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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter VI: From Brooms to the First Board Of Education

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[This information is from pp. 65-77 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.]

The thrust of the schools in all directions at once was intimately related to the lively push of the city's business. Harnessed to transportation and kindred industries, Schenectady's economy began to accelerate at an unprecedented tempo. Gristmills, tobacco factories, candle manufactories, and soap works were soon pushed into the background. Industrialism came steaming 'round the bend. As the railroad system grew, its appetite for locomotives grew. In 1848, with the population of the city still well under 10,000, with Nott Terrace still a cross road through the sand, Lafayette Street a lane, Barrett Street a pathway and Clinton Street a cowpath, the Morris brothers came from Philadelphia to set up shop in Schenectady. Backed by an additional $40,000 invested by local businessmen, the Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory, sometimes called the Morris Locomotive Works (and later to serve as the basis far the Schenectady Locomotive Works), became the city's chief industry. Running a close second was the Westinghouse Agricultural Works. Schenectady's excellent shipping potentialities enticed George Westinghouse in 1850 to move a factory for making his patent threshing and horsepower machines to a spot at the foot of Erie Boulevard (the former site of the International General Electric Company). Later, he enlarged these works.

Although Schenectady's broomcorn industry had flourished since 1812, it, too, reached its peak here between 1840 and 1860. Broomcorn dominated the river flats, and a number of factories strove to meet the wide demand for the products. Hardly a family in Schenectady escaped having some contact with the industry, either by work at the factory or by work done at home. Great numbers of German immigrants streamed into the city attracted by this work. At one point, Schenectady was the chief center of broom- and brush-making in the United States, a million brooms a year going out to all sections of the country.

The year 1840 also saw the start of the Clute Brothers Foundry and Machine Works. Housed in an imposing structure near the present railroad station at Liberty and Wall streets, the Works took pride in its expertly manufactured marine engines, boilers, and scientific instruments. It also took pride in having constructed the mechanism which operated the turret on the ironclad warship, the Monitor, which played such an effective part in the Civil War.

As for the rest of Schenectady's vigorous economy, it possessed a "diversification of industry" that would excite the envy of any diligent Chamber of Commerce today. There were lumberyards, gasworks, pump works, a steam planing mill, a cement and plaster mill, and an assortment of factories producing hoopskirts, hollow ware, carriages, carpets, stoves and wheelbarrows.

Education Has Growing Pains

So much industrial activity and the resultant increase in population loaded an overwhelming burden upon the school system. For the fifteen years that Dr. Van Vranken was principal of the Lancaster schools, the city's educational complexion presented a passably healthy aspect, although even by then, certain inherent blemishes were being forced to the surface. It took scarcely a decade, for example, to accept and make concessions to the fact that humans, even when they are little, are subject to boredom. Within the framework of the monitorial system, it became frequently advisable, as the teacher put it, to vary the less important details of the work in order to "give a new spring to exertion… and excitement." (1)

After Dr. Van Vranken resigned in 1831 (and was made one of the trustees) the school system slid into a noticeable decline. Paradoxically, the number of students continued to rise, reaching almost four hundred and in 1834, the old school was sold to Dr. Nott and a new school built, The old school was turned into a library for the college and when later it housed the scientific collection, it took the name "Geological Hall." The new Lancaster school, a two-story wooden building, stood on the west side of College Street, almost opposite the old one, and cost $759.98 1/2 plus $500 for the lot. The upstairs was used for the girls, the downstairs for the boys, and the seating arrangement placed the youngest in the front of the room near the teacher.

Yet, despite the apparent glow of health reflected in the number of children and in the new school building, dissatisfaction with the system was fast spreading throughout the community. The teaching methods, the capacity of the schools, and the financing were all openly criticized. In its January 14, 1834 copy, the Schenectady Whig leveled a direct hit:

Our system of education as connected with our common schools is materially defective or inefficient… Probably two of the main causes of our backwardness in this respect, are that too little discrimination in the selection, and too much parsimony in the payment of teachers; have been among our prevailing errors.

Mechanical drill, blind obedience, and a teacher just one lesson ahead of the class began to seem less and less acceptable. "Teaching is more than just feeding facts," many argued, "and learning is more than just imitation."

