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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter XIV: Stoddard Brings "Informal Education"

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[This information is from pp. 167-175 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.]

No one realized in 1926, when Dr. Alexander J. Stoddard took over the office of Superintendent of the Schenectady School System, that the rosy bloom in Economy's cheek was just the warning flush of inner disease. Jobs were available for the asking, pay envelopes were well-filled, and the City Council was not unsympathetic toward requests for school monies.

Into the midst of this radiance came the new Superintendent from Bronxville, New York, where he had been serving in a like position since 1922. Born in Auburn, Nebraska, in 1889, Dr. Stoddard early chose teaching as a career. At the age of sixteen, he was already teaching in rural schools in Nebraska, and within two years after that, he had become principal in an elementary school in the place where he was born. From 1910, when he was graduated from Peru State Teacher's College, until 1922 when he came to New York, he held superintendencies in three Nebraska school systems. In 1922 he received a degree of B.S. from the University of Nebraska, in 1923, an M.A. from Columbia University and in 1933, the degree of Ed.D. from Rhode Island College of Education.

Not the least of Dr. Stoddard's gifts was his winning personality. He had a rare knack of making friends for himself and his ideas. Schenectady considered him a bargain at $8000 a year. The following August his salary was raised to $9000, and Schenectady schools under his stewardship embarked upon new and venturesome educational explorations.

"Child-centered' Schools

The educational pendulum had come to rest on the child-centered school and a far swing it was from early educational philosophy. In Colonial times the primary aims of education were strictly mental and moral and the highest virtues in a child were thought to be obedience and submission. To achieve this end, the early teacher was primarily a drillmaster and a disciplinarian. Instruction was on an individual level with the child working at his own seat and then, at the teacher's knee, parroting his lesson or having it checked. Well into the 1800's, the work was formal and routine, consisting mainly of memorization with the use of question-and-answer texts.

Then, about the time of the Civil War and following it, came an awakening to the importance of attention to the individual, of sense-perception, of reasoning and judgment. The object-lesson became a standard tool for imparting lasting knowledge, and the chief purpose of education was to present specific information in the most approved psychological method.

Impact of John Dewey

With the advent of the educator John Dewey, something new was added to the function of the school. The new aim was to include, in addition to the development of the mind, a lively concern for the child's whole being — his physical health, his personality, his social and emotional adjustment. Not only must education give the child facts; it must develop his initiative and self-control; it must awaken social insight; it must teach him to serve, to cooperate, and to shoulder his fair share of responsibility.

Believing that instincts, impulses and interest were at the base of learning, Mr. Dewey felt that ideas became meaningful only when applied successfully in action. But despite scathing public accusations to the contrary, Mr. Dewey was sternly opposed to the cult of "self-expression" which spread during the 20's and 30's. "Deplorable egotism," he called it, "cockiness, impertinence and disregard for others." (1)

Dr. Stoddard subscribed to the best in the new educational policies. In an attempt to free the child from some of his restrictions, both mental and physical, he introduced "informal education" at Elmer Avenue School. Additional equipment was brought in, seats were loosened in many rooms for greater elasticity of movement, and children were encouraged to question, suggest or help. The new emphasis on first-hand experiences resulted in more frequent trips and excursions.

Department of Visual Education Established

On February 1, 1927, a Department of Visual Education was formed. The purpose of this division was to evaluate lantern slides, motion pictures and maps intended for classroom use. From 1925 on, the whole field of visual aids attracted continually increasing attention. Schenectady was the third in the state to adopt a program of visual instruction, and one of the very first of the smaller cities in the country to do so.

These lantern slides and motion pictures were primarily for use in the elementary and intermediate grades. A series of motion pictures called "Chronicles of America Photoplays," including such subjects as "Columbus," "Jamestown," "The Pilgrims," "Peter Stuyvesant," "The Gateway to the West," was bought by the General Electric Company for several thousand dollars and made available to the schools. The General Electric Company also loaned films for the social science and general science classes. Thus, for an expenditure of about $200, the school system had the use of $50,000 worth of lantern slides during the year of 1928.

Further Curriculum Revision

Advancement in the school system was not limited to entrance into new fields. Existing programs were remodeled and modernized. In line with education's attempt to develop the whole child, health activities were given greater emphasis. Relief drills were abolished. In their place, competitive sorts were developed. New playgrounds were opened, intramural games introduced, and the "leadership" element, rather than mere participation, was encouraged.

On the intermediate level, the seventh, eighth and ninth grades were molded into a stronger unit. The program was rescheduled to allow more time for industrial, manual training, and homemaking arts. To stimulate greater interest in the junior high program, the Board of Education decided to buy books for all ninth grade students. In the junior highs guidance teachers continued to teach "Opportunity Classes," but the high school had acquired (1928) its first guidance counselor. The healthy condition of the schools was unmistakable; despite the excellent labor climate in the city, 41 per cent of the high school graduates chose to go on to higher education.

During the Stoddard period, an addition was made at Oneida Intermediate School which provided shops, cafeteria, art rooms, library, homemaking rooms and classrooms "sufficient to offer facilities for a complete intermediate school program." Twenty-four hundred children were on double shifts at the high school, and one of the crowning developments of this period was that plans for the opening of a new high school in Mont Pleasant were approved. On the other hand, two old schools were closed as being dangerous and unfit — the Park Place School, built in 1891, and the Mont Pleasant School, built in 1893.

Education of Mentally Handicapped

At Clinton School, Schenectady was making worthy strides with its classes for the mentally handicapped. These had been started in 1920, and, in this field, Schenectady was earning credit for having done "more than any other school system to centralize these classes in one school." (2) Gradually, the whole of Clinton School was taken over for this purpose, with an enrollment of 168 pupils having chronological ages of 7 to 17 and mental ages of 3 to 9. The school had twelve teachers. The fourteen rooms contained a four-room apartment used for homemaking, a manual training shop for woodworking, a room for learning shoe cobbling and hair cutting, and a room for physical education. Half the day was spent on the academic subjects required by elementary school, and the other half of the day was spent in handwork. Clinton School and the Pre-vocational School located at the Union Street School were under one principal and her assistant. The principal's office was at the Union Street School, while the assistant principal's was at Clinton School.

17,000 pupils in Twenty-nine Schools

The total school population in the city stood at 17,000 with 650 teachers and twenty-nine buildings plus the Continuation School at Edison School. This included the little one-class, one-teacher Mohawkville School on Crane Street which had been built in 1875 and remodeled during the Whitney administration for use as an open-air school for under-nourished children. In 1927, the Pre-vocational School and the Continuation School were combined in the Union Street building in order to permit better facilities for the Continuation School. Not too long after, the Pre-vocational School was discontinued, and there was talk of demolishing the Clinton School. But the old building stood its ground, and though it severed its connection with the school system, it continued to serve in a new guise: headquarters for the Schenectady Police Department.

Stoddard Resigns

On March 22, 1929, only three years after his coming, Dr. Stoddard sent the Board a letter of resignation which was accepted with sincere regret. His engaging personality would be missed. Certainly, his term had registered a flurry of activity. New schools had been opened, old schools had been closed, the curriculum had been strengthened, guidance had been broadened, non-promotions had been lowered and visual education had acquired importance. The public took all these changes in stride. The upheaval in educational philosophy, however, left them somewhat less tranquil.

Notes for Chapter XIV

  1. Adolphe E. Meyer, An Educational History of the American People (New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1957), p. 252.
  2. Study of the Schenectady School System (Albany, N. Y.: University of the State of New York, 1928), p. 227.

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