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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter VIII: The Howe Era Begins

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[This information is from pp. 92-103 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.]

After Mr. Cook resigned, the position of supervisor was occupied by a succession of men who served terms of varying lengths of from fourteen months to five years. With the departure of Mr. E. Goodwin Clark, Mr. Cook's immediate successor, the lists of teachers began to show an uncommon rise in the number of cousins and sisters and aunts of the new board members. The Board had by this time been reduced to five, but the smaller number apparently did little to increase tranquillity. Cross currents of opinion, reinforced by cross words, resulted in many a stormy session. Of the Board's committees — and there were more committees than members — the one on "Complaints" was far from the idlest. Throughout the system growth and confusion were competing for the upper hand.

Howe Named Superintendent

If ever a referee was needed in educational circles, this was the time, and Dr. Samuel F. Howe was the man. His stabilizing influence was one of the best things that ever happened to Schenectady's school system, and his memory is perpetuated in the name of the school on Baker Avenue. Dr. Howe joined the system three years after the close of the Civil War at a starting salary of $1800. For this figure he served as Superintendent (he was the first to bear that title in Schenectady), Secretary to the Board, and Principal of the Classical Department. In addition, the Board minutes reported, "he is our accountant and confidential clerk: he is the collector of tuition; he takes the census of the city; he collects the Statistics of the School; he draws up our reports; he acts as our Marshall; he is our legal librarian…" For thirty-seven years this man directed the affairs of the schools, and with each year the bond between him and the city grew stronger.

Dr. Howe was born in 1833 on a farm near Groton, New York. He was educated first in a district school, than at Groton Academy, and finally, at Union College from which he was graduated with highest honors, a member of Phi Beta Kappa. His early teaching experience was gained in rural schools, and after serving his stint in the Commissary Department of the Potomac early in the Civil war, he again answered the irresistible call to teach. His positions took him to Ithaca, Catskill and Albany.

Dr. Howe was a gentleman in the traditional sense — cultured, educated, loyal and generous. He loved to travel; sixteen times he crossed the Atlantic to tour Europe, Egypt and Palestine! Not that he was a visionary, completely immersed in scholarship and art. On the contrary, he was both practical in his aims and forthright in his actions.

Howe's Adversary: Growth

Perhaps the most formidable of his adversaries — one which greeted him on his arrival, clung to him all during his stay, and was still here to bid him farewell when he left — was the city's constantly soaring population. When Dr. Howe assumed his duties in Schenectady, there were less than 10,000 people here. By the time he left, there were more than 58,000. During one fifteen-year interval of this period, the population zoomed 400 per cent.

The city gloried in its growth. As one gloating 1872 editorial in the Schenectady Reflector rhapsodized:

It is estimated that at least 500 new buildings will be erected, and full as many more repaired and remodeled in this city, this season — We never before saw as much building going on in Schenectady. You can scarcely go in any street in this city without seeing improvements going on in the shape of repairs or new and handsome structures. The mythical fence that once enclosed Schenectady has vanished. We are a progressive people. (1)

Schenectady was spreading like a river in flood, and with each wave of population increase, the schools came closer to being inundated. While the city's population during the first twenty years of free public schools had risen 54 per cent, the school population had rocketed 290 per cent. Yet in all this time only two schools had been built. One was the two-story, four-room brick building housing 280 children which had been erected in the school yard, adjoining the railroad and to the rear of both the main and old Lancaster schools. About this school's location, Dr. Howe had complained caustically, saying:

While the question of how to provide more school accommodations is under consideration, it might be well for the Board to inquire whether, at no very distant day, a radical change in the location of the school buildings will not be necessary. We are troubled with a gigantic nuisance. The noise and confusion occasioned by the railroad is almost intolerable. Scarcely five minutes passes, during school hours, in which some freight train of innumerable cars does not drag its slow length under our very windows; while the engineers seem to regard the vicinity of the school buildings as the very place above all others, best fitted for their signals. The roaring of the cars, the backing up and down of the supplementary engines, the ringing of the bells and the steam whistles braying harsh discord make our immediate neighborhood a protracted pandemonium. Not being able by the above mentioned appliances, to satisfy their insatiate cravings after confusion dire, the railroad authorities have erected a station for coaling their engines adjoining the school lot, and whenever an engine stops to take on a supply of coal, it is immediately seized with a fit of unlimited wheezing, as though impelled by an ardent desire to contribute as much noise as possible to the general confusion… No teacher without nerves of iron and a throat of brass, can maintain a successful opposition to the New York Central Railroad… The future is full of additional horror. What our condition will be when the company shall have completed the two additional tracks now constructing, is something appalling to contemplate… Whatever the New York Central authorities determine to do, they will do, and hence it may be necessary for the school to retreat in as good order as possible, to some retired position… (2)

The other of the two schools was put up in response to the city's accelerated stride toward the east. It was a one-story frame building with a high, peaked roof. Erected in 1868 on a lot donated by the County Supervisors upon what was known as Albany Hill (part of the Poor Farm), it adjoined the site of the present Halsey Schoel. It cost $2,835, contained two rooms, and was built to accommodate 120 children. In hardly any time at all, its walls were bulging with 159 children.

