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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter VII: School Bell Rings for Public Education

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[This information is from pp. 78-91 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

On October 15, 1855, the school bell rang in Schenectady. (1) Almost four score years before, the Liberty Bell had rung out to Americans the assurance that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not privileges but rights. Now the school bell was doing the same for education. The children of Schenectady, rich and poor, were quick to respond. Nothing was to be brought to school the first day, said the newspaper, but a Bible or Testament, and a slate or pencil. With these clutched tightly against their thumping hearts, the youngsters lined up before the two huge doors, intermingled as to economic status but separated as to sex. And as to sex they would stay separated. They were to enter through separate doors, use separate "clothes' rooms", play on separate playgrounds, and occupy separate sides of the school room. Indeed, as the Board reassured the townsfolk, the two sexes "at no time have any communication with each other."

Population Explosion

Every phase of the opening had been well-calculated — every phase, that is, except the number of children who would apply for admittance. The Board had prepared for 450; that should have been adequate because it was a much higher number than had previously attended schools in the city. But on opening day, the authorities were both delighted and disconcerted; eleven hundred children showed up. Growth that should have required years had apparently taken place overnight. There was nothing to do but close down the school without ever having started, and prepare more space.

On December 10, the schools were ready to begin again. The main building was opened, and the White Street School, and the old Lancaster building, that is, the first Lancaster School on College Street in the rear of the Hooker, or West College, building. (2) The schools were now prepared to accept twelve hundred pupils — six hundred in Union school, two hundred in the Lancaster building (a boys' primary) and two hundred in the White Street building. In the main building, primary and intermediate classes would occupy the four floors in the wings; the Higher English department would use one of the two large assembly rooms in the central part of the building, and the Classical (or Academic) department would be in the second, the former chapel. Thirty-seven Negro children were registered at the school conducted in the basement of the African Church on Jay Street.

The Board was like the father of a teen-age son — terribly proud of his phenomenal growth, but, still a little apprehensive. How much bigger was he going to grow anyway? Within two months all available space had been outgrown.

In 1859 the board authorized the erection of a two story, four-room building to be put up behind both the main building and the old Lancaster school. It was meant to accommodate 280 children, and simple arithmetic breaks that down to seventy in each room. Even so, within half a year of this school's opening in December, the need for space was once again imperative. The Board rationalized in its minutes of June 4, that little children in the low grades where the pressure was the heaviest, "after being wearied and jaded by the drilling and confinement of a three hour session in the forenoon" really shouldn't go to school in the afternoon. Physicians, parents and teachers agreed, they said, that it was not only bad for the tots physically, but "it is not well to overstrain the minds of little children." The heart of the matter was then exposed as

…a matter of economy… We must either increase our buildings or increase their capacity… There is (sic) now in daily attendance in the library building about 250 little boys, with three teachers; in the west primary room about 80 little girls, and in the east primary room about 80 little girls — each with but one teacher — being a much larger number than these rooms were… ever intended to accommodate.

The remedy the Board proposed represented the first appearance of that two-headed monster — split sessions. Evidently, something very decisive happened to change the Board's decision because only one month later the Board minutes carried the comment: "After the close of the present term the alternate system of attendance in the Primary Department of the school (will) be abandoned and the former system adopted."

Teachers' Duties and Pay

This was not the only time the Board had to backtrack. Free education posed plenty of problems, but provided few solutions. So many paths had to be explored without maps, so many decisions carved without tools. The marvel is that so few irreparable mistakes were made. One of the first steps the Board took was to lay down some ground rules. Teachers, they stipulated:

shall thoroughly prepare themselves daily (sic) in all the Studies pursued in the Several Classes; and shall exert a careful Supervision over their pupils in the entrance & School room & at recess, in order to prevent all improper conduct on the School premises & they shall, when deemed necessary, extend their supervision to pupils going to and returning from School… They shall take daily care that the School houses, the furniture & apparatus in the same, as well as the out buildings, fences, and all the property belonging to the School estates, be not defaced or injured by the Schollars. (3)

Teachers were also responsible for ringing the bell fifteen minutes before the opening of school, and on Saturdays they were expected to attend a meeting with other teachers to discuss views and experiences relating to instruction, discipline and other school matters.

