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Grossmont’s Rib: How Helix High School Opened in Rival’s House

Sixty years ago, a school first dubbed La Mesa High School made its debut, igniting eventual crosstown rivalry.

On Sept. 11, 1951, students arrived for the first official day of Helix High School. After four years of creative planning, financing and bureaucratic challenges—including a fight to keep the school from being named La Mesa High School—the student body gathered for Welcome Week.

For incoming ninth-graders, things were friendly. That’s because the district had outlawed the tradition of initiation and hazing known as Freshmen Slave Week.

But for sophomores, juniors and seniors arriving on campus around 1 p.m. that day, it was a very familiar setting.

Why?

Because the initial school year of Helix High was held on the campus of Grossmont High School.

“Blasphemy!” say you Scotties?  It can’t be!  Alas, it is true.

La Mesa High School Origins

The Grossmont Union High School District’s origins go back to the original El Cajon Valley High School near Bostonia that opened in 1893. The few graduates of the 1895 built Allison School here in the small but growing La Mesa Springs found that if attending high school, it was easier to commute on the train to San Diego High downtown—and nearly all went there if so honored with a secondary education.

Although La Mesa Springs’ attempt to establish a polytechnic high school in 1910 failed, after the city incorporated in 1912, the community’s option to send its students into San Diego High was soon blocked since they were not paying taxes into that district.

When Lakeside broke away in 1915 from old El Cajon Valley to form Riverview High, it still left the growing La Mesa caught in the middle—and the small rural high schools of El Cajon Valley and Riverview were unable to meet the secondary education needs of its western neighbors.

Representatives from local elementary districts came together in 1920 to create the Grossmont Union High School District—closing both El Cajon Valley and Riverview Highs.  In September 1922, the new Grossmont High School building opened, with stone from (and on land donated by) Ed Fletcher. 

Grossmont High served the communities of La Mesa Heights, Rolando, La Mesa and Lemon Grove on the west to Santee and Lakeside on the north, El Cajon out to Alpine to the east and south to Jamacha, Jamul and Spring Valley.

But after the area’s rapid population doubling during World War II, Grossmont district administrators and trustees realized that the old campus could not support such exponential growth.

Postwar Expansion Challenges: No Middle Schoolers, Please

Both the GUHSD and the La Mesa-Spring Valley grammar school district had recognized the postwar crowding issues and commissioned studies to guide their planning.  

One of their challenges was how to deal with the growing educational trend to break from the grammar (K-8) and high school system and create junior high or intermediate/middle schools.

In October 1947, GUHSD consultants Kistner, Curtis and Wright (Theodore Kistner having been Riverview and Grossmont High’s architect) reported to the board that at least two high schools and three to four junior highs were required to meet the coming demand—a school population expected to double in eight years.

Citing studies showing that it was far more expensive for the high school district to run the junior highs, the GUHSD board decided in December 1947 to leave the “intermediate schools” to the elementary districts. 

Interestingly, new LMSVSD Superintendent Glenn Murdock and his board would have happily transferred the middle schoolers to the high school district (not for the reasons middle school teachers may understand best but), especially after recognizing that costs of building a junior high was double that of an elementary school.  And LMSVSD was going to need many new elementary schools during this same period.

Although LMSVSD trustees had recommended that the high schools take the middle schools, they were officially the elementary district’s responsibility.  As such, Murdock later led LMSVSD in the development of La Mesa (1952), Spring Valley (1954) Parkway (1961) and La Presa (1963) middle schools.

Finding the Site, Fighting a Split and Financing the School

With the focus on getting two new high schools, the GUHSD board approved the search for two new sites in June 1947. 

In October, the board moved quickly to buy a 40-acre site south of University Avenue adjacent to Murray Hill for $350 an acre—an incredibly low price for the land, even in 1947. 

Interestingly, the site had been offered as one of various possibilities for the new San Diego State College site back in 1927-28 during a search that would result in the choice of Montezuma Mesa.  In fact, a local developer had created the University Park subdivision on the north side of University Avenue, naming the streets for various colleges and universities in hopes of enticing SDSC to the Murray Hill site (around 1951 the tract would be enlarged and renamed Academy Heights).

Although the surrounding street names were educationally inspiring to GUHSD leaders, the bigger challenge was how to finance the school.  Initial estimates for the new “La Mesa campus high school” were well over $1 million. 