In the meantime, the Classical department, too, was growing apace. In 1869, there were twenty-nine students. In four years the department had doubled in staff and in student body. For several years the College had felt that this department would function more efficiently if it had a less intimate relationship with the lower departments of the school. Discussion of a separation culminated in another verbal tug of war. Some wanted to put up a new building to house the college preparatory department; others wanted to get rid of the school altogether. "It only taxes the poor to teach the rich," objected the opponents. "But it keeps the children of the rich in Schenectady," countered those in favor. The President of the Board elaborated. If these rich children had to be sent out of town for their schooling, that would take a large amount of money out of the city. Furthermore, the amount contributed by the college towards the school's maintenance plus the revenue from those who come from other localities to get this type of education "would enable the city to give to the children of the mechanic and the laborer, or to the poorest child in the city, a complete Classical education or a thorough preparation for College, perhaps even free tuition." (3)

U. C. I. Established

A compromise was worked out. The elegant Delevan building at the corner of Union and Church streets was converted into a school. The grand old building already had a tradition. It was built in 1820 for the Mohawk Bank, (and now houses the Mohawk Club.) The bank occupied the ground floor for its business purposes. Mr. David Boyd, the cashier, a short, stocky man with red face and yellow hair, lived upstairs. History insists he was both conscientious and cautious in the extreme; he often sat up most of the night with a shotgun and a watchdog guarding the bank and its contents. After the bank moved to its State Street address, the building was bought by Mr. Chauncey Vibbard, who had it converted into a sumptuous dwelling, hereafter to become equally renowned for its rosewood staircases and ballroom and its wine suppers. Mr. Edward C. Delevan, a friend of Dr. Nott's and an avid Temperance worker, far removed from wine suppers, bought the house from Mr. Vibbard, and the next owner was Mr. William T. Crane of Knitting Mills fortune.

During the summer vacation of 1872, final arrangements were completed for leasing the property from the College, which had come into possession of it. Then, in a new home, with a new name, Union Classical Institute (U. C. I. to its close friends) the high school of the city branched off into a new life of its own. Four courses were offered, each three years long: the Language Course (for college entrance), the English Course, the Modern Language Course, and the English and Modern Language Course for Young Ladies. This last, intended for those who wished to teach, added a fourth year. Purely experimental at first, it soon proved so successful that for some time the Board of Education hired its teachers from among the graduates of this course.

The atmosphere at U. C. I. was intimate and family-like. Classmates shared the camaraderie of sleighrides, the agony of public declamation exercises, and the anguish of loss by death. The winter of 1874-75 was an uncommonly severe one. The usual means of heating the school, though taxed beyond capacity, were still inadequate. There was much illness in the city, and when three members of the class died, their desks were decked with flowers by their grieving classmates, and, according to custom, kept vacant for the rest of the year.

City Growth Continues

The whole city was mourning its own loss. Its broom industry, undermined by Western concerns, had quietly expired. Other industries in the city were, however, still energetic — The Locomotive Works, the Westinghouse Agricultural Works, the Jones Street Car Manufacturing Company, the Thatcher Elevator Company, the Imperial Hosiery Mills, tanneries, brickyards, knitting mills, and wire works. Their industry pushed the city up the hill to Nott Terrace and beyond — up East Liberty, or old Niskayuna Road, which ran parallel to the Troy Turnpike.

In this area, east of Nott Terrace (or College Terrace, as it was called) and north of Vale Cemetery, was Prospect Hill, for years a favorite spot for picnics. Covered with a grove of fragrant pines, and with a bubbling spring of cold, clear water meandering down its westerly side, the hill offered a delightful vantage point from which to view the magnificent Mohawk scenery.

