“I watched my cousins, my sisters and brother graduate from Provincetown High School,” 17-year-old Katie Silva told Mary Ann Bragg of The Cape Cod Times in 2012. “And I wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity.” She was among the last, however. Two years earlier, the school committee voted, reluctantly but unanimously, to phase out the school after Katie’s class graduated. Peter Grosso, the committee chairman and father of two P.H.S. alumni, said: “I never thought I would see this day. But we’ve just been fighting the numbers. It’s just not going to work.”
The closing was no easy task. For generations, P.H.S. had graduated the sons and daughters of hardscrabble Provincetown with the implicit promise that their lives could be richer and more fulfilling than those of their parents. After the bleak circumstances of coastal Portugal or the Azores or Cape Verde, Provincetown High was a key to the American dream. Classical Revival in style, with a monumental distyle portico topped by a four-foot clock and Lamps of Knowledge, it was also a proud emblem of the year-round town, a place where children were raised to stay.
In 1930, the old high school, which stood virtually on this spot, was consumed by fire. The town acted with extraordinary alacrity to replace it. William Herbert McClean, the Boston architect who designed Provincetown High, specialized in school and library buildings. The contractor was Frank A. Days Jr. The new school was dedicated in September 1931. Its front hall was ornamented by Ross Moffett murals. In 1963-1964, a new gymnasium, vocational school, library, and classroom building opened on what had been part of the Grace Hall parking lot. The year of the school’s peak enrollment was 1967, when the senior class had 53 students.
But as property values and taxes soared, old families had little choice but to divide their homes into condos and sell off slices. Buyers weren’t putting down stakes here. The closing of the North Truro Air Force Station in 1994, growing restrictions on fishing, and the dearth of year-round employment were big factors, too, said Dr. Beth Singer, the superintendent of schools. Rising costs and declining enrollment created a self-fulfilling spiral, making it tougher to attract those few students who lived within easy distance. Taxpayers questioned the wisdom of subsidizing secondary education on such a scale.
The plan developed in the early 2000s called for Cape end students to attend Nauset Regional High School in Eastham. The saving grace was that P.H.S., now called the Elmer I. Silva Learning Center in honor of a much-respected principal, would neither be razed nor turned into condos. Instead, the kindergarten through sixth grade classes were moved here from Veterans Memorial to join the seventh and eighth grades, which were already here. The elementary school is “thriving,” Shannon Patrick, a parent and school committee member, told me in 2014.
The Class of 2013 was composed of (back row, from left) Mairead Hadley, Lydia Legnine, Katie Silva, and Bezie Legnine; (front row) Arianna Martinez, Salena Smith, Catie Adams, and Molly Nelson. As their final assignment, they studied the influence of P.H.S. on town life, culminating in an exhibition and commemorative mural. Rather than turn their backs on history, the last graduates embraced it, even as they joined the history books themselves.