For all this they were theoretically to be allowed $300 a year in the Higher English department, $250 in the Intermediate grades and $200 in the Primary grades, barely a subsistence wage, even for those days. (4) Not only did they not receive pay when they were absent; they had to supply and, until past the turn of the century, pay their own substitutes $1.50, $1.25 or $1.00 in the Academic, Higher English and Primary grades, respectively. In winter they were allowed $5.00 extra for fuel, and it is not surprising that economy sometimes won out over comfort. An occasional complaint was made to the Board that a teacher wasn't warming her school room adequately. But a cryptic observation in the next month's minutes that "the evil complained of has been remedied." (5) is evidence that any saving was apt to be only temporary.

Teacher Training

Teachers rarely had much training. Since 1844 a Normal school had existed at Albany, New York (the second in the United States). To this school, Schenectady County was entitled to send one candidate (male) whose instruction and board were to be paid for by the school. But Normal school courses rarely ran for more than one year, and not many students stayed longer than a few months. The training amounted to little more than a review of elementary studies, and the actual study of pedagogy was practically non-existent. (6) In 1859, the city petitioned the Regents in Albany to permit the Schenectady school to instruct common school teachers in the place of the Princetown Academy, which was by then defunct. Permission was granted, and a system of cadet-teaching was inaugurated for Schenectady when the Superintendent was authorized "to allow some young ladies to make the experiment of teaching" in the primary grades under the watchful eye of the regular teacher.

In a complete reversal from the practice of old, almost all teachers were by this time women. In a speech given at the inauguration of Union school, the Hon. A. C. Paige said:

It is now universally conceded that females who qualify themselves for the office of teacher and love their work, are eminently successful in conducting their own sex of any age, and the young of our sex through a course of mental and moral training. They generally succeed better than males, in governing the young by moral suasion. They have a greater degree of gentleness and patience; — more equanimity of temper; — and a larger stock of human kindness… (7)

'The Law' for Pupils

In contrast to the teachers who were reputed to have handled their students with such gentleness, patience, equanimity of temper and human kindness, the Board brooked no nonsense. It early laid down more than twenty rules and regulations governing the pupil's behavior not only at school, the hours of which dragged on until 5:00 P. M., but even on his way to and from school. "Cleanliness and neatness of person and dress, must be carefully observed," they said. "Scholars disregarding this regulation or whose clothing is not in a proper state of repair, shall be excluded from School until they have been put in proper order." The student's responsibility concerning cleanliness did not end with his person. "Each scholar shall have a particular desk or seat assigned to him, and he shall be required to keep the same, and the floor beneath, in a neat and orderly condition." The student was financially responsible for any damage he did to school property "accidentally or otherwise." And he was not permitted anywhere in the vicinity of the school, to use or write any profane or unchaste language, to use tobacco in any form, or to "indulge in scuffling, loud hallooing, or rudeness of any kind, nor in throwing snowballs, stones, or any other missiles that endanger property, or tend to vex or annoy each other." Too many demerits entitled him to an audience with the Board, and for a two days' absence in any one week or four days in a month, except in cases of illness, the pupil was expelled. Getting reinstated was a major operation. Pupils were not allowed on the school premises until quarter bell rang, and after school they were required to disperse immediately. "All collections of pupils about the schools, or in the streets near the Schools for playing are strictly prohibited" and offenders were to be held answerable to the Board. They were forbidden to walk on the railroads or ride on the cars on the way to or from school. And henceforth the school would present a slightly more sophisticated appearance — no more children with bare feet! (8)

"Extra" subjects were still being offered for tuition, $2.00 for regular scholars, $3.00 for those not belonging to the school. Penmanship, music, drawing, French and bookkeeping were still considered in the realm of extra subjects. Private teachers from outside the school system — with special permission from the Board — were permitted to come into the school to teach provided the arrangement did not "discommode the usual exercise of the school." (9)