Almost without warning, the idyllic was stampeded by the practical; workers' homes overran the whole area, and close upon the homes came a school. In 1872, a wooden structure of two rooms, capable of holding 120 primary students, was hurriedly slapped into shape. Lot, building, fences, and all other necessities came to under $3,000. This school was intended to relieve the congestion in the White Street school (already overflowing and still growing) but it was of little help. As for the Albany Street school, five years after it had been "thrown together," it was filled beyond its legal capacity, and the Annual Report distributed by the Board lamented the lack of funds that had necessitated the poor economy of erecting buildings of such "temporary character" as the Prospect Street school and the Albany Street school. A committee sent to investigate at the latter school found it neither big enough nor strong enough to sustain another story, the Board was faced with providing another building immediately.

Land was acquired adjoining the old site on the east, and on the new lot bounded by three streets, Albany, Steuben and Emmett, a building of two stories and basement was erected for $8,887. It contained four rooms for four grades — first and second primary and first and second intermediate. Supposed to have been finished in November of '73, it was not ready until the following April, when, no sooner were the doors opened, than the school was filled. Despairingly, the Board admitted that there simply wasn't room enough for all those who wanted to attend. The schools were evidently operating on a basis of "first come, first served," since one of the rules for students said that any scholar who remained in school until the close of the term was entitled to the same seat if he applied for it on the first day of the following term, and another rule said that qualified students might be admitted to any department "where there are vacant chairs." (4) Presumably, getting into school was both a matter of luck and agility. The pressure on the Albany Street school was temporarily relieved when the Board, in desperation, reopened the old wooden adjoining school half a year later.

Discrimination Abolished

Just at this time two new sources fed additional numbers into the schools — one in driblets, the other in a deluge, From earliest times Schenectady had provided, off and on, a school room and a teacher for children of color. On April 9, 1873, the State Legislature passed an Act forbidding any discrimination on account of race or color. Accordingly, the Board abolished the so-called African school that had been for many years on Jay Street, and distributed the children into the regular classes of Schenectady's schools.

Compulsory Education Brings Deluge

The Legislature also passed a Compulsory Education Act, to go into effect January, 1875. It was a magnificent principle, but its most immediate accomplishment was the hatching of a whole new brood of problems. Perhaps the most unmanageable problem of all was that of finding room for so many additional children between the ages of eight and fourteen.

School buildings staggered under the load. So did the teachers, especially those in the primary grades (first and second). Teachers were paid according to the grade they taught, but whether primary teachers were so poorly regarded because they were so poorly paid, or whether they were so poorly paid because their work was considered so inconsequential is difficult to determine. Whatever the reason, classes with an average daily attendance of 75 to 90, and even 100, were standard practice for the day. And for too long a time no one seemed to get very excited about it — except the teachers and Dr. Howe.

A courageous and farsighted man, Dr. Howe said almost a hundred years ago:

Nothing hinders success of schools so much as the erroneous opinion, so common among the people, that the Primary Department of the school was of comparatively little importance. Almost anybody could teach little children, and any number of them at that. No greater mistake could possibly be made… This is above all the most important department of our public schools. No after training or course of study can… make amends or correct the error of wrong training or improper teaching during the first four years of a child's life… Not only his mental but his moral and physical training, during these first four years (affect) his future usefulness as well as his happiness… What excuse can be given for crowding eighty to one hundred little children, between the ages of six and nine, into a small, poorly lighted and badly ventilated room, under the care of a young and often inexperienced teacher? (5)

Dr. Howe then quoted President Eliot of Harvard as saying that there could be no good teaching without quick sympathy, perception, and a strong personal influence going out from the teacher, that the greater the number of pupils a teacher has to cope with, the less chance she had to know and help each pupil, or to recognize and develop peculiar talents in individuals. "Twenty-five pupils are as many as any teacher, who is not an angel or a genius, can teach well." And in Schenectady, Dr. Howe pointed out, "it is no uncommon thing in our schools to see… a single teacher… endeavoring to do the work of at least three angels." (6)

Notes for Chapter VIII

  1. Schenectady Reflector, June 27, 1872.
  2. Annual Report of the School Board, 1873, p. 27. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.)
  3. Ibid., 1872, p. 16. The free college tuition to which the president referred applied to pupils educated in the Academic Department of the Union School in Schenectady. All a pupil had to do to become eligible was to express the desire and to sign in a book kept by the principal, a pledge which read: "I, …hereby pledge my word and honor, that I will not make use of tobacco in any of its forms, or of intoxicating liquor of any kind, including beer, while prosecuting my preparatory studies for admission into Union College," With this promise, tuition was free so long as the pledge was kept and marks stayed reasonably good.
  4. Rules and 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.).
  5. Annual Report, op. cit. , p. 15.
  6. Ibid., p. 28.

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