Although the official date for the establishment of The Branson School is 1920, its roots go back to 1916, when 15 Marin families combined forces to start a local school for their children. They acquired in early 1917 an old barn with two large rooms and an attic in downtown San Rafael between 5th and Mission Streets—near what is today City Hall—and painted the old red structures and converted the buildings to a schoolhouse. They began the new school, known as the Little Gray School, as a coeducational primary school, grades 1-4. In 1918 the school added intermediate and upper levels, both of which were limited to girls, and was renamed the San Rafael School for Girls.
Miss Katharine Branson
A short two years later the trustees found two impressive young women, Katharine and Laura Branson, both graduates of Bryn Mawr College, to head the school permanently. Katharine was at Miss Beard’s School in Orange, New Jersey, where she was Associate Director of Studies. Her sister Laura was teaching mathematics and science at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, after having served as head of the Department of Mathematics at Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut.
In the spring of 1920 the trustees persuaded the sisters Branson to take leadership of the school, appointing Katharine and Laura Branson co-headmistresses in the fall of 1920 and renaming the school in honor of the eldest of the sisters The Katharine Branson School. Their installation as co-heads would mark the dawn of a new era in the history of the school.
The Katharine Branson School officially opened on September 6, 1920, with 54 students enrolled in grades 1 to 11—three of whom were in residence. The next year the school added a kindergarten and a 12th grade, and in 1922 moved to its present campus in Ross. At its inception the school included boys in the lower grades, but in the ensuing years the lower grades were discontinued, boys were no longer enrolled, and the residential campus grew until finally, in 1959, The Katharine Branson School became a secondary school for both day and boarding students.In 1972, the Board of Trustees established Mount Tamalpais School, a day school for boys on the Katharine Branson School campus. MTS, with the same academic standards and basic philosophy as KBS, also shared a common board of trustees, faculty, and administrative staff. In January 1978, after extensive deliberation, the trustees decided to accept no further applications from resident students. In recognition of the fully coeducational nature of The Katharine Branson School and Mount Tamalpais School, the trustees, in July of 1985, united the two schools under the name The Branson School.
Katharine Fleming Branson (1920-1951)A woman of extraordinary energy and indomitable will, Miss Branson joined with the founders to develop a boarding school dedicated to traditional standards of excellence and with the clear purpose of preparing Branson girls to go off and “take an active and intelligent part” in the world around them. Presiding over the School nearly from its inception, as a patrician with an uncompromising demand for excellence Miss Branson brought a seriousness of purpose and a dignity that served as the animating themes of the school then known as The San Rafael School for Girls. A cum laude graduate of Bryn Mawr, Miss Branson led the renamed girls’ school for two years until it shed its confining and unfashionable location in downtown San Rafael for the rolling hills and serene valley in Fernhill Park in Ross. Miss Branson’s leadership spanned the early years of struggle, the tumultuous 1920s, the Great Depression, World War II, and the prosperity of the early postwar years. She assembled a faculty devoted to bringing the best out of students and shaping them into citizens with compassion and sensitivity, equipped to meet the challenges before them. Her stewardship took Branson from an inchoate idea to a secure, stable institution that maintained a clear pursuit of academic excellence and achieved national recognition as one of the West’s leading girls’ boarding schools. After her retirement to Carmel, and owing to her devotion to the School, Miss Branson would return in the fall of 1961 and serve as Acting Headmistress following the sudden illness of Miss Dorothy Clement, who had been appointed Acting Headmistress following the resignation of Mrs. Virginia Jennings that summer.
Laura Elizabeth Branson (1920-1926)Co-head of the school during its formative years in San Rafael and Ross, Laura arrived at Branson with her sister in the summer of 1920 after a short but distinguished career as Head of the Department of Mathematics at Rosemary Hall and teacher at the Shipley School. A cum laude graduate of Bryn Mawr like her older sister, Laura also taught both mathematics and science before her departure from Branson in 1926. Relocating to England, where she attended the London School of Economics, Laura would later return to the states and become a leading figure in New York City school reform alongside her husband, the noted educator and teachers’ union leader Henry Richardson Linville. Laura would serve as Executive Secretary of the NY Teachers’ Guild of the nascent American Federation of Teachers throughout the 1930s, while her husband Henry served as President of the new AFT.
Raking leaves in the 1950s beneath Res Hall
The school was originally begun by a group of parents as an elementary school. It became a dedicated high school in 1959.The Mt Tamalpais School, established in 1972, was a boys' school just using the upper campus for their first year in operation while the girls went to classes down the hill. That arrangement didn't make sense because the faculty were teaching both the boys and the girls.The last year for boarding students living on campus was 1981.