Commonwealth was founded in 1957 by Charles E. Merrill, Jr., who served as headmaster until 1981 and remains on the Board of Trustees. He chose to locate the School in Boston's Back Bay because, as he put it, “one goal of Commonwealth is to restore good secondary schooling to the city,” recognizing that Boston would be a “stimulating and realistic” setting for education.
In the fall of 1958, Mr. Merrill welcomed the School's first students: 8th graders, as the school at first began a grade earlier that it does today.
"There stood the awesome Mr. Merrill, impresario of the new endeavor to create common wealth among the youth of Boston. His hand reached out to each student in a vigorous pump." —Daniel Taylor '63
The School has developed a remarkable culture, at once intense and supportive. Teachers' office doors are always open, every voice counts in discussion-based classes, and students take pride in the School's energy, humor, and cohesion because so much of it is their own.
Besides instilling discipline and independence of mind, Mr. Merrill hoped to encourage Commonwealth students to be “decent, socially responsible, generous people,” actively engaged in public affairs. Commonwealth graduates frequently choose careers that enable them to make a difference in the world: they practice medicine abroad and at home; teach in public schools, prep schools, community colleges, and major universities; work as lawyers, neighborhood organizers, computer consultants, and business leaders; and pursue careers in the arts, television and film, and politics.
As he neared retirement, Mr. Merrill published The Walled Garden, a combined autobiography and history of the School. While the close-knit community, and deep concentration on matters intellectual and creative buttress the title's metaphor, Merrill built many gates in this walled garden. A course in the city of Boston, school trips to Maine and overseas, annual independent projects, and even the daily commute, bring each student in contact with the world outside the School.
Nearly every Thursday at noon, the entire school gathers for Assembly, where the speaker is usually a prominent author, scientist, or artist.
In the early years of the School, Mr. Merrill began Commonwealth's most durable and beloved tradition. Twice a year, every student and faculty member traveled to the Merrill farm near Hancock, NH. On buses and in cars, they brought everything they would need: food, pots and pans, sports equipment, sleeping bags. Students, with teachers' help, planned, cooked, and cleaned up for every meal. Movies, a talent show, or a dance were evening entertainment, and at night students—and their faculty chaperones—slept on piles of hay in the farm's two barns.
By the late 1990s, the aging Merrill farm could no longer support these Hancock weekends. After a long search, "Hancock" moved to Camp Winona in Maine. Many of the old ways remain, including the close cooperation among students and faculty.