Sierra High began with two tents, two teachers and around 30 students! Today Sierra High School provides an excellent education for approximately 900 students!


Sierra High School Has a Unique History
Compiled by Bud Olson and Marv Kientz
Sierra High School has a unique history. It is a campus situated on 450 foothill acres with 240 of this area being part of the agriculture farm. This is more area than many colleges and universities have. The school district historically was one of the largest in the state drawing students from as far north as Fish Camp near Yosemite National Park to as far south as Balch Camp. The eastern boundary included Huntington Lake and the western boundary at one time included the town of Friant and part of Madera County. In the past, Sierra was among the wealthiest schools in the state which allowed it to provide lunches, sports uniforms, paper, pencils, and many other supplies and services at absolutely no cost to students. The school also gave free bus transportation to Friday athletic events which were away from the school. Its industrial arts programs and facilities have been envied by other schools throughout the state. Sierra had a dormitory for students who lived long distances from school or on bad roads in the heavy-snow areas east of the campus. Today, the academic performance of the students ranks this school as one of the top performers in California. So, how did this school get started and what is its history?

Until the establishment of Sierra High School there was no secondary school in the foothills. In order for students to attend high school they had to stay in Clovis or Fresno with friends of the family or the student's family had to move to the valley. At that time driving back and forth each day to the valley was not feasible. Many children in the area simply did not go on to high school after their eighth grade year. Some concerned people decided that a high school had to be established for local students. The most active of these people were Bert Weldon, Max Yancey, and Joseph Prather Sr. Max Yancey and Bert Weldon served on the board of trustees for many years. In fact, Weldon was on the board for 39 years from 1922 until his death in 1961. The high school agricultural farm is named for him – The Bert Weldon Memorial Farm.

The 450 acres was purchased from a Mr. Thompson, possibly out of the three founder's personal accounts. Two tents were stretched, and two teachers were hired. The school opened in the fall of 1922 with over 30 students. The year was a success despite the primitive conditions and the next year the students moved into a building that had three classrooms, an assembly hall, and boys'and girls' wash rooms. After spending one year at another high school and then three years at Sierra, Arthur Maxwell was the first to graduate in 1925.

In 1934 the small gym was opened for use on the campus and this became a well- used facility. Not only could the gym be used for sporting events, but with a stage on one end it could also be used for school plays. On the other end of the gym, opposite the stage, was a room that for a long period of time was used for serving student lunches and later was used as a band room. Lunches were eaten on the gym bleachers or out on the lawn. Once the cafeteria was built in about 1948, lunches were provided at no cost to the students. Free lunches were justified based on the wealth of the district and the level of poverty of many students. For some it was the only meal of substance available. With the completion of the gym, dances could now be held at the high school. This facility was not only used by the students but also by people in the community. They came to the plays, attended the dances, and watched the athletic activities. Until 1942 the school ran buses for foothill people to attend these events. In 1948 adult attendance at the dances was stopped.

In 1937 a bill was passed in Sacramento that allowed each school district in the state to use some of the property taxes in the district for schools. Before this there was a small school tax which went to the schools. The local elementary schools and the high school greatly benefited from this bill. The heavy concentration of power companies (now Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison) provided a high funding for the schools. That is why Sierra High School became one of the wealthiest in the state.

An administration building and classroom wings were completed in 1938. The architect designed the administration building so that there was a large use of native granite and glass. The building received recognition in the Architecture Record in 1939. The center unit is still in use as an administration building. Once the new classrooms were completed, the old classroom building was used for classes in forestry, agriculture, and industrial arts. This older building was kept until 1960 when it was sold.

In 1941 the person who would become the longest tenured administrator was hired by then principal Frank Schroeter. Clifford Frantz was hired to teach and because the high school was small, he taught a variety of subjects including science, mathematics, English and history. Even Schroeter was teaching courses in German, algebra, and mechanical drawing. During this time period there were ten teachers, besides Shroeter. A couple of years before Mr. Frantz was hired, Percy Kramer was hired to teach carpentry and in 1941 Dick Bradford was added to teach auto mechanics. Agriculture had been taught for two years and then it was discontinued until Ken Olson came in 1949. The school farm arena is now named for Ken Olson. Eventually, the school taught other trade courses such as auto body repair, construction, meat cutting, and heavy equipment operation. These offerings show the strong commitment to vocational programs as well as the usual academic courses.

