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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter IX: Problems of Philosophy and Growth

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[This information is from pp. 104-115 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.]

Overcrowded school rooms were not peculiar to this city. After the Civil War, population grew so fast that the schools found themselves with not enough space, not enough teachers, not enough equipment, and not enough textbooks. Only in children was there a surplus. In that category, the number soon reached stifling proportions. Even questions like where to teach so many children, or what to teach so many children seemed less staggering than how to teach so many.

Rote Instruction

Of necessity, the schools clung to mechanical routine as the only available lifebelt. Education was reduced to its simplest interpretation — cramming facts into heads. Teachers now felt themselves hemmed in by too much dicta instead of not enough, as formerly. Every child in a specific class was to be taught the same subject, from the same book, on the same pages, for the same length of time on the same day. Homework, examinations, and report cards became the end and all of learning. The highest marks went neither to the biggest brains, nor the hardest pluggers, but to the best rememberers — some times, as in 1874, apparently not even to them. In commenting about a Regents examination given in June that year, Dr. Howe said, "The Regents evidently tried some interesting experiments in the way of seeing what could be done towards befogging their usually fair questions, and I have no doubt they succeeded in doing this in a manner astonishing even to themselves." Only three members of the class, he said, had passed "this almost universal slaughter." (1)

Teaching based on memory and examinations was not without its strong supporters. It was "the only sure guaranty," they claimed, "of that now rare quality, a genuine independence in thought." (2) Strangely enough, opponents of this method claimed that "a genuine independence in thought" was precisely what was wanting. In 1873, Dr. Howe expressed his opinion concerning the aims of the school saying:

Though our system has its regular grades through which the pupils must pass, we mean that there shall be nothing cast iron about it, and we strive to do away with the idea that it requires just so long a time for each to pass through the grades… We wish as far as possible to avoid the objection that a graded school is a mill which grinds out pupils all alike, with machine regularity reducing all to a dead level of sameness, without affording the pupils of great natural talent as good advantages as were found in the old-fashioned district school. (3)

Before long a change in emphasis became apparent. A positive effort was being made to determine a pupil's standing from his work during the entire year rather than upon any one examination. "At the end of every month each pupil is given a pretty clear idea of what his standing is," said Dr. Howe in 1875, "and those who fail have the satisfaction of knowing that it was their own fault." (4)

Individual Pupil-Citizen Eyed

This basic change in emphasis evolved naturally from a much broader change in philosophy, the first intriguing glimmerings of which had recently appeared on the educational horizon. Almost imperceptibly at first, the school's center of gravity had begun to shift from the subject matter to the subject. Could it be, people began to ask, that a human child is not merely a statistic, required by law to occupy a school seat "for at least 14 weeks of the year, 8 of them consecutive," but rather, an individual with a complicated collection of undetermined needs and aptitudes? Could it be that education is really not so much a pouring-in of facts as a syphoning-out of abilities? The growing complexity of life had undoubtedly made book learning more important than ever. Did not this very complexity demand that education must include, besides the accumulation of facts, the development of a well-adjusted, civic-minded citizen? And did not such a citizen mean one who had learned how to make decisions and was willing to take responsibility for them; one who had learned how to control himself and was willing to give of himself; in short, one who could stand on his own feet, work with his own hands and think with his own brain? "It is beginning to be well understood," said the president of the Board, "that the duty of the public school is not all done when we have imparted a little instruction in the common branches of study, or even disciplined the mind to habits of thought and investigation, but beyond this, and of vastly higher importance, is the duty to cultivate the emotional nature, and help the pupil to appreciate the beautiful… We must elevate the character of our schools," he said. "We must… make them good enough for the children of the rich, and cheap enough to allow the children of the poor to participate in their advantages." (5)

Good Teachers Essential

With the awakening of educators and the public to the importance of an all-around education for school children came a greater awareness of the value of teachers. In 1873, the Finance Committee of the School Board pointed out that experience

has clearly demonstrated that the teacher is the essential element of success. Without competent and faithful teachers, whose hearts as well as heads are thoroughly qualified for the work, all other appliances fail. Quality in the teacher, as well as in the mechanic and the machine, is needed to produce good work. If we would have the former, a proportionate compensation must be expected as well in the latter. (6)

Unfortunately, since a true appreciation of the teacher as "the essential element of success" was best expressed through "a proportionate compensation," practical results were not immediately noticeable. Especially was this true since Schenectady was just about this time in the first spasm of another national depression. Not since the panic of 1857 had there been such hard times and so many agencies set up in the city to feed and clothe the needy.

