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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter XIII: Junior Highs Open, Vocational Education Enlarged

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[This information is from pp. 154-166 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.]

At the time of Mr. Kuolt's request for leave, Mr. E. R. Whitney, who had been for ten years, principal of the Schenectady High School, was asked to become acting Superintendent. In June, 1919, he assumed full responsibility of the office of Superintendent. Mr. Whitney had been born in 1867 and had received his training in Canandaigua Academy and Geneva High School and at Hamilton College. Less dramatic in manner and method than his predecessor (he preferred to have the Board and the school principals assume more responsibility than formerly), Mr. Whitney nevertheless possessed a particular blend of quiet conservatism and earnest perseverance which added up at term's end to significant progress.

Whitney's Dedication to Youth

There was nothing about the welfare of children — intellectual, physical, cultural, moral or social — that did not quicken his sincere interest. To give substance to his ideals for them, he sought a teaching staff "morally clean, pedagogicaly efficient and humanly sympathetic with children and youth." (1) Ever-rising standards for teachers were being translated into ever-rising requirements regarding training and experience. Not only was better preparatory schooling for teachers deemed important (by 1925 the local Teacher's Training School was abandoned as inadequate, Brandywine Avenue School to be used thereafter as an elementary school), but people were warming to the notion that a teacher's training should never really stop. The Board came forward with the offer of bonuses designed to bolster the urge for self-improvement among teachers — bonuses for extension courses, for educational travel and for summer school.

Salaries Improve; Merit Rating Adopted

Keeping pace with the rise in standards, in spirit if not in degree, was a rise in teachers' salaries. The minimum for kindergarten through eighth grade was now to be $600.00 and the maximum $1,200.00. In the high school the minimum was set at $900.00 and the maximum at $1,800.00. Supervisors and principals also came in for salary increases. As a further incentive, a ten-point merit system was adopted. Under this system, teachers were rated on such factors as "personality, professional equipment, teaching ability, health, housekeeping and interest in community life." (2) Principals came in for a similar rating. Raises were to be based on ability or merit rather than on routine. And with these as a gauge, it became Board policy to make promotions to important positions from within the organization.

The administration was becoming more rating-conscious in all areas of the system. The post of Director of Research was created and this department probed the system with a battery of tests, scales and studies such as had never before been undertaken. The result was greater understanding and remedial suggestions. The system was learning the meaning of efficiency.

Bulging Schools Again

This was no small feat considering the rate at which Schenectady was still growing. Between 1910 and 1925, approximately a generation, the population had increased by 20,000, much of it in answer to the insatiable demand of industries gorged with war orders. The 1918 school population topped 14,000, but the Superintendent's report of that same year had to admit that forty-seven elementary classes and the entire high school were on part-time. The two high school buildings, adequate for 1200 students, were being made to serve 1900 children with eighty teachers, and only three years later, their walls were buckling under the load of 2,900 children and one hundred teachers.

Schenectady High School's Reputation Tops

In spite of this merciless pressure, Mr. Whitney, who was at that time still principal of the high school, earned great praise not only for keeping the school running smoothly, but for keeping it on a par with the best in the state. According to a Watertown report, the Schenectady High School had kept a greater number of boys in school, had maintained the highest percentage of graduates and had demonstrated the highest efficiency of any first- or second-class city high school in the state. And a principal of a near-by high school added, "There are more good things helpful to a school man right in actual use in the high school at Schenectady than anywhere else." (3)

Organization for Space Utilization

Neither the smallest nor the most unlikely bit of space was overlooked. Classes were conducted in the basements, in the attics and at the ends of halls. The rotation system was used at Hamilton School and the platoon system at Seward School. Unlike the traditional system in which a seat was reserved for a child and stayed empty when he wasn't using it, under the platoon system, all the classrooms, the auditorium, the shops, domestic science rooms, laboratories, and the gymnasium were put to use all the school day. The school was divided into two platoons, each having the same number of classes and each having all the grades. While one platoon used the classrooms, the other was engaged in special activities — on the playground, in the gymnasium, in the auditorium. The practical result, although not the original purpose of the platoon system, was that only half as many classrooms were needed.