A parade of petitions was started which carried the growing community discontent to the Legislature at Albany. The petitions asked that the Lancaster system's monitorial system be limited to the primary grades in which letters and numbers were taught, with regular teachers permitted to take over after that. They asked permission to teach any subjects taught in the common schools of the state. They asked permission to substitute the Common School District for the Lancaster system within the police limits of the city. And then, finally, they asked for a law abolishing the Lancaster system for "an entirely new system of Common School." (2)

The more obvious the flaws in the Lancaster system, the more irritating they became to the townsfolk. Schenectadians were indeed ready to try a new system. But they wouldn't have been ready, if the Lancaster system hadn't marked the trail! The Lancaster system instilled in children the habit of attending school regularly, and it instilled in parents the habit of paying for the support of schools. (3) It set educators to thinking about problems connected with having so many in a school building at once — about ventilation, lighting, furniture, safety, and distractions — and it set the community to thinking about its responsibility toward the children and the need to make education compulsory. (4) It stressed the need for special training for teachers in the face of strong opposition from the teachers themselves who considered any such suggestion insulting to their ability and degrading to their dignity. The system also disclosed the superiority of group or class instruction over individual recitation which had been so wasteful of the teacher's time and energy, and it influenced the improvement of textbooks, (5) the use of uniform texts, and the introduction of music and music books.

In 1848, there were still five schools in the main part of the city under the guardianship of the Lancaster trustees: one on College Street, known as the Lancaster School (male department, teacher's pay — about $265); one on Ferry Street, near the corner of Front Street (teacher's pay about $175); one on Maiden Lane, in the Cameronian Church (teacher's pay — about $175); one in the second story of the Lancaster School building (female department, teacher's pay about $110); and one in the basement of the Baptist Church on Maiden Lane (teacher's pay — about $175) — the last two for girls and for boys under ten. In addition there was a school for Negro children (teacher's pay — about $40) and a number of private teachers working under the auspices of the Lancaster Society. (6) Even as the system was about to be abandoned in 1849, a new two-story brick school with a shingled roof was built on White Street (later Clinton Street) on the site of the present City Hall, near the Clinton Street entrance. (7)

New Education Law

That same year, in answer to pressure and agitation from all over the state, the Legislature passed an Act which established free public schools in New York State. Most cities were jubilant, Schenectady among them. In general, schools received their main support not from the rich who were unenthusiastic about the possibility of increased taxes, nor from the masses who were, for the most part, apathetic, but from a small number of perceptive people — ministers, educators, labor leaders and public-spirited individuals. They recognized that life, especially city life, was becoming increasingly complex — industrially, politically, ideologically — and that the only way to cope with this complexity was to provide good schools open to all.

Schenectady schools were operating under the district plan, but were controlled by the Lancaster trustees. Under the district plan, all grades, all ages, and all subjects were taught in one room. Each one-room school was an entity unto itself. Its trustee, or trustees, fiercely guarded the right to control the school's taxes, standards, and methods, and just as fiercely resisted entangling alliances with any other school. Most rural areas operated under this system. Farmers feared the advance of the free school system with its threat of higher taxes; they preferred to take their chances with partially free schools supported by rate-bills. Their opposition now grew intense. When the votes were counted, they showed that out of fifty-nine counties in the state, forty-two had voted to repeal the Act. But it was too early for the farmers to cheer. Because of the overwhelmingly heavy city vote in favor, the lopsided balance was upset, and free schools had won.

Still the agitated losers refused to admit defeat. With tempers and tongues honed on the strop of fear, they attacked the Act with all the strength they could muster. The Legislature was forced, the following year, to resubmit the question for another vote. This time, much to Schenectady's dismay, universal free schools lost out.

But the Legislature came to the rescue. While it allowed the retention of the rate-bills, it permitted the organization of "union-free districts" under which areas that wanted to by-pass the hated rate-bills and provide free schools by local taxation could do so. Schenectady snatched at the opportunity, though there were some who were still unwilling to send their children to what they sneeringly referred to as "pauper school."

Schenectady Public Schools Established

In April, 1854, Governor Horatio Seymour signed a bill authorizing the establishment of a free school system for the city of Schenectady. At the same time, an eight-member Board of Education was created. Members were to be "elected in the same manner and under the same regulations as other ward officers," and the Board was given power to determine the sums needed for school buildings, teachers' salaries, fuel, and other expenses. These sums the Common Council was given permission to raise by taxes on real and personal property. The first Board consisted of Dr. Nicholas Van Vranken, Judge Alonzo C. Paige, David M. Moore, William N. Duane, Charles Chequer, Hiram Champion, Demetrius M. Chadsey and Rev. Isaac G. Duryea. At its first meeting held in the Common Council Chamber at the Court House on April 15, 1854, at "7 & 1/2 o' clock in the evening," the Board drew lots for length of service, elected Dr. Van Vranken chairman, and undertook to investigate possible school locations. Then, on September 13, the Board authorized a committee to buy West College at Union and College streets.

