Fairbanks Middle School history
Formal education in Morenci dates back to the early 1900s with the construction of Longfellow School, a six-room, one-story building in 1902, that opened to over 300 students in first through eighth grades. According to Roberta Watts in her dissertation on the history of Morenci, in 1956 there were seven elementary schools servicing students in the Morenci area besides the high school: Longfellow, Band Building, Coronado, Humbolt, Plantsite and East Plantsite, all named after mining claims. At the helm of Morenci School District was Joseph Fairbanks, superintendent since 1939, supervising 91 teachers and administrators.
“Old” Morenci High School, Arizona’s first million dollar school, opened to grades seven through twelve in 1949; with the high school population growing, the seventh grade was moved to Longfellow School in 1955 and remained there for ten years until the roof collapsed and the building was condemned. Students were then relocated to Fairplay Building, a three-story, wood-framed building that did not meet fire codes of the time. By 1965, plans were underway to dismantle Old Morenci in order to access the large ore body that had been discovered hiding under the townsite decades earlier.
With Fairplay in a state of disrepair and located within Old Morenci, plans were made to build Fairbanks Middle School. Fairbanks opened its doors for the 1971-72 school year to students in grades five through eight--the eighth graders relocated to the middle school from the high school. Mr. Tony Boling, father of current high school principal, Bryan Boling, was principal that inaugural year with Mr. Robert Epperson serving as assistant principal the next year, becoming principal in 1973 until 1997. The building operated with fifth and sixth graders on a different bell schedule than the seventh and eighth graders; the younger students remained in self-contained classrooms with the older students changing for their core classes as well as electives which included woodshop, art, band, choir, physical education, and home economics. Unique to Fairbanks were its tempered-glass arches on the sides of the Multi-purpose room (MPR) as well as the front of the building. The MPR served as the school’s cafeteria where students brought their own lunches and ate in shifts, and children released to the dirt playground in back for recess.
Old Morenci High School graduated its last senior class in the spring of 1982. The next school year began in a new, $10 million facility which serviced ninth through twelfth graders for six years. But it was during three tumultuous years from 1983 to 1986 that Morenci experienced enrollment loss due to the strike and eventually closed four kindergarten to fourth grade elementary schools: Coronado, Modoc, Humboldt, and Plantsite (aka Longfellow II). As a result in 1988, Fairbanks Middle School became Fairbanks Elementary School, housing kindergarten through sixth grades, and the district’s seventh and eighth graders were relocated, once again, to Morenci High School, renamed as Morenci Junior/Senior High School.
Morenci USD opened its cafeteria building, adding three classrooms to Fairbanks, in February of 1994, providing a place to eat for both Fairbanks and Morenci Junior/Senior High students. Working as assistant principal under Mr. Epperson for nearly a decade, Mr. Phil Martinez began the 1996-1997 school year as principal, switching roles with Mr. Epperson for one year. As Freeport McMoRan acquired Phelps Dodge in 2007, enrollment continued to grow leading to plans to build a new elementary school, Metcalf, on property adjacent to Fairbanks. Metcalf opened its doors for the 2013-2014 school year, forcing another change for Fairbanks.
With Mr. Phil Martinez ending his long, Morenci career with the restoration of the school to its original state of service, to fifth through eighth graders, Mr. David Gonzales stepped into the principal position of Fairbanks Middle School, marking the return of the previous year’s seventh graders from the junior/senior high school..
Since then Fairbanks has undergone significant remodeling as it buzzes with technology: carpeting has been replaced with tile, bathrooms have been gutted and improved, and the gym has been repainted and brightened with LED lights, among other changes. But many things remain the same. When Mr. Epperson recalled his fondest memory of Fairbanks, he remembered, “the manner in which our students, faculty, and parents came together for the best interests of educating our youth during several periods of striking activities. The students were super, and the parents were very supportive of all aspects of our school programs. Many families were second and third generation mining families with traditional family values, and I was proud to be associated with them.” And as only the fifth Fairbanks principal--one who is new to the area but old to education--I feel that sense of pride and support. “Once a wildcat, always a wildcat.” The pride, like the ore, runs rich and deep.
Special thanks to the following people for providing insight into this history:
Mr. Robert Epperson, Mr. Bryan Boling, Mrs. Christina Chavez, and Mr. Phil Martinez.