Punchard High was always more than just another school. It was a vital town fixture for over 100 years. For students, it was at the heart of their everyday lives; for the town, it was a welcome and frequent gathering place. Its story reflects how Andover adapted to changing times and planned for the future.

The school's roots date back to the 1850 when Benjamin Hanover Punchard, a successful Andover banker and town leader, bequeathed to his trust a then princely sum of $50,0000. The Punchard Trust directed the founding of Andover's first Free School "for the purpose of teaching Reading, Righting and Ciferring." It is interesting to note that Massachusetts' public schools, established in 1647, comprised the nation's oldest, privately funded system.

The Punchard Free School opened its doors in 1856. Students studied mathematics, natural science, mental and moral philosophy, the Latin and Greek languages, rhetoric and logic. The first graduating class in 1859 recognized seven students.

The ensuing 50 years witnessed a steady growth in the number of pupils along with several key events. In 1868, a fire destroyed the original building, forcing classrooms to relocate to lower town hall until the new building opened in 1872. Changing its name to Punchard High School in 1902 and erecting an addition in 1915, the structure served Andover well through the mid-1930s.

In 1936, responding to the need for increased classroom space and a more up-to-date facility, the old structure was razed. The new complex continued to house Punchard High School while adding a new school, East Junior High, under its roof. Seated atop a hillside rising above the Town Common at Chestnut and Bartlet streets, the building's exterior and surrounding grounds looked then much as they do today. Inside and out, the new Punchard High was an absolute showplace featuring bright and airy classrooms, state-of-the-art laboratories, Memorial Auditorium, a gymnasium and a cafeteria. More than ever before, Punchard High was Andover's crown jewel.

The post-World War II baby boom era continued to stretch Andover's population, straining its infrastructure. School construction and budgeting became front page news and the fodder for ongoing debate among town selectmen, the School Committee and at Town Meeting. Between 1952 and 1968, the town built and opened six new schools - Central and West Elementary in 1952, South Elementary in 1958, Sanborn Elementary in 1962, and Bancroft Elementary School and West Junior High in 1968. The final change, building a brand new high school, marked the end of the road for Punchard High. In 1957, the space Punchard occupied was ceded to the junior high school. Punchard High, renamed Andover High School, moved into space that today is West Middle School. It remained there until 1968 when the present Shawsheen Road high school facility was opened to students.

The expanded school system functioned smoothly through the late 1970s. By 1980, however, the demands of changing student demographics and aging facilities pushed some difficult questions to the forefront. Which schools should remain open? What schools should close? Can any of the closed schools be retooled and made productive? Addressing these high profile concerns took center stage with vigorous debate at public meetings and much play in the local press. In the end, an exhaustive study concluded that the Punchard High building, then occupied by East Junior High School and Doherty grade school, be overhauled and modernized.

Today, over 25 years later, the Town Offices, the school department and Doherty Middle School continue to breathe life and purpose into the halls of old Punchard High.

"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told in anticipation of the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.

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