The assets of the Lancaster system had been turned over to the new school system. But the attempt of the Board committee to buy the college building which had originally cost $60,000 but was now available for $6,000 (8) touched off a string of verbal firecrackers throughout the city. At first, the Common Council flatly refused to consider the transaction. Such a purchase, they argued, would be "inexpedient, unwise and subversive of the future welfare of the city." It would impose upon the city, they continued, "a burden too atrocious to be borne" and would result in "an irrevocable tax throughout all time upon the property holders of the city." (9) Tempers flared. In fact, feeling ran so high in the Common Council that the Mayor resigned his office rather than sign the papers agreeing to the purchase. (10) Nevertheless, the deal went through.

The Board submitted to the Common Council a request for $1,500 to be raised by tax: $800 for teachers' salaries because the money provided by law for Common Schools was not enough, and $700 to cover other needs — for the building, for the school library and for Board expenses — because the law made no allowance at all for these items. During the summer of 1855 the first and second stories of the fifty-year-old building (rechristened Union School) were made ready to welcome 450 students, and the building committee of the Board was directed "to go to the Princetown Academy and get the bell they have in possession which properly belongs to our School building." (11)

The school was prepared to open with eight grades, or departments — four primary and four intermediate. The whole idea of a graded school was an innovation. So was bringing Mr. George B. Cook to Schenectady and putting him in charge of the new system. Placing all education in a city under the supervision of only one man was a risky experiment. But then, every new step in the unmapped educational wilderness was risky. Mr. Cook brought with him several teachers from New England, added some more from the city, and the school system was ready to start with a staff of ten teachers, all of them women but one. A Higher English department was attached beyond the grades, and almost immediately an Academic (or Classical) department was added beyond that.

The Academic department was to serve both as a preparatory department for boys who planned to enter college and as a high school for those who didn't. Such a high school was a purely democratic innovation; there was no equivalent in Europe. It Was set up under the joint control of the City Board of Education and the Union College Board. Its principal teacher was lent by the college authorities, and his salary was paid from the Nott Trust Fund of the college (which also paid two-fifths of all the other Classical department expenses). The remaining teachers were appointed by, and paid by, the City Board of Education. With the addition of the Academic department there was now available in Schenectady a straight educational line all the way from the lowest grade to the college, "not existing in any other part of the country." (12)

Notes for Chapter VI

  1. Schenectady Cabinet, March 14, 1847.
  2. Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, December 31, 1852.
  3. Although some students were offered free schooling and treated "just like the paying customers," the results were a source of aggravation to the trustees. Few accepted the offer, and most of those were irregular in attendance, and soon dropped out altogether. In the Schenectady Cabinet, March 9, 1825, appears the slightly cynical commentary: "It is regretted that this result furnishes one more additional evidence of the truth of the observation that nothing is more lightly esteemed than that which cost us nothing."
  4. Mary R. Healy, The Lancaster School System with Special Application to Schenectady, New York (1953), p. 22 (Manuscript loaned to author). Quoting from an 1827 report, "The children are daily suffered to roam the streets in idleness and mischief, and may even be seen prowling about the gates and disturbing the exercises of the institution whose doors are open to receive them… These children are growing up and constitute a part of the community to which we belong. It is therefore our interest as well as our duty to do everything in our power to make them become decent and respectable members of society… let them be taken from the streets and placed where they may acquire habits of obedience, and a respect for superiors, for equals and themselves."
  5. A Compend of Rhetoric in Question and Answer, Compiled Solely for the use of the Young Ladies of the Schenectady Female Academy, Principally from Blair's Lectures (Schenectady, N. Y.: Van Veghten and Son, 1808).
    Such books were said to have reflected the taste for the melancholy and the mysterious so fashionable at that time. For example:
    • Q. What is taste?
    • A. The power of receiving pleasure and pain from the beauties and deformities of nature and art.
    • Q. What circumstances serve to heighten the sublime?
    • A. Darkness, solitude, silence, disorder and sometimes terror.
  6. In a newspaper article of a few years earlier, room, board and fuel (coal) were mentioned as costing $6.50 a week. Teachers worked a forty-two-week school year. Even at wages of $265.00 a year (the highest rate) earninqs would amount to about $6.30 a work week with ten weeks at no pay. At $175.00 a year — ?
  7. The White Street School was discontinued in 1884. The building was sold and converted into a blacksmith shop and horse-shoeing establishment.
  8. The Board Minutes of September 29, 1856 places its value at the time of purchase as $40,000.
  9. Annual Exercises of the Classical Department of Schenectady Union School, July, 1862, p. 9. (Schenectady, N. Y.: Union College Library).
  10. Folder 2203, on Schools, comp. W. B. Efner (unpublished folder on file at the City History Center, Schenectady, N. Y.)
  11. Minutes of the Board of Education, July 11, 1855, p. 27. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  12. Board of Education Reports, 1854-56, 1872-75, p. 16 (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).

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