School Board Active

Seemingly, special permission from the Board was required for everything, and the Board's influence was apparent everywhere. Were walks around the school to be planked? The Board saw to it. Were the floorings and side railings of the canal bridges too open for the safety of the children? The Board had them repaired. Should children living on boats in the Canal pay full tuition, a nominal fee of one cent, or be admitted free? The Board made a choice. Was a new textbook being considered? The Board made the selection. In 1858, the Board took credit for the fact that, including state money, Schenectady paid only $11.00 for each pupil's education for a year, and that was less, it was pointed out, than Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Brooklyn, St. Louis and other large cities paid. (10) Yet, despite all evidences of energy and efficiency, the Board, only three years old, was apparently encountering criticism. Through its President, the Board explained its position:

It is our duty and no less our pleasure at all times… to answer reasonable inquiries — to explain our plans and regulations, and to listen respectfully to suggestions for improving our confessedly imperfect management. We claim only to be honestly zealous to fulfill the expectations of those who have put us in charge, and to do what we may with the favor and cooperation of our fellow citizens to make this School (already known and respected by the friends of education through the land) more and more an ornament and a blessing to our city. Falsehood and malignity shall not deter us from our duty… (11)

The President of the Board felt the school system had earned the right to be proud. For twenty years, before free schools had been established, Schenectady had been accused of being at a standstill in business, population and wealth. People of other cities had taken to describing Schenectady as "the only finished city in the United States." They said it was the only city "in which the last nail had been driven," and called it "the only town with a fence around it and a ceiling overhead." Then the free school system came in and there had been a marked change. Said the President of the Board:

People in the adjoining towns and villages and some from distant places, sought our city as a place of residence for the purpose of educating their children. This brought us not only increase of population, but an increase of wealth… and an increase of business, and we can date from this a period of increased prosperity and growth never dreamed of by the inhabitants of a previous generation. (12)

City Is Prosperous

Schenectady of the 1860's was prosperous. The population was nudging 10,000, and the schools, always a barometer of plenty or panic, bulged with almost two thousand children and twenty-eight teachers. The interplay of easy money, cheap labor, and the expansion of transportation all stimulated manufacture, and Civil War demands on all three put the final spur to the already lively economy.

The Locomotive Company had the good fortune and the good sense to have what was needed when it was needed. "Eighty-four locomotives were completed at the Works during the war period from 1861 to 1863, all of these for Government use." (13) At periodic intervals the Locomotive Works, or "the Big Shop" as it was familiarly known, added superlatives to the field of transportation — the fastest locomotive, the biggest, the heaviest. In the main it was the Locomotive Works which Schenectady could thank for the city's post-Civil War boom.

Other places had reason to remember the Locomotive Works, too. More than once it played a dramatic role in history. On May 10, 1869, for example, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific joined railroad ties at Promontory, Utah. The union of these two railroads presented the country with its first transcontinental railroad. The first locomotive to run across the junction in Utah bore a "made in Schenectady" label. It was the "Jupiter," pride of the "Big Shop," on its maiden run.

Schenectady was definitely a good place to settle and invest money, an 1869 Daily Union editorial asserted. Besides the Ellis Locomotive Works which employed over five hundred, the shawl factory of James Roy and Company on South Church Street employed several hundred; Clute Brothers Foundry was going strong; and the George Westinghouse and Company Agricultural Works, Barhydt's and Greenhalgh's Steel Spring and Iron Works, Sanford and Near's Hollow Ware Works, and Clute and Reagles' Wheelbarrow Works were all thriving concerns.

