This year marks the 60th anniversary of Canoas Elementary School in San Jose, which opened on September 11, 1961. Like many of the elementary schools that opened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Canoas was carved from an old orchard. The property was purchased by the county for the San Jose Unified School District from the Lester family in March of 1958. The K-6 elementary school's construction was completed by the fall of 1961.
The school was built between the Meadowbrook neighborhood (now known as Willow Creek) and the Valley View Packing prune orchard. This area is often referred to as "Birdland" at the base of the "Church Hill" at Almaden Expressway and Ironwood Drive. The Meadowbrook tract had begun construction in 1956, and children from the tract were initially bused to Almaden Elementary, and then Valley View Elementary (now Hacienda) prior to the opening of Canoas. The Lester family was told that the school would be named Lester Elementary, however it was eventually named Canoas (a nearby creek) at the urging of SJUSD superintendent Earle P. Crandall.
The Old Orchard
The property that the school sits on was first settled by Thomas and Margaret Kell in 1847. Their house stood near the corner of Almaden Road and Curtner Avenue and remained until it was demolished in the late 1960s for the construction of the Willow Glen Plaza Shopping Center. The Kell property ran along the east side of the Guadalupe River from about Willow Glen Way down to about Koch Lane, then east to include part of the San Juan Bautista Hills (where the Church on the Hill is located). The property was within the original district of Willow Glen as illustrated in the Historical Atlas of Santa Clara County by Thompson & West in 1876.
In time, parts of the Kell property were inherited by various family members, while other parts were sold off. The land where the school sits eventually went to Thomas Kell's son John, and then to John's sister Ann (Columbet). In the late 1800s, the Columbet's established a prune orchard on the large parcel of 90 acres. In 1916, the orchard was sold to the Von Dorsten family who owned properties on Foxworthy Road. In 1941, the property was inherited by brother and sister Forrest and June (Lester) Von Dorsten. Forrest and June divided the parcel into 45 acres each. Forrest sold his property to Garrison Construction for the development of the Meadowbrook tract in 1955. June sold a portion of her property in 1958 for the construction of the school, and then the remainder of the property was sold in the late 1960s for the development of the Almaden Estates tract.
When my family moved in November of 1965, I transferred from Broadway Elementary in downtown Willow Glen to Canoas Elementary. Some of my earliest memories are of playing Batman on the playground with our jackets over our backs and buttoned at the neck to resemble capes.
The school's proximity to the hills, creeks, and orchards was a constant source of entertainment and adventure. One of the baseball field backstops was next to the Valley View orchard, and we often climbed the short cyclone fence to retrieve foul balls. The orchard belonged to the Rubino family who had a ranch next to the orchard. Diane Rubino recalled that one day two of their buffalo broke loose and made their way through the orchard and onto the school grounds! We regularly had bats over the field in the early evening, and on a couple of occasions, our principal Mr. Grant had to remove tarantulas before a fascinated audience.
Many of us kids belonged to Cub Scouts or Brownies, and we'd proudly wear our uniforms to school on meeting days. Our Cub Scout Pack 226 met regularly in the school's cafetorium (combination cafeteria/auditorium). Walking out onto the school grounds now brings back so many memories; the havoc we caused with substitute teachers, the fights, the annual year-end picnics with cake walks and races.... church league baseball and Miss Mary's summer recreation programs.
There was one particularly memorable playground moment. One day I was playing as usual during recess when a girl named Deanna came up to me and whispered in my ear, "Cydney wants me to tell you that she loves you." I was a bit startled and looked across the playground and saw Cydney shyly looking at me. She was a tall, attractive girl that I had known for some years, and she'd even come over to my house with Deanna a couple of times. I definitely liked her, though it hadn't occurred to me that she saw anything special in me. With a warm heart I replied, "Tell Cydney that I love her too." I watched as Deanna ran back to Cydney and whispered in her ear, and then we just stood there smiling at each other.
Top row from left are: Mrs. Nancy Fitzgerald, Mr. Eldon Bogh, Mrs. Bonnie Goff, and Miss Jacquelyn Garland.
Bottom row from left are: Mrs. Charlotte Musser (Prin.), Mrs. Bennie Keith, Mr. Larry Campbell, and Miss Johnson. Missing: Mrs. Marie Peterson. Mrs. Claire Lewis was the office secretary, and Mr. Collins and Mr. Taix were music teachers.
Canoas Elementary closed on July 1, 1982 with Principal Nancy Guarascio citing falling enrollment as the cause. In 1983, the school district leased the property to the San Jose Repertory Company, and then by 1985 to Lollipop Ranch daycare and Community Companions. After standing vacant for about two years, the property was then leased to Challenger School from September 1989 through 2000.
With the addition of two-story classrooms in the old parking lot and a remodeled office, Canoas Elementary reopened on August 30, 2000 under Principal Carol Garcia. The school is currently kindergarten through 5th grade with a pre-school and after school program. The buildings that were originally black with white and blue trim were repainted a warm yellow with green and red trim. The school mascot has also changed from the Cougars to the Eagles. Yet despite the noticeable changes, the school would be readily familiar to any former student returning half a century later.
Except for the color change, the 1-6 grade classrooms with the open blacktop appear much the way they did back in the 1960s. I've labeled the classrooms along the front with their original room numbers in red, and the classrooms along the back in orange. The kindergarten rooms were attached to the cafetorium, I believe there were two labeled K-1 and K-2.
My first grade class with Miss Pence was in the back in room A-4. The short cyclone fence that ran between the school and Valley View prune orchard was less than 50 feet away from the classrooms. Second grade was in room B-1 with Mrs. Miller. Third grade was in room A-1 with Mrs. Keith who would read to us after lunch. Fourth grade was in room A-2 with Mrs. Calcagno who would tell us stories from her childhood. Room B-2 was my classroom for both fifth and sixth grade with Mr. Bogh. During the time that I attended, room A-3 was Mrs. Peterson's first and second grade classroom, room B-4 served as the library, and B-3 was Mr. Campbell's room for students with special needs.
The playground in front of the classrooms hasn't changed too much. The blacktop was painted with lines for hopscotch, four square, dodge ball, standing broad jump, and the 50 yard dash. There was also a volleyball court with two poles that was never used. The basketball courts and tetherball poles have been moved. I remember sitting in class listening to the tetherball chains clanking against their poles as if they were calling us to come out and play. One thing that never seems to change is the sound of children on the playground, renewed each year like the blossoms on the old orchard trees.
Further Reading in the California Room
- Looking Back: An Elementary School Reading List from 1967 by Ralph Pearce
- California Room Index: San Jose Unified School District
- California Room Index: School
- San Jose Public Library Catalog: San Jose Schools