A Brief History of Commonwealth School

When Charles E. Merrill, Jr., founded Commonwealth in 1957, he envisioned a school unlike any other, an institution that would offer an academically engaging and rigorous education that would challenge students to produce work of true distinction—and would create opportunity for students from communities that had been ignored. Having seen first-hand the devastation and brutality of the Second World War, Charles sought to educate students who would preserve and strengthen civilized, humane values. Today these values remain core to a Commonwealth education.

Mr. Merrill 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. He purchased two adjoining brownstones on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street, which had previously housed the Katherine Gibbs School, and set to renovating and furnishing them. In the fall of 1958, Mr. Merrill welcomed the school's first students.

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.

1957 Charles Merrill founds Commonwealth School.

1958 Our first students—thirty-nine of them—matriculate as eighth graders.

1964 Jonathan Kozol, a young Harvard grad who had just been fired from the Boston Public Schools for teaching a Langston Hughes poem, is hired to establish a summer enrichment program for underserved students in Boston called the Urban School, to be hosted at Commonwealth.

1968 Charles Chatfield, teacher and eventual Headmaster, introduces close reading in English classes, one of the foundations of a Commonwealth education to this day.

1975 Enrollment grows to 125 students.

1981 Charles Merrill retires as head of school.

1982 Alumnus Anthony Hill '70 helps establish The Middle Passage program to attract more disadvantaged students to apply to Commonwealth. (Director Elaine Gibson '72 successfully runs the program for eleven years.)

1990 Judith Keenan becomes Headmaster, ushering in an era of more formal admissions, business, and development offices and transitioning the school from an exciting experiment to a thriving, viable institution. 

1996 Commonwealth launches its first major Capital Campaign, a $2.2 million effort to fund building improvements, financial aid, and faculty and program support.

1997 Our biannual school trip moves from the Merrill family's historic Hancock Farm to Camp Winona in Bridgton, Maine, to better accommodate our growing numbers.

2000 After coming to Commonwealth as a teacher in 1985 and later serving as Director of Admissions starting in 1993, William Wharton becomes Headmaster.

2003 The Malone Family Foundation awards Commonwealth a $2 million grant earmarked for scholarship assistance for academically gifted students who could not otherwise afford attending the school.

2005 Commonwealth launches the Engaging Minds, Changing Lives campaign, an $8.5 million effort to double the endowment and increase support for financial aid.

2007 Commonwealth establishes a Director of Diversity position.

2008 Eight hundred and seventy-five alumni/ae, students, parents, and friends of the school gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding and art show.

2009 Boston Magazine names Commonwealth the top-ranked independent school in Eastern Massachusetts.

2015 Commonwealth launches The Power of a Vision: a Campaign for Commonwealth, a $12.5 million multi-year initiative focusing on supporting three essential components of the Commonwealth experience: The Power of Place, with significant building renovations; The Power of Opportunity, for financial aid and scholarships; and The Power of a Teacher, competitive compensation and grants for faculty development.

2015 The school begins a $10 million renovation affecting every area of the school, most notably upgrades to the biology and chemistry classrooms, construction of a new stairway from the first floor to the lower level, expansion of food service areas on the lower level, and construction of an elevator in the former air shaft between the two buildings.

2016 The school produces a framework to revitalize Commonwealth’s social mission and strengthen the school’s ability to attract and effectively include students and teachers from diverse backgrounds.

2017 Charles Merrill passes away at age 97.

2019 Dive In Commonwealth, a tuition-free academic enrichment program for promising, highly motivated middle-school students from underserved backgrounds, is established and welcomes its first cohort of five students. 

2020 In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school launches Virtual Commonwealth, an online learning platform and extension of our home at 151 Commonwealth Avenue, where the school begins offering socially distant hybrid learning over the duration of the pandemic.

2021 Jennifer Borman '81 becomes first alumna Head of School.