day School joined their neighbors in 1917, substantially increasing the already growing student body, which necessitated the addition of a second classroom the next year. The student population rose to 38 and this simple building was now feeling the pinch.
Growth of a District
By 1919, the District's neighborhoods were transitioning from summer vacation homes to permanent residences. Parents wanted and needed a better building than a one-room schoolhouse with a dirt floor. Eleven citizens petitioned the School Board, requesting that District 51J’s residents vote on a bond for $30,000 to acquire a site and build and furnish a new school building on the grade school’s current address on Breyman Avenue. The vote passed 53-9. As a result, three acres of land were purchased for $7,500 from the Burwell Investment Company. A. E. Doyle, a well-established Portland architect, was chosen to design the new school. Three months later a second bond was requested for $12,000 to complete the project, receiving a 'yes' vote of 30-1.
A new brick school building was erected consisting of two closed and two open-air classrooms, a janitor's room and bathrooms. When it was completed, students of the original one-room schoolhouse paraded up Breyman Avenue, two-by-two, carrying the American flag to their new school. On that day in July of 1920, parents and children planted trees and shrubs to honor the opening of the new Riverdale School. Each student recited an appropriate verse for every tree planted and they all sang “America the Beautiful.” Planting Day became a tradition for years to come. Fifty students were enrolled.
Sadly, two to three years after the new building was built, the old Palatine Hill School building burned to the ground.
This handsome new facility increased the school’s popularity and, by 1923, the student population grew to 123, which lead to a steady stream of structural add-ons in the years to follow. For almost 90 years, these buildings created a campus that has housed an exceptional K-8 program with tremendous student, parent and community support.
The District Today
In 1991, Senate Bill 917 required all Oregon School Districts to offer K-12 education. The Riverdale community responded by resisting consolidation with another district and creating its own high school program. Riverdale High School officially opened in September 1996. The 9-12 program was housed in Southwest Portland and then at Marylhurst University. In August of 2002, the High School found a permanent home in a refurbished school on Terwilliger Boulevard at the foot of the Lewis and Clark College campus. The high school today educates over 250 students; nearly 100% of whom enroll in higher education.
After almost 90 years of housing Riverdale District's ever-growing student population, the Doyle building was suffering from dated building systems and structural disrepair. Once again, residents approved a bond measure to rebuild the historic campus in preparation for another century of excellence in education. Construction was completed for the start of the school year in September 2010.
The design of our new school captures the spirit of classical architectural elements that were the hallmarks of the old building's facade. At the same time, it draws the campus together with the development of a courtyard. Student campus safety has increased while the arts, media, and technology have been integrated seamlessly within the K-8 classrooms. This combination of traditionalism and modern progressive design speaks to more than just the facility. It also is a reflection of the determination of a neighborhood that has championed public education by consistently maintaining excellent facilities and educational programming since 1888.