New Classrooms built

But makeshifts, no matter how ingenious, were not enough. Two new elementary schools were opened: Pleasant Valley on Forest Road in 1922 with thirty-two rooms at a cost of $544,140 and Riverside on Front Street in 1923 with nineteen rooms at a cost of $316,238. A new wing of seventeen rooms was added to Euclid School in Bellevue at a cost of $238,000, and the capacity of Edison had already been more than doubled by an addition of eleven rooms. The little Mohawkville School on Crane Street was during this period remodeled and equipped for use as an open-air school. The biggest improvement, however, involved a basic reorganization in the system, which in turn sent changes swirling throughout the whole educational stream. This was the Intermediate or, as it was later called, the Junior High School.

Intermediate (Junior High) Schools Open

September, 1923, was embarkation-year for Schenectady. Six buildings were designated Intermediate Schools: Central Park on Elm Street with thirty-nine rooms at a cost of $467,883, and Oneida Street with eighteen rooms at a cost of $236,534, were new; Van Corlaer, McKinley and Washington Irving were enlarged; and Nott Street School received minor changes. In 1914, a twenty-two room building, which cost $140,000 had been erected in Woodlawn, which was then an independent school district outside the city limits. This was the Excelsior School, and it encompassed all grades from the lowest through the high school. At about the time the city school system changed to the new 6-3-3 system, six elementary grades, three junior high grades, and three high school grades, Woodlawn was annexed to the city. Thereupon the school in that area changed its name and its grades. Instead of Excelsior School, it was to be known as the Woodlawn School, and instead of eight years of grade school and four years of high school, it retained only the six elementary grades and the three junior high grades. The high school children were to be sent into the city for their education.

The purpose of the Junior High system was twofold: 1. To postpone for a year, the natural point of cleavage between the grades and the high school which was so tempting to potential drop-outs; and 2. To offer instruction better suited to this eager, highly suggestive, quickly developing, but uncertain, age group. The new grade divisions seemed to offer a more natural split between the preadolescent and the adolescent years. The enriched curriculum with teachers who specialized in particular subjects seemed to offer a more flexible introduction to career possibilities. By uncovering individual potential and by offering a greater selection of courses related to college, trade or vocation, the junior high school attempted to relate each child's schooling more directly to his needs for the future.

Predictably, the more choices a child was permitted in the selection of courses, the greater became his need for help and guidance. Although any attempt to find similarities between early guidance and the genuine counselor of today is largely imaginative, certain steps stand out as having tended in that direction. The child-study movement of the 80's and 90's, the appointment of the visiting teacher in 1906, the tests around 1912 to locate and help the retarded and the handicapped, the suggestion of Dr. Brubacher in 1914 that an industrial survey of the city would be of value to school children, the development of the research department to give tests, collect information and make interpretations — all these and other measures were expressions of guidance. But the first wholesale attempt to keep children from making mistakes about their careers appeared along with the adoption of the junior highs.

Forerunner of Guidance Begins

And a wholesale attempt it was! Guidance was dispensed in classes only, not on an individual basis. Through lectures, movies and printed materials, bundles of facts were dropped into the upper elementary grades, and the pupils were expected to take it from there. The class was called "Occupational and Educational Opportunity Class." The teachers who pioneered in this work had little or no special training. They were known at first as Vocational Guidance Teachers, then as Educational and Vocational Guidance Teachers. Not until 1928 did Schenectady appoint its first Vocational Guidance Counselor, and even then, there were only a dozen or so in the whole state. Today, guidance counselors, a specially trained force, give real assistance to school children on an individual basis covering matters ranging from career decisions to personality difficulties.

Once started, the guidance program shed more and more light on the disabled and the disinterested. Aside from the enduring problem of space, nothing connected with the schools caused as much concern as the disinterested, or — the drop-outs. The law mentioned no English limitation, no history limitation, no grade limitation as a requirement for leaving school — only a particular birthday. In a city like Schenectady where factory jobs were readily available, both the social status and the pay envelope of a job-holder held great appeal for fourteen- and fifteen-year olds. Certainly, school subjects, most of them seemingly unrelated to everyday life, exerted no contrary pull. But the fourteen-year-old was really too young for a factory job, and manual training, by itself, was not adequate training for factory work.