As usual in such periods the schools felt the pinch. The school board reduced all salaries over $400 by 5 per cent, but the people of Schenectady were urged by the Board to bear in mind that although their taxes had grown burdensome, it was not the schools which had caused the rise, but the increase in the state tax and in running the city government. Figures offered in support of this showed that while the cost of maintaining the city government rose from $13,500 in 1858 to $37,152 in 1871, the cost of maintaining the schools during the same period went only from $9,000 to $9,500. In any case, the Board President pointed out, whatever the cost, it was "far cheaper to take care of the children in school than… to follow them with the tax bill, through their street education, to the police court, the house of refuge, the penitentiary and the alms house." (7)

Just as the city began to come out of the depression, the school system found it necessary to undertake a further financial responsibility. The College announced it could no longer pay the salary of the principal of the Union Classical Institute. With the adoption of the obligation by the City's Board of Education, the final tie between the High School and the College had been severed.

Edison Arrives

An unexpected change in somebody's plans in 1690 had almost destroyed Schenectady forever, a change in somebody else's plans almost two hundred years later revitalized the city. Mr. Walter McQueen, wonder-boy of the locomotive plant, master mechanic, and expert designer, quarrelled with his boss, Company President, Mr. Charles C, Ellis, and stormed out of the Works. Subsequently, Mr. McQueen joined State Senator Charles Stanford and a number of other prominent Schenectadians, and formed a rival company. Construction was started on two factory buildings at the opposite end of town from the Works, on a piece of flat land near the river, but before business could get under way, Senator Stanford died. Shortly after, Mr. McQueen patched up his differences with the "Big Shop" and went back to work for Mr. Ellis. Only the two empty roofless buildings remained beside the New York Central Railroad station as ghostly reminders of his abandoned dream.

Several years later, Mr. Thomas A. Edison was having an assortment of labor and space difficulties at his factory in New York — enough to make him want to pack up and leave. He dispatched three men in three different directions to hunt for a suitable site for a new factory. Mr. Harry M. Livor was the man sent to tackle upstate New York. As his train pulled into Schenectady, his interest was sparked by the two headless factory buildings. Quickly, he rushed back to Mr. Edison to report his find. With little delay the great inventor came, saw, and thanks to a financial boost from some opportunity-minded Schenectadians, moved in.

City Growth Surges

The Edison Machine Works, which in the last month of 1886 started producing dynamos for generating stations, quickly transformed the hum of Schenectady's industry into a roar. Population swelled by the thousands, doubling itself every decade. When the Edison Works settled here, population stood at 14,000; four years later it had risen to 19,902, and ten years after that it was up to 36,682. People swarmed into the city, and fingers of development spread up over the barricading bluffs towards Brandywine Avenue, up Broadway hill, over the entire length of Crane Street, north of Nott Street and south of State Street.

The bigger the city grew, the bigger grew the problems relating to the schools. The demand for space, always a primary concern, refused any longer to be put off. The city's big building boom was faintly echoed by the school system's expansion program. In 1883 the little wooden school on Prospect Street had been replaced by a new school of eight rooms on Nott Terrace. The Third Ward, in 1877, had acquired the Nott Street school of four rooms, possibly the replacement for the "Red School House in the Third Ward," so often mentioned in the Board's minutes. The Clinton Street School, also with four rooms, was built about ten years later, and in 1890, the old stone building, the original West College, was torn down and the "modern" Union School finished in 1882, put in its place. The Albany Street School was the next to receive attention. The original old wooden building had been moved to the church lot on the corner of Albany and Steuben Streets. (It was moved again in 1900 to lot 117-119 Odell Street, and converted into a two-family dwelling with one family on either side.) In 1890, the old brick building which had been built in 1874 alongside the wooden structure was demolished, and a new eight-room building took its place. Two years after that, Park Place acquired a similar-sized school, and for three years in a row, beginning in 1897, a different school building was enlarged to fourteen rooms: first, the Nott Terrace, then the Albany Street, and finally, the Clinton Street.

