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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter XII: Two Whirlwind Superintendents

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[This information is from pp. 148-153 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.]

Dr. Herbert Blair resigned his position as Superintendent of Schools in Hibbing, Minnesota, in order to take the position Dr. Brubacher vacated in February, 1915. He had accepted a cut in pay to come here, and he had left a position of greater authority in which he had earned an enviable reputation as an administrator. With the noblest aims and the most commendable theories, he succeeded, in one strife-torn year and a half, in reducing still further his salary, his authority and his reputation. In fact, he was out of a job.

Dr. Blair was born May 31, 1875, in Canton, Illinois. He earned his B.S. from Northwestern University in 1899, his M. A. from the University of Göttingen in 1906 and his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1917. In 1903, he left elementary and high school teaching to take a position as geography teacher at Duluth State Normal School. Six years later he became the Superintendent at Hibbing, Minnesota, where he remained until he accepted the Schenectady position.

Dr. Blair was forty years old when he came to this city. All records indicate, however, that he could still qualify as "a young man in a hurry," since he was responsible for so much improvement in the city school system in such an amazingly short space of time. Apparently he was even a little too much in a hurry, because the atmosphere in educational circles once again registered "stormy."

Blair Ends Half-time Sessions

Dr. Blair was violently opposed to part-time schooling, and it is to his everlasting credit that before he left, this blight had been completely wiped out for the first time in ten years. One thousand children were still on part-time when he arrived, and despite the fact that there was an increase of five hundred children while he was here and that there had been no school construction, none were on part-time when he left. To accomplish this seeming impossibility, his ingenuity tapped every available means. He redistricted the children so that there were no vacant rooms and every bit of space was put to use. He proposed full-time use of all the buildings by means of the rotation system in which half the children attended from 8:30 to 10:30, and 12:30 to 2:30, while the other half went 10:30 to 12:30, and 2:30 to 4:30. In Dr. Brubacher's term, school hours had run-full time, 9:00 to 11:45 and 1:00 to 3:00 (4 hours and 45 minutes), or, on split sessions, 9:00 to 12:30 or 1:00 to 4:30 (3 hours and 30 minutes). By sending children home after a two-hour session, the need for recesses li,;ras eliminated and, therefore, Dr. Blair's method became the equivalent of full school hours. It is true that in some rooms there were sixty children, but Dr. Blair proposed that in such classrooms there should be two teachers, one for the faster pupils and one for the slower. The elimination of part-time classes also resulted in an unexpected benefit for the teachers: by cutting the number of teachers required, it made possible salary increases for those who were retained, without affecting the cost per pupil to the city.

Blair Criticizes 'Idle Rich'

Besides ridding the city of part-time classes, Dr. Blair's ledger shows another remarkable accomplishment on the credit side. Under his administration, non-promotions were reduced to the lowest figure in the history of the schools. He was extremely sensitive to problems relating to children of the "common man." He lashed out at Schenectady schools as being top-heavy with college preparatory courses, and therefore, not suited to all children. So complete was the autonomy of the college set, he claimed, that when biology was first introduced into the curriculum, the children who took that subject rather than one of the standard subjects were looked down upon with scorn. "Why is it," he asked, "that only one-third of the children who start school reach the eighth grade, and why are there only a handful of those same children at the end of high school?" Because Schenectady schools are the "playground for the children of the idle rich," he charged. As a weapon against the number of drop-outs, he advocated the adoption of the junior high school program, but the new Board refused to go along.

Second N.T.H.S. Building Opened

The year 1915 marked the appearance of several other educational milestones. The Nott Manual Training School became the Nott Vocational School; the high school, officially known as the Schenectady High School, since its name had been changed from U.C.I. in 1907, was joined by a bridge to an almost identical twin just to the south, and, at Dr. Blair's suggestion, the old Court House building at 108 Union Street had been taken over as an annex of the high school. The Administration offices of the school system were then moved from the high school to their present home, where they have resided ever since. The interior of "108" was remodeled, and there is today no physical trace of the steel jail cells, of padded cells for the insane or of the one and only hanging which, in 1840, took place in the courtyard on the Liberty Street side of the building (now a parking lot for the schools' administrative employees).

Supervisors an Irritant

Perhaps the greatest friction in the system arose not from Dr. Blair's stated purpose of maintaining standards throughout the city, but in the methods he used to implement his purpose. Under his direction, a corps of supervisors — a Supervisor of Penmanship, of Music, of Drawing, of Physical Education, of this and of that, went from school to school, appraising and advising — or, from the teachers' point of view, "criticizing and interfering." Just enough of these supervisors were autocratic and overbearing that the very thought of them induced the "shakes" not only in pupils but in teachers. Both teachers and principals resented the frequent class interruptions caused by these unwelcome visitors. Of the twenty-three principals, eighteen were opposed to this procedure and seventy teachers threatened to resign.

The objection to Dr. Blair's methods, while not unanimous either in the schools or elsewhere, was sizable enough and vocal enough to impede progress. When the Superintendency shifted from him to Mr. Oscar Kuolt, a sigh of relief swept over the schools.

Kuolt's Brief, Effective Term

Mr. Kuolt was only thirty-one years old when he was tapped for the job, the youngest Superintendent Schenectady had ever had. He was vivacious, enthusiastic and efficient, and his administration turned out to be a reflection of his own irresistible personality. He was born at Utica, New York, and was graduated from Hamilton College in 1907. Later, he received an honorary M.A. from the same school. He was not new to Schenectady — having served as principal first of Clinton School in 1909 and then of Elmer Avenue School. In 1913, Hudson Falls won him away as Superintendent of Schools, only to lose him back to Schenectady three years later when he became top administrator for this system.

As a convert of the strenuous life, Mr. Kuolt combined in his position the best attributes of an efficiency expert, a supersalesman, and a cheerleader. He threw himself vigorously into everything he did and believed in, and such was his captivating personality that he usually ended by drawing everybody else with him. At college, he had been a versatile athlete: captain of his basketball team, fullback on the football team and manager of the baseball team. As Superintendent of Schools in Schenectady he revamped and revitalized the whole system of classroom work and introduced new courses of study in English and arithmetic.

To all appearances Mr. Kuolt was indefatigable. During the First World War he continued to add duties to an already overtaxed schedule. Then, near the end of 1917, he requested a leave of absence because of a nervous condition. The following February the Fosdick Commission of the War and Navy Departments asked the Schenectady Board of Education to release him because his services were needed there. Three months later, Mr. Kuolt tendered his formal resignation, and Schenectady found itself looking wistfully back at a term that had been a lively if a short one.

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