After teaching two years at Sierra, Cliff Frantz and Walt Foster, who taught physical education, volunteered for the armed services. Mr. Frantz was an ensign in the Navy and was sent to UCLA where he was trained as a meteorology instructor. He then taught this subject to navy personnel who were in preflight training. In 1946 when Mr. Frantz returned to the high school, Schroeter had taken a job in the valley and Barton Webb was the principal. Webb had heart problems and died in June of 1947. Lawrence Wiemers replaced Webb for two years as principal and Lyle Hill was appointed as vice principal. Both men resigned after two years at the school. Mr. Frantz was moved to a part time vice principal position in about 1948 and at the same time L. T. Cook was hired as principal and superintendent.

Mr. Cook provided strong leadership for the district and encouraged the board of trustees to embark on a building program as the enrollment of the school increased. Over the next decades, various buildings and other facilities were added. In 1948 a new classroom wing was constructed to the north of the then present classrooms which included an up-to-date chemistry and physics classroom. This wing is known today as the math wing. A track and football field existed to the west of this new wing so bleachers were added to the west of the new classrooms for student seating. The area where the football field existed is now used for parking. At the same time that the new classroom wing was added, three new shop buildings were constructed. These included an auto mechanics building, a carpentry shop and an agriculture and mechanics facility. One of the things that made Sierra unique was the erection of a dormitory in 1948 for students who lived east of the campus and had bad roads and heavy winter snow. For several years prior to the construction of the dormitories residents near the high school offered board and room to these students but the number of residents who were willing to do this never matched the need. Road conditions and distance prevented daily bus runs. Some of the students had to attend schools outside of the district. The dormitory was constructed on school property and was built to accommodate 40 students although this was later changed to 60 students. Each student room had a desk for studying, a bathroom and two beds. The facility had two wings, one for boys and one for girls. The center part was a large social hall where meals were served and part of which was an apartment for the dorm parents. The dormitory had a rustic appearance with the use of granite rock on the outside and a large granite fireplace and exposed beams in the social area.

Breakfast and dinner were served at the dormitory with a free lunch offered at the school cafeteria. The initial cost for board and room was a $1.20 per day. Students who stayed in the dormitory were from Balch Camp, Big Creek, Blue Canyon, Shaver Lake, and Edison power houses on the river. These students were bused to the school Monday morning and taken home on Friday afternoon. The first dorm parents were Mr. and Mrs. Ken Crowder. By 1968, roads had improved such that it was feasible for all students to commute daily by bus and to reside at home every night. The dormitory closed which pleased parents who now had their children home every night. Sierra was the only public school in California that had a dormitory. Sherman Indian School in Southern California had dormitories but this school was run by the federal government.

A new large gymnasium was finished in 1952 and named for the popular basketball coach, superintendent, and teacher Merritt Gilbert who served the school from 1953 to 1984. Besides the gym, there was a locker room for Sierra boys, a visiting team locker room, and a foyer for selling food. The gym held just under 1400 people and when built was considered to be of innovative construction. Once the boys took over the new gym the girls used the old gym with the old boys locker room converted for their use.

In 1956 another major piece of construction was finished with the completion of the swimming pool complex between the two gyms. The pools consisted of a diving pool for both low and high dives, a 25 yard swimming pool, and a wading pool for young children. With the pools completion Sierra could compete with other schools in swimming and diving. Summer swim programs were started to teach the youth of the area proper swimming techniques and the pool was open for free swimming in the summer afternoons. The complex was redone in 2005 and named for the activities director and swim coach Larry Wait. Again, the high school became a center for local people to gather.

Because of Clifford Frantz long tenure at the high school he has been consulted by several people for information on the history of the school and a description of his duties. Mr. Frantz was responsible for constructing a class schedule for every student in the school. In 1958 when he was promoted to the position of principal, there were 400 students at Sierra and the scheduling of all of the students was a formidable task. Mr. Frantz was also responsible for working out the bus schedule. This was particularly onerous on Fridays when some students went home after school and others stayed for the game or took rooters' buses. Keeping an attendance record was another of Mr. Frantz's tasks. Some of the students had an hour and a half bus ride from their home to the school and these students had the highest absenteeism. The attendance policy, at least in the 1950s, had certain flexibility to it as it was possible to get permission to miss school in order to go deer hunting for a few days. There were problems opening school in the fall (September) because if the date corresponded with the opening of deer season many boys would miss school. They also missed school if they had jobs and were not ready to quit.