In several of the outlying districts small communities had sprouted around water-conscious industries like mills and factories. Early in the century, Henry Crane started a linen factory at the Broadway end of Crane Street. Later, after the middle of the century, there was a settlement near Archibald Craig's cotton factory where Pleasant Valley is today. There was one at the Brandywine Knitting Mills on the site of the present Maqua Company, and on Engine Hill, the terminus of the Mohawk and Hudson railroad near the business section of Crane Street. Each was an isolated and independent cluster of workmen's homes, serviced first by the inevitable tavern, then by a store, and later, perhaps, by a one-room school. These little school rooms were usually conducted by one teacher for about twenty children. School board minutes indicate that the city paid the rent on these establishments — Centre Street School, Cotton Factory School, the "Red School house on 'The Green' in the 3rd Ward," (14) and others — and in general, the Board and the Supervisor kept a fatherly eye on them.

School supervision was still on a trial and error basis. Without training or experience, a man could only fall back on his own notions regarding the classification of pupils, the qualifications of teachers, the selection of courses, or anything else from drill to discipline. Often lawyers, doctors or clergymen used the position as an escape from unsuccessful or unsatisfactory careers in their own fields. School boards more or less picked a man by instinct, and then trusted to luck. Schenectady was lucky in its first choice; Mr. Cook had guided the city schools off to a smart start.

Notes for Chapter VII

  1. It is sentimentally satisfying to assume that a school bell rang out on so auspicious an occasion, and since the 1855 duties of teachers specifically included ringing the bell fifteen minutes before school opening, it is also a reasonable assumption. But either the committee sent to retrieve the bell from the Princetown Academy (see Note 11, Chapter VI) was unsuccessful, or the bell was in some way unsatisfactory, because the Board Minutes of April 18, 1856 record that a committee was instructed to procure a suitable bell for the bell tower, one weighing 400 to 500 pounds. A further notation in the Board Minutes of June 17 mentions $55.00 contributed by "sundry citizens to aid in the purchase of a suitable Bell for the School building."
  2. The second Lancaster building, on the west side of College Street, was sold in 1856 to a German congregation — the 3rd Evangelical Protestant Reformed Dutch Church which converted it into a chapel, and added a school room in the rear. The building is no longer there.
  3. Minutes of the Board of Education, April 3, 1856. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  4. In a paper attached to Annual Exercises of the Classical Department of Schenectady Union School, December, 1858, (Schenectady, N. Y.: Union College Library), the President of the Board, Mr. James R. Craig said in December, 1858, that of the nineteen teachers employed, one received $500, one received $120, and the others were in between. Those teachers, he said, spent in this city, $120 for board and its accompaniment, plus another $50 to $100 for other needs.
  5. Minutes of the Board of Education, December 13, 1854 and January, 1855, regarding a teacher in White School. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  6. In view of this general condition, it seems especially noteworthy that coincident with the opening of the public school system in Schenectady, a so-called Normal or Teachers' class was started under the title, "Theory and Practice of Teaching," and that from then until the abandonment of the Brandywine Avenue Teachers' Training School in 1925, Schenectady seems never to have been without some form of teacher training. Since then, in-service training, travel for study, summer courses and extension courses have supplemented ever-increasing teacher requirements and ever-improving teacher training.
  7. Hon. A. C. Paige, Speech given at the Inauguration of the Public Schools in Schenectady, October 16, 1855.
  8. Regulations for Students of the Union School, 1855, reprinted in Annual Report of the Board of Education, 1873, p. 78. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  9. Minutes of the Board, May 5, 1862 and others. Board Minutes indicate that teachers were employed to take charge of French, Drawing, Painting, Music, and other departments, and authorized to take tuition as pay. A music teacher in 1868 was required to pay for tuning and repairing the pianos used in the Music Department. She requested the Board the following year "either to furnish her a piano or allow her to advance the rate of tuition from ten to twelve dollars per term so as to enable her to hire one. In case the latter were granted, she agreed to furnish a first-class piano." The Board agreed to allow the tuition increase. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  10. Paper in Annual Exercises of the Classical Department of Schenectady Union School, loc. cit.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Annual Report of the President of the Board, 1872, p. 11 (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  13. Growing With Schenectady, (Schenectady, N. Y.: American Locomotive Co., 1948), p. 16.
  14. "The Green" was an area east of Jefferson Street and north of the Erie Canal, later the site of American Locomotive Company buildings.

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