However GUHSD had only about $600,000 in bonding capacity due to constantly adding new buildings to the original Grossmont campus over the previous decade.  To cover the costs, the board was forced to consider additional bond acts and would have to seek state and federal education funds to meet their demand.

So the board ordered Grossmont principal and soon-to-be Superintendent Lewis Smith and district business manager Harold Hughes to complete a plan for developing and financing two new high schools to meet the expected short-term growth from 2,500 to 5,000 high school students. 

In February 1948, the district unveiled the plan for a new $1.5 million La Mesa high school for 1,500 students as well as a similar size $1.5 million high school for the El Cajon-Bostonia area (later to be El Cajon Valley High).

Recognizing that both the GUHSD and the LMSVSD would need to obtain new bond funds and tax revenues for their massive expansion plans (LMSVSD expected six new elementary schools during those same eight years), in the spring-summer of 1948, the LMSV and Lemon Grove School Districts started a movement to split the new La Mesa high school off from GUHSD and create a “Unified Elementary-Secondary” district.

After a similar proposal from the El Cajon elementary district, led by   Superintendent John Montgomery, the embattled GUHSD board fought back. 

In September 1948, at the state’s Regional School Commission, the GUHSD argued against the splitting of the district into smaller unified elementary/secondary districts.

Citing the same financial concerns that plagued the smaller districts and resulted in the creation of the GUHSD in 1920, the trustees were able to persuade both the state commission and the San Diego County Local School Survey Committee to delay the formal studies for district unification for at least a year. Although the unification concept would be resurrected again, it lost support and eventually was dropped.

This allowed GUHSD to start the campaign for planning the new site and developing the necessary bond and financing campaigns.  In April 1949, the La Mesa Planning Commission approved the proposed plans for the new school site.  With this approval, the GUHSD board finalized a $1.4 million bond act for the November 1949 election.

In the meantime, Grossmont High was filling up and closing in on 3,000 students.  Under threats of double sessions, the district’s financing campaign was well-received. 

On Nov. 8, 1949, locals voted 6,979 to 659 to approve the La Mesa high school bond (a $204,000 LMSVSD bond also passed that day).  On the same date, the district held its own internal election to approve the borrowing of an additional $950,000 from the state of California. 

The board’s planning assumed that with the financing of the La Mesa campus underway, that construction would be done in two years and the work could then begin on the El Cajon campus.  Unfortunately, those plans did not materialize.

Challenges and Delays “Fall from the Sky”

The trustees immediately hired Kistner, Curtis and Wright to complete plans and specifications for the new La Mesa high school. 

In the meantime, the board also recommended that the two new schools be named La Mesa High School” and El Cajon High School. But  residents of Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and Rolando protested against the geographic moniker for the La Mesa campus. 

In an effort to gather public input on the name, a newspaper poll ballot was prepared for January 1950 publication in local papers.

In February, the district awarded the public works contract to Einer and Company of Escondido. 

On April 12, 1950, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site.  Dignitaries included GUHSD Board President C.H. Foster, La Mesa Mayor Enoch Anderson, the La Mesa and Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce presidents, county school representatives, GUSHD Superintendent Smith, business manager Hughes, Director of Counseling Benton Hart and four GHS sophomores who were expected to be in the first La Mesa graduating class of 1952: Jack Campbell, Stanley Hawks, Julie Anaya and Phyllis Straka (all in fact would later graduate in the Helix Class of ‘52).

Construction started right away on the estimated $2.5 million campus. The tight schedule provided for a completion date that would allow for the planned opening in September 1951. 

Unfortunately, a month later the first omen of troubles landed—literally—when a small plane crashed onto the construction site on May 11, 1950.  Luckily the pilot and his two passengers were not seriously hurt and construction was delayed but a few days, but two months later another more significant delay fell upon the project.

In July 1950, although the state of California’s budget had passed, the Department of Finance withheld authorization for the Board of Allocation to sell and disperse the school bonds that were funding hundreds of school projects statewide—including half of the La Mesa high school project budget.

District business manager Hughes called the state’s bureaucratic action “The most disastrous blow since the state’s bond program started.” 

So the district had no choice but to suspend construction work.  

In addition, the state required GUHSD to hold a new vote to re-authorize additional bonds to cover the added costs requested by the district to cover those associated with the state’s own delays.

