By Robert L. Harrison
Today there are eight comprehensive and four continuing or alternative public high schools in Marin County. Prior to 1888 Marin students were forced to leave the county or seek a private school to complete their secondary education. In that year San Rafael High School was the first public school to offer a secondary level of education in Marin County. The school opened in one room of the existing B Street School. It wasn’t until 1899 that a separate high school building was constructed on E Street.
A much larger San Rafael High was built in 1924 on the current school campus between Third and Mission at Union Street. The new San Rafael High School included 25 class rooms and an auditorium with 1,500 seats. It cost $219,644 to build or about $3.3 million in 2020 dollars. Upgrades to the school were made in 2002.
A $160 million building program is currently underway at San Rafael High School. Plans include a 40,000 square-foot administrative and student services building and a large Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics Career Technical Education (CTE) building. Air conditioning will be installed in the classrooms of five campus buildings and facilities will be expanded for physical education and for the stadium.
Tamalpais (Tam) High School in Mill Valley became the second high school to open in Marin. Prior to its 1908 opening all students wishing to attend a public high school in Marin would have to travel to San Rafael. The first class at Tam was 70 students including four seniors who had made the trek north for their high school education.
The original Tam High school was built with a canvas roof which allowed rain and wind to penetrate the classrooms. A permanent building with its signature tower was completed in 1912. A new wing was added to the main building in 1924, the library opened in 1928 and a theater was built in 1936 under the WPA program. In 1946 clocks were added to the 1912 tower.
When Tam first opened the curriculum offered what was essentially an apprentice program in several building trades including carpentry. An example of the student work can be seen at the Tiburon Railroad Station House Museum. A well-crafted and handsome desk made in the Tam High shop by Thomas Bent, the son of Tiburon Station Master William Bent, is on display in the Bent family living room exhibit.
In a May 21, 2008 article Beth Ashley, long-time Independent Journal reporter, remembered her time at Tam during WW II: “My Tam was a happy place; I loved the teachers, long gone, and many of my classmates, now as gray-haired as I….I still smile, remembering the linoleum floors of the high-ceilinged halls and the shrub-lined paths that made the place feel like home.”
In 1912 a west Marin high school opened in Tomales. Tomales High School was the third public high school in Marin County. Originally a two-classroom building located on a hill in downtown Tomales, it grew quickly and was expanded to ten classrooms in the 1920s. In 1969 a new $1.1 million ($8 million in 2020 dollars) school building was opened east of town on the Tomales-Petaluma Road. It would be 40 years before the fourth public high school was built in Marin.
In the early 20th century Marin high school students attended one of three public high schools: San Rafael; Tamalpais or Tomales. Each school was served by the Northwestern Pacific (NWP) Railroad. The NWP transported Tam High students from 1908 until 1940. On school days an electric powered train brought several hundred students from Sausalito, Fairfax, San Anselmo, Larkspur and Corte Madera to a station built right in front of Tam High. A few students rode on a steam-powered milk train from Point Reyes Station to Fairfax where they transferred to the electric train to continue their journey to Tam Station.
Before 1957 the NWP steam trains also served Novato students who commuted to San Rafael High School. In the 1930s school buses augmented the railroad. For many years Novato students represented about 25% of San Rafael High’s enrollment. About 55 Novatans attended classes in 1925. This number grew over the years such that by 1958 the senior class alone included 67 students from Novato out of 287 graduates that year. With the opening of Novato High School in 1957, the San Rafael High class of 1958 was the last to include students from Novato.
In the early years of the 20th century San Rafael High School served not only Novato but also enrolled students from the Ross Valley and southern Marin. To resolve crowded conditions in 1907 the San Rafael High School Board sent an inquiry to school districts from Fairfax to Tiburon looking for interest in a union high school district. According to the Mill Valley Record of November 1, 1907, “This move is the result of the present congested condition of the San Rafael High School, and the lack of funds in the San Rafael district to make the needed additions and improvements.”
The response to this early inquiry was lukewarm but discussions continued into the 1920s. A 1919 survey of Marin County leaders resulted in an 80% positive response in support of the union high school plan. An election was held on September 3, 1921 to determine where students from the Ross Valley would attend high school. By nearly nine to one, 581 to 65, voters in towns from Larkspur to Fairfax preferred the Tamalpais Union District over San Rafael. The positive experience with the NWP rail connection from the valley to Tamalpais High may have been a factor in the remarkable outcome of the election. In any event, San Rafael chose to build the new high school that opened in 1924 while students in Ross Valley towns as far away as Fairfax traveled to Tam High School in Mill Valley.
As the north end of the Tamalpais District grew, so did the need for additional high school capacity in the Ross Valley. Opening in 1951, Sir Francis Drake High School became the fourth comprehensive high school in Marin. Until 1958 Drake High served all of the lower and upper Ross Valley towns from Corte Madera to Fairfax as well as the San Geronimo and Nicasio Valleys. In the summer of 2020 Drake High was temporarily renamed “High School 1327.”
Marin’s rapidly growing family population after World War II, meant new high schools were needed. In 1957 Novato High School was the fifth high school in Marin County. Just one year after Novato High opened, Redwood High School, the sixth high school in Marin and third in the Tamalpais District, opened in the lower Ross Valley. Redwood High served areas previously assigned to Tam or Drake Highs including students from Tiburon, Belvedere, Corte Madera, Larkspur, Kentfield and Ross.
Further growth of Marin led to additional high schools at Terra Linda in northern San Rafael in 1960 and San Marin High in western Novato in 1968. These schools represent the County’s seventh and eighth comprehensive high schools. In 132 years Marin County public high school enrollment grew from 11 students at San Rafael’s B Street School in 1888 to nearly 11,000 students in eight comprehensive and four continuing high schools today.
This article was originally posted to the Anne T. Kent California Room Community Newsletter, opens a new window.