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Schenectady Schools

[This article is from the Schenectady County Sesquicentennial Historical Souvenir Program, published in 1959 by the Schenectady Commemorative Committee, Inc. The Schenectady County Public Library has copies in its Schenectady Collection [Schdy R 974.744 S3245] and others available for borrowing.]

Local public schools had their beginnings in the educational activities of the Dutch settlers of Schenectady, reports of the city school district indicate.

The first minister-school teacher, according to one manuscript, had his career abruptly ended by the French and Indians when Schenectady was burned in 1690. This was Dominie Tassemaker, the first pastor of the First Dutch Church at Union and Church Streets.

Other schools of this time, of varying duration, were opened chiefly by clergymen and itinerant teachers.

During the period from the Revolutionary War to the beginning of the free school system in 1854, numerous schools of various grades and kinds existed. Some were one-teacher, one-room affairs with a varying number of students. None were free, except to some youngsters who were poor.

The most prominent schools of this era were the Schenectady Academy, a French boarding school, the Schenectady Lyceum, the Lancaster School and the Schenectady Institute.

The Schenectady Academy is of particular importance to the educational history of the county in that it is related to the beginning of Union College.

Rev. Dirck Romeyn, who became pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1784, backed better schooling here despite earlier failures in seeking a college charter. He gained church and community support and a two-story brick building was erected. Located at Union and Ferry Streets this building was used by the Schenectady Academy until 1795. It was then purchased by the newly chartered Union College. In 1792, it is reported, the Academy had about 100 students.

The Lancaster School was organized in 1816 in accordance with legislation which also provided it with some public funds, most unusual for those times. It continued operations until the founding of the public school system in 1854.

The establishment of the free school system was a long step forward for Schenectady. The first board of trustees quickly purchased the building known as "West College," located at Union and College Streets, from Union College.

The first two stories of the school were prepared for 450 pupils. However, enrollments very soon reached 1,100 and the building was closed to prepare the third floor.

Dr. Samuel B. Howe, for whom Howe School is named, became the first superintendent of schools in 1863, continuing in that post for 37 years.

From the first, the school system grew. The superintendent's report for 1871-72 indicated that the six buildings in use housed 1,907 youngsters, taught by some 30 teachers. Salaries ranged from $300 to $450 annually, a rather low scale for that time. The superintendent's report for the year ending June 30, 1875, noted that the average number of pupils per teacher was over 65.

Crowded conditions in the Union Classical Institute, the city's secondary school which had been organized in co-operation with Union College, led to the purchase of a high school site on Nott Terrace.

A contract for the erection of the new high school, at a cost of $82,420, was awarded late in 1900. Half-day sessions eased the crowding at UCI until the new Schenectady High School was opened in 1904. This temporarily solved enrollment problems on the secondary level.

During 1908-09, five new elementary schools were opened and one was remodeled and enlarged to help provide space. During 1908, 8,812 children were attending part-time sessions. By 1909, Schenectady High School, planned for 480 students, was bulging with 756 students. Schenectady's population nearly tripled between 1890 and 1900, when it stood at 38,682; by 1910 it had jumped to 72,628.

In 1911 the high school had an enrollment of more than 1,000 pupils and also faced the need for providing vocational courses for the increased number of youngsters who did not plan to seek higher education. The problem was solved by the construction of a companion building, which was completed in 1915.

By 1918 school enrollments had increased to 14,166, a number for which the schools were completely inadequate. The superintendent's report for 1918-19 showed 47 elementary classes attending part-time, while the entire high school was on a double shift, with 1,212 attending in the morning and 700 in the afternoon.

The first move which helped overcome this situation was that of changing the school system to the 6-3-3 plan, the present organization, which added intermediate (junior high) schools to the system.

Six such schools were occupied in 1923: Central Park and Oneida, which were new; Van Corlaer, McKinley and Washington Irving, which were enlarged, and Nott Street School, where some slight changes were made. In 1924, the Woodlawn School, which had been incorporated in the city system the previous year, also was used for intermediate instruction.

To meet the elementary school situation, Pleasant Valley School was opened in 1922 and Riverside in 1923.

A bond issue for Mont Pleasant High School, totaling $1,200,000, was approved in 1929 and the school was opened in September, 1931.

The main problem of the public schools during the next decade was one of obtaining adequate funds. The depression was met with extensive economies, including a curtailment of teachers' salaries. However, despite this handicap, the school system continued to develop and was able to provide valuable educational assistance in supplying trained manpower during World War II.

The period of depression and the ensuing war effort hit hard at building needs and upkeep, consequently, following the second world war, the system was again in need of facilities.

Various plans were proposed, but it was not until the Board of Education became fiscally independent in 1951 that actual progress was made. Grout Park and Paige Elementary Schools, needed to serve increased pupil populations in certain sections of the city, were opened in 1953. In that same year, the Board voted $1.8 million to construct Zoller School and additions to Yates and Howe, all elementary schools, for the same reason, and to finance a fire safety program.

Replacement of the outmoded and hazardous Nott Terrace High School was assured with the approval of a $5 million bond issue in 1954. Later that year residents of the Schenectady City School District also voted in favor of an elected school board, a further step in achieving school independence. The new Linton High School, nationally regarded as an outstanding school, was opened in 1958.

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