Mr. Frantz liked to deer hunt and was known for hunting deer on the campus before coming to work. When the dormitory was being used by students the district decided to have Mr. Frantz live close to them in case there were any emergencies or discipline problems. Thus, he lived on the southern edge of campus in a home built by the school district and at times would hunt deer on the campus. During the early years of the campus and up into the 1950s students were allowed to take hunting rifles (unloaded) on the bus. The student could then go home with a friend on Friday night and deer hunt on the weekend. Denny Denton who worked at the high school from 1966 until 1992 remembers that bus drivers also took deer rifles on the bus so that after students were dropped off in the afternoon the drivers could then do some serious hunting.

A new library was added to the campus in 1959 which allowed the campus to have a large selection of books for the students to use. Above the south end of the library a teachers' lounge was added where teachers could come during their free period and relax, correct tests, or prepare for their classes. Starting in 1967 more construction occurred on the campus giving Sierra a Presentation Center which has been used for student activities as well as those for the community. Other additions included a new biology room which was named after the coach and teacher Aron Rempel. A football stadium was built and named for Cliff Frantz who retired from the school in 1972. Also added were art, agriculture, home economics and business buildings.

It would seem that Sierra High School had everything going for it is a great location, competent teachers, diligent staff, an exceptionally well planned campus and an abundance of financial support. but things were to change. In 1975 a law was passed in Sacramento that strived to bring a financial balance to the support of various districts in the state. In short, the tax basis was changed so that there was an equal distribution of wealth between the state’s school districts. Sierra's tax base suffered a drastic decrease and Sierra was no longer among the wealthiest high schools in the state. It would survive, but the opulence that it once had diminished.

One of the perplexing problems with the Sierra High School District was the vast size that required some students to ride the bus for many hours. The students in and near Oakhurst did not have a nearby high school hence the community began planning for a school near them. The result was Yosemite High School which opened in 1976. The opening of the school caused the enrollment at Sierra to drop. This resulted in a decrease in funds from the state and a loss of faculty. At about the same time the Helms project on the upper Kings River brought in new students to the high school and somewhat buffered the loss of students to Yosemite. Students from Madera County who had come to Sierra eventually started going to Liberty High School. The O'Neals area also built a new high school: Minarets.

In the 1990s school districts in the foothill area started an annexation process. First, North Fork, Auberry and Sierra Elementary Schools annexed with the Chawanakee School District. This last district was small but it had a high state revenue source. Essentially all the schools moved up to the high revenue status. North Fork District eventually resigned from this enlarged district leaving behind Auberry and Sierra. For a while this large district became the Golden Hills School District. Sierra High School joined with Auberry and Sierra Elementary Schools in a district named the Sierra Unified School District. It was thought that a middle school would be better at providing the educational needs of grades 6 to 8 students so Foothill Middle School was constructed and was occupied in the fall of 1993.

In the year 2000 Sierra reached its highest enrollment of about 1200 students. But that enrollment has since declined and the financial situation has not improved. This decline in enrollment has resulted in the loss of a large amount of state funding. The reasons for the decreased enrollment seem to be caused by parents a number of factors including a change in demographics. There are an increasing number of senior citizens living in the area resulting in fewer school-age children. The poor economy has resulted in loss of jobs and homes as people move out of the area. Yet another blow to the financial soundness of the district has been the loss of Sierra Forest Reserve money which will disappear completely in four years. However, things may be looking up as the enrollment is expected to increase in the 2009 and 2010 school year. Sierra High School will survive and its best days may still be ahead.

Sierra High School is truly a unique high school with a rich heritage and ever-loyal alumni. Old traditions involving the operations of a dormitory, providing free lunches, and allowing rifles for deer hunting have been replaced with new ones. The classes of the 1960's instigated the tradition of painting the rock on Black Mountain behind the school with the number of the year of the graduating class. This tradition continues today along with the tradition of not walking on the tile mosaic Chieftain Head inlaid in the concrete near the administration offices. Many from this generation can remember the late game days when school would begin around 9:00 so that students could go directly to the home games after the day's classes were dismissed. It was about this time that the music teacher, Mr. Kostiw, wrote the alma mater that was sung after each home football and basketball game during the 70's and 80's. Larry Wait, the activities director, began the Homecoming parade tradition and started Sierra's very unique Chieftain Daze springtime events.

What is most unique and marvelous about Sierra High is the life-long school spirit that most of the students have. While in school they worked hard but yet felt that they were in an exceptional high school and this feeling did not end with graduation. Sierra High School is still considered a special place and one for which the students can be proud. Yes, the students went to school in Chieftain Country and feel honored to have done so.

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