The close of Parker High in 2003 ended an era that remains a source of pride for many Greenville County residents.
When shifting populations left too few students for the sprawling (147,676-square-foot) old building near Monaghan Mill, the end came for a school that once earned national attention as an education model.
In 1922 Greenville had one high school. Greenville High served students living within the city's boundaries; all others had to pay $5 a month in tuition. Because of their meager wages, more than 25,000 mill village residents, who lived in the “textile crescent” surrounding the western edge of the city, education was a problem for many residents.
Most “mill hill” children had, at best, 21 weeks of schooling for six years. Some textile executives, including former Monaghan president Thomas Parker and Union Bleachery president Richard Arrington, believed in education; others agreed that an educated workforce would improve mills and provide an unrivaled way to retain workers in a highly competitive industry.
In 1922 mill executives petitioned the state legislature to create the Parker School District (named not for Thomas Parker, as many think, but for his cousin and former partner, Lewis, who had died in 1916). It ran from Duncan Chapel to Mills Mill and had $9 million dollars in taxable property, making it the richest school district in the state.
In 1923 the legislature agreed, and the district's new trustees immediately appointed Lawrence Peter Hollis, director of social welfare for Victor-Monaghan Mills, a man with little experience in education, as its superintendent.
Parker began classes before its high school building was erected. The Class of 1924 met in the old City View School while construction of their $150,000 school was underway. By September 1924, the roof was finished, four 12-ton limestone columns for the front entrance had been hoisted into place, and 500 students were enrolled, 200 of them in the seventh grade.
On Nov. 25, 1924, hundreds of visitors attended the school's formal opening, toured the building and admired the 17 classrooms, spacious laboratories for physics, chemistry, domestic science, agriculture and textiles, and the cafeteria and study hall. They applauded demonstrations of mechanical drawing, landscape gardening, textile carding and literary society meetings.
They met Principal M.E. Smith, 23 teachers, the music and athletic directors, and Parker District's full-time dentist. Teachers' annual salaries averaged $848.86.
In the years that followed, the high school became a model of vocational education because Hollis believed in learning by doing. He thought that the school should fit the student, not the student fit the school. Even before the building was constructed, he had invited Columbia University educational philosopher John Dewey to speak to teachers about “progressive education.”
And progressive it was. As a result of Hollis' commitment to hands-on education, Parker held the state's first science fair. The school newspaper, published weekly in the Greenville Piedmont, was written and edited by Journalistic Club members. Its debate club won state and regional honors. The Parker orchestra, chorus and glee club performed regularly. Student government, complete with a constitution and student court, began in 1931. Among its presidents were Louise Wykes, Frank Eppes, Rex Carter and Mike Fair.
Although Parker had been conceived as a school emphasizing vocational training, including cosmetology, secretarial science and auto mechanics, it had standard college preparatory classes as well. Teachers marveled at the enrollments in French and Latin and were delighted when nearly 50 percent of graduates in the 1920s went on to college.
Athletic fields were immediately cleared, and Parker teams began a 60-year tradition as fierce competitors. That first year the football team won three and lost four games, while the basketball team went 16-4. It took 15 years before Parker defeated the Red Raiders of Greenville High in the traditional Thanksgiving football game, but in 1940, Coach Jim Nisbet finally led the purple and gold to victory.
Basketball teams reached their zenith between 1944 and 1949, posting a perfect season in 1945 and out-scoring opponents 1,050 to 398. The Parker five won one game 89-8.
But it was not clubs, sports or college prep classes that drew visitors from all over the world. The “Mill Village Miracle,” as the Readers' Digest termed Parker in 1941, had become the center of the community, the heart of the Westside and a national model of engaged learning. In 1949, Look Magazine named Pete Hollis one of America's 100 finest educators, the only person in the Southeast who made the list.
After school consolidation in 1951, Hollis became superintendent emeritus. The only changes at the school were new additions. Expansion was necessary. By 1948, Parker enrolled 1,600 students and was the largest high school in the state.
By 1976, the physical plant at Parker rivaled many college campuses. The main building had been enlarged with front and side wings; the old entrance columns had been moved to a new cafeteria and library. It also boasted a separate gymnasium, field house, second classroom building, vocational center and a large auditorium.
But its student enrollment fell as mills suffered from off-shore competition and began to lay off workers. As conditions worsened in the early '80s, more families moved away. In 1985, the school district converted Parker High School into a middle school. In 1993 it was saved from closing – temporarily -- only by community protest. It closed in 2003.