In the fall of 1877, Eliza Bailey Masters founded what is now The Masters School. The oldest daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Miss Masters was determined that her school would not be the typical “finishing school.” Although her earliest students did not traditionally go on to college, they studied a liberal arts curriculum that included Latin, mathematics, and astronomy.
Miss Masters instilled in her “girls” the need to live useful, orderly lives based on truthfulness, integrity, and responsibility. She took the school motto from a verse in the Bible: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” To her students she often said, “Don’t just try; do it!” And for the school color she chose purple, signifying royalty and spirituality.
Taking her motto to heart, Miss Masters’s students started many clubs and groups, many of which still exist today. In 1878 the Missionary Society, which performed community service, became an integral part of school life. It is now known as MISH (which stands for Masters Interested in Service and Helping). The first play, Norma, was performed in 1887, and in 1905 the drama club took as its official name, Phoenix. In 1892, the Glee Club was created for students who were vocally-inclined. The Athletic Association, now known as DAA, began in 1901.
From the early days, students attended The Masters School from across the country and throughout the world. Therefore, it was not surprising that in the early twentieth century alumnae/i banded together in their home cities to renew old school ties and do charitable work. The Dobbs Alumnae/i Association was founded in 1912. Today there are almost 5,000 members, many of whom volunteer with school activities, fundraising, and reunions. Our alumnae/i come from 52 countries and 49 states.
In 1915, the School was incorporated as a nonprofit institution with a board of trustees. But in a 1919 letter, Miss Masters told the alumnae, “You own the School.” Inspired by her generous gesture, they raised the money for the new school building, completed in 1921 shortly before Miss Masters’s death, and named it Masters Hall in her honor.
After the death of Eliza Bailey Masters her younger sister, Sallie, remained as co-principal with Mary C. Strong. Miss Sallie retired in 1924 but lived across the street from the School and served as a trustee until her death in 1942. Miss Strong continued to run the School in the tradition of the Masters sisters.
By this time, college preparation, first mentioned in the school catalog in the early 1900s, had become the dominating factor in the academic curriculum. This changing focus of coursework and preparation for college was to serve as the backdrop to how The Masters School’s future would unfold. By the time the School celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1927, it had two hundred boarding students, most of whom were preparing for college.
The next fifty years saw seven headmasters; the building of the Hill Houses (Strong, Thompson, and Cushing dorms); the creation of a faculty pension fund; the pay-off of the School’s original mortgage; the building of Strayer Hall and the A. Cameron Mann Dining Hall; the growth of the library from 400 volumes to 15,000; the strengthening of the School’s record of college acceptances; the development of advanced placement courses; the first woman to chair the Board of Trustees; and a devastating fire in Masters Hall.
The School once again celebrated a milestone when, in 1977, it reached its 100th anniversary. During the next twenty years The Masters School flourished under a series of inspirational leaders who concluded that change was the only way to ensure the future of this grand school.
In July 1990, The Masters School welcomed its first woman head of school in thirty-two years. Pamela Jones Clarke (1990-2000) began her tenure with a firm commitment to girls’ education and to high academic standards. By 1994, however, it became evident that bold initiatives were needed to increase enrollment and continue the School’s tradition of excellence. After a year of study, the Board of Trustees voted to make the Upper School coeducational, to create a boys’ Middle School that would parallel the existing girls’ Middle School, and to use the Harkness method of teaching in the Upper School, beginning in the fall of 1996. A one-semester, experience-based urban studies program called CITYterm was launched on campus, also in the fall of 1996.
In July 2000, Maureen Fonseca became the head of school. Guided by an ambitious strategic plan, The Masters School has experienced measured growth and dramatic successes. The School’s enrollment now stands at 588 talented and diverse students. The campus has expanded to include Morris Hall, a state-of-the-art science and technology center, a separate middle school building, eighteen new faculty apartments, a digital language laboratory, and the academic areas of Masters Hall have been completely refurbished. In addition, endowment has increased to $27 million as a result of the successful completion of The Masters Advantage—The Campaign for The Masters School. In 2011, the School added a new turf field and track.
The School is now developing a new strategic plan to build on current strengths. Included are initiatives in the arts, athletics and wellness, global affairs, Middle School, boarding, CITYterm, enrollment, curriculum, faculty development, and facilities. Fundraising is now underway for a Community Athletics & Arts Center that will serve as the hub of the campus.