The first New York State law providing for industrial trade schools within the public schools had been passed in 1908. In the years following, the Schenectady schools strengthened and advanced the Industrial Arts program (manual training) in the old Nott Street School. But the shortage of adequately trained manpower continued to grow more and more acute. In February, 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act was passed. For the first time, federal funds, matched by state funds, were allocated for the promotion of education in agriculture and the trades. Support was only partial — no money was advanced for supplies or equipment, only for part of each teacher's salary. But the need for specially-trained teachers and well-planned programs was immediately recognized and responded to. With these moves, vocational education achieved a new respectability, and secondary schools became not just the threshold of college, but the threshold of life.

Continuation School Law Enacted

The next year the Continuation School Act was passed. This act stipulated that children under eighteen who left school before they had been graduated must attend school for four hours a week. The second floor of the Edison Elementary School became the Continuation School, and drop-outs, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen years of age, were offered subjects related to labor needs of the city: business typing, office machine operation, blueprint reading, mechanical drafting, filing, sheet metal work, electrical work, carpentry, homemaking and others. These were reinforced by a curriculum of general subjects — English, mathematics and civics.

The object of the Vocational Education Program was to fit the students in every way — intellectually, occupationally and psychologically — for the jobs they were to handle. Student who were either employed or had been sent by teachers of other schools, attended for one morning or one afternoon each week for eighteen weeks. Half the school time was spent in the shops, and the other half in classrooms where the pupils studied related subjects and personality development. Unemployed children out of school were required to attend five half-days a week until they were re-employed. The city population had risen 22 per cent in the decade between 1910 and 1920; during the same period, the school population had risen 55 per cent. And the Continuation School with a student body of twelve hundred in the mid-twenties, was the fastest growing school in town!

Teachers in this school were a unique blend of teacher and guidance counselor. Of the thirty hours they worked, twenty-four of them were spent in the classroom, but six hours a week were devoted to getting to know the boys and girls at home and at work. For a surprising number of children, this attention and kindly interest was all that was needed to convince them the apparent advantages of leaving school were, at best, only temporary. Many of them were inspired to go back to finish their schooling, some even to go on to college.

Curriculum Revised

Even for those who remained in school full time, Mr. Whitney recognized that curriculum changes were called for if the schools were to adjust to the changing social order. With this in mind, he used his influence in introducing at Oneida School the principles of the Dalton plan under which a tailor, a barber, a cobbler, and other such workers gave part-time instruction in their crafts.

The enfranchisement of women in 1921, and their entrance into activities heretofore considered "off-bounds" for women had thrust new problems upon the schools. Commenting upon these developments, Mr. Whitney said, "This change in the social order necessitates training of girls as well as boys along civic and industrial lines. Civics, political science and science and economics should be compulsory stressed subjects, in order to more properly prepare every graduate for civic duty." (4)

The Superintendent also came to grips with the unfamiliar problem of leisure. The shortening of the work day in industry and commerce had unnerved people unaccustomed to having so much free time. Said Mr. Whitney:

Never before has it become so important that the schools prepare for avocations with the same diligence as for vocations as now. Schooling is something more than teaching the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic, though the schools must teach these and teach them well. The schools must create uplifting likes and refined tastes — for good music, for clean sport, for good literature, for a greater appreciation of plant and animal life, for fine art, for everything that widens the horizon and increases the richness and satisfaction of life. It is the function of the schools to prepare a for complete living. (5)

Whitney Resigns

In October of 1925, Mr. Whitney asked for a six-months' leave of absence because of ill health. Two months later, he resigned permanently. His term had been characterized by progress that was functional rather than spectacular; it had also been characterized by a spirit of cooperation and confidence. Every area of the school system — size, curriculum, and educational ideals — exhibited unquestionable growth.

Notes for Chapter XIII

  1. Walter P. Craw, Development of Schenectady's Educational System Under the Guidance of the Superintendents of Schools, (manuscript, Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y., 1941), p. 75.
  2. Ibid., p. 68.
  3. E. R. Whitney, History of the Schenectady Public Schools, quoting a Watertown report. (Manuscript, Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y., 1919), p. 43.
  4. Folder 9203, on Schools, comp. W. B. Efner. Report of a speech by E. R. Whitney in Schenectady newspaper, no name given, January 19, 192(2?). (Unpublished folder on file at the City History Center, Schenectady, N.Y.).
  5. Ibid.

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