On Nov. 2, 1950, the state finally cleared its bureaucratic hold and dispersed the remaining $1.3 million for completion of the La Mesa high school. Three weeks later, the locals voted 6,192 to 289 for the re-authorization to allow for all the active GUHSD projects, including the new La Mesa project, a new cafeteria and other improvements at Grossmont and a new agricultural building at the El Cajon site to move forward again.

Doubling Up at Grossmont High School

The four-month delay in construction completely threw off the initial schedule for the La Mesa high school.  And with the U.S. entry into the Korean Conflict in June 1950, shortages in construction materials, especially steel, would add extra delays into 1952.

By December 1950, it was clear to district staff that they would need to find a way to accommodate “two separate high schools on the Grossmont campus” come the fall of 1951. 

The plan, put together by Superintendent Smith and new La Mesa principal Benton Hart, called for a split of the expected 3,200 students: 1,800 for Grossmont and 1,400 for La Mesa. 

The school day would be split into double sessions with the Grossmont students attending classes from 7:50 a.m to 1:15 p.m. and La Mesa students from 1:20 to 6 p.m.   Extra-curriculars for the two schools such as sports, clubs and bands also would be separate and flip schedules with La Mesa sports team practices in the mornings.

The two adminstrations and staffs were to function independently although sharing the same campus. 

In August 1951, it was announced that that there was no chance to complete the new school plant prior to the start of the 1952/53 school year, and the district released expanded bus schedules and revealed the new faculty for the opening of—Helix High School.

The End of “La Mesa” High

The naming issue for the La Mesa high school had not been settled back in January 1950 as administrators and the board had hoped.

By June 1950, the board had taken public input on a new name but had again fallen back to the safer but still relatively unpopular “La Mesa High School.”  During the fall of 1950, however, the decision to find a more regionally identifiable name was undertaken. 

In January, the GUHSD board reconsidered the name issue.  After consideration of several submitted names and requests from various civic groups, the board agreed unanimously to name the school Helix High.

Trustee Charles Irwin commented to the La Mesa Scout that the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce had suggested the name that addressed finding a more general name that all enrollment areas—especially those outside the La Mesa city limits such as Spring Valley, Lemon Grove and Rolando—could accept.

The district and its new administration then worked in the spring and summer of 1951 to set up their new institution. 

A student Organizational Committee was established that created a temporary constitution, choose the school colors and the nickname of Highlanders.  This group later morphed into the Helix ASB.

Thus when Helix did open in September 1951, the school boasted its own student government, band, cheerleaders, football team and eventually 26 clubs.  From “Welcome Week” on, Helix traditions were established nearly daily—all on the Grossmont campus. 

In October, taking motivation from the Highlander nickname, bagpiping students John Floyd and Gordon Boyce along with a few other piper friends started arguably the most visible—and audible—of Highlander traditions—the Helix Bagpipe Band.

So yes, Scotties, even the bagpipes date back to Grossmont origins.

First Highlanders Show Their Class

But for all the assumed animosity, to the credit of the initial Highlanders, their class showed through in their dedication of the first Tartan annual:

Another measure of gratitude must be extended to Grossmont Union High School and its faculty and students, for they have unselfishly made many sacrifices to enable us to work and play in the “grand old school” until Helix is ready for occupancy.

Therefore, to our community with a heart and to Grossmont Union High School, we of the first annual staff of Helix dedicate THE TARTAN of 1952.

Of course, the spirit of friendship and gratitude was suspended on Friday night Nov. 2, 1951, the first time the Foothillers and Highlanders battled for the old musket. But that’s a story for another time.

F. Dunn August 29, 2011 at 02:32 AM
What an interesting article! Imagine how different the community would be if SDSU was there instead of Helix. I hope you'll keep writing history stories.
Ken Stone August 29, 2011 at 06:51 AM
Hi, F. Jim has a rich archive of history columns online. This is his 33rd for La Mesa Patch. See the others here: http://lamesa.patch.com/columns/la-mesa-history-gems
Patricia O'Reilly August 30, 2011 at 01:54 AM
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the history behind Helix High School I entered as a freshman in the fall of 1953 and graduated in 1957 as a member of the first graduating class to have gone through all four years at the new school. It was a grand time for the Scotties; championships in several sports and a winning spot at the then annual Maytime Band Review. The rivalry with Grossmont UHS was alive and well and Helix took the musket my senior year. Thanks for filling in some of the blank spots.

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