Four Year High School Begins

Changes were also taking place on the high school level. In 1896 the Regents of the State of New York had arranged a system of examinations based on four years' work. In the light of this development, and also in the belief that preparation for college required more time, Dr. Howe recommended that the high school courses be lengthened to four years beginning that same year. The number of courses was at the same time limited to three: the Classical, the Latin-Scientific, and the Scientific. (8)

Nott Terrace High School Built

Keeping the students in school an extra year aggravated an already trying situation at the high school. The rooms were poorly lighted in the Delevan building, the halls, used also as cloakrooms, were narrow, and the ventilation system was inadequate. Yet the attendance continued to increase. When, finally, the building was condemned as unsafe, there was no alternative but to build a new high school. In 1900, a site was bought on Nott Terrace, a contract was awarded for $82,420, and four years later a new school opened with a capacity of 480 students. It was not a bit too soon; the number of high school students tripled between 1897 and 1905, and the creeping malignancy of split sessions had set in. In fact, it was already spreading down into the lower grades.

Foreign-born and Drop-outs Are Problems

The vast step-up in the city's industrialization which had resulted in the enormous increase in the city's population and which, in turn, had so inflated the school population was far from an uncomplicated problem of numbers. The city was not just growing, it was changing. The unprecedented demand for unskilled labor had brought thousands of illiterate, foreign-born into the city. The Compulsory Education Law had stipulated that all children were to be educated, and never before had the schools been required to cope with such a bewildering assortment of abilities, handicaps, enthusiasms, and aversions.

To make matters worse, increasing numbers of these children from foreign home atmospheres, struggling with the English language, having little ability and less interest, began to drop out of school to get jobs as early as the law permitted — fourteen years of age. Dr. Howe tried desperately to slow this trend. With little hope of success, he introduced the idea of an evening school for teen-age boys and girls. When 177 boys and girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen expressed an interest, probably no one was more surprised than he. Classes began in a room of the higher English department in January, 1902.

Dr. Howe voiced the belief that, "Our educational system must keep pace with the demands of the age, In order to be successful we must make our system conform to the needs of those who are preparing for active life." (9) This belief left its mark on all areas of the Schenectady school system. Early in his term he introduced music, art and physical education into the curriculum as regular subjects. In 1895 he introduced kindergartens into the city system. And before he left, even managed to improve the lot of teachers. Not that they were much better off in a practical sense, since their salaries remained too low, and the pupil-teacher ratio remained too high, but in 1897, Dr. Howe induced the Board to rent the YMCA parlors for teacher-training purposes. From this it was but a step in 1904 to start a Teacher-Training Program in Brandywine Avenue School. The school there ran for thirty-eight weeks a year, over a two-year period, and was accepted as the equivalent of a Normal School. It continued until 1925.

The city that Dr. Howe left in 1905 was a vastly different one from the city he had come to thirty-seven years before. It had changed from a quiet intimate college town into a dynamic industrial metropolis with the greatest electrical plant in the world. The population had risen from 11,000 to 58,000, the school population, from under 2,000 to over 7,500. The number of teachers had increased from thirty to one hundred sixteen, and the number of buildings from one and appendages to thirteen. The city had progressed from gas-lighting to electricity, from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles, from bustles to slim skirts. It had weathered financial panics, cholera epidemics, and the stresses and strains of phenomenal growth. It had welcomed its first two-wheeler (bicycle) in 1869, its first piped water supply in 1872, its first telephone in 1876, its first sewer system in 1885, its first automobile in 1900. And it was still on the move.

Notes for Chapter IX

  1. Annual Report of the Board of Education, 1874, p. 36. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.)
  2. Weekly Republican, April 29, 1859, quoted in History _of the Schenectady Public Schools by E. R. Whitney, (manuscript, Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y., 1919).
  3. Annual Report of the Board of Education, 1873, p. 32. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.)
  4. Ibid., 1875, p. 32.
  5. Ibid., p. 13.
  6. Annual Report, op. cit., p. 21.
  7. Annual Report, op. cit., p. 12.
  8. The current upsurge of industrial power kindled a new respect for the study of science. It was looked upon as intellectual, moral and religious discipline. New high school courses appeared in the curriculum from time to time, and in the jockeying for positions of importance, those courses which placed greater emphasis upon modern languages and natural science moved to the fore, while those which stressed ancient languages and literature fell behind.
  9. Superintendent's Report, 1873, p. 41. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y).

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