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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter XV: Pillsbury Faces Depression; World War II

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[This information is from pp. 176-186 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.]

From the moment Mr. W. Howard Pillsbury accepted the position of Superintendent of the Schenectady School System on August 1, 1929, he was an embattled man. That his woes were mainly financial, that they were not of his own making, and that they were neither a reflection on his personality nor on his ability, made them no easier to cope with. His period was beset by an odious trio — a full-fledged business depression, World War II, and the delayed reaction to the educational policy of the previous administration. All three made the taxpayers uneasy. As a consequence it became well nigh impossible, financially or philosophically, for Mr. Pillsbury to put his own ideas into practice. Yet, in spite of these handicaps, his term showed considerable progress.

Mr. Pillsbury was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on January 3, 1880. He taught in the rural schools of Minnesota from 1899 to 1902, was an instructor at Charlton Academy at Northfield, Minnesota from 1909 to 1914, received an A.B. degree from Charlton College, also at Northfield, in 1906. He served as Superintendent of Schools at Dodge Center, Minnesota, from 1914 to 1917 when be became principal of VanBuren School at St. Paul. The following year he accepted the position of Deputy Superintendent of Schools at Buffalo, New York, where he remained until 1927. From 1927, until he was appointed to the Schenectady position, he headed the school system at Pelham, New York.

The Depression Brings Cut-backs

When in August of 1929 Mr. Pillsbury took over the management of the Schenectady school system, the city's population stood at 95,000. Twenty-nine school buildings were jammed by more than 18,000 children taught by 756 teachers, still, in the main, female. The fact that the whole world was being strangled by the same economic depression that had left the city gasping, was a source of little comfort to Schenectady. Everything that was beyond the barest necessity of life became suspect. The School Board was bombarded with charges of extravagance and volleys of advice. Within the system, Economy, the keyword, was translated into cutbacks and curtailments, retrenchments and rebates. Salary increases were withheld, budgets slashed, swimming pools closed, sabbatical leaves canceled, kindergartens, medical services, library books, school furniture and general upkeep curtailed. Between 1931 and 1940, enrollments dropped by over 3000 and teachers by 160. Five open-air classes, three elementary schools — Park Place, Seward and Mohawkville, and one junior high — Woodlawn, were discontinued. And, as so often happens the less money there was available, the greater seemed the need.

Mrs. Zoller's Leadership

One invaluable asset Mr. Pillsbury did have — an understanding ally on the school board, Mrs. Jessie Taylor Zoller. The Schenectady Board of Education, though it has varied from time to time in size and compatibility, contains in its membership lists from earliest days the names of leading citizens seeking to further the cause of education. Coming from diverse backgrounds — merchant, doctor, lawyer, grocer, brick manufacturer, freight agent, lumber dealer, librarian, editor — these people had unselfishly donated their time, thought and effort with the full knowledge that they would not be paid — except every so often by insinuation and insult.

Mrs. Zoller, one of the few women to serve up to that time, and one of the most dedicated members of all time, took her place on the Board in 1931. Within four years she had become the Board's first woman president. Mrs. Zoller was born in Brasher Falls, New York, was graduated from Potsdam Normal School in 1899, and, two years afterword, was married to Mr. J. Frank Zoller, who was later to become an official of the General Electric Company. Mrs. Zoller had taught in high school, in teacher training school, and had served as an assistant principal. When she joined the school board, she brought a rare understanding of both sides of the educational picture — the professional and the public. For twenty-seven years she missed not one of the approximately seven hundred meetings held by the Board, and her double distinction of having served the longest term of any board member in Schenectady and the longest term as Board president here has never been even remotely challenged.

School Growth Despite the Depression

To attain his educational goals in an atmosphere of resistance, Mr. Pillsbury needed help from any source he could find — both from the Board and from the public. High aims for the students must not, he felt, be offered up as a sacrifice to fear. Unfortunately, he was destined to pursue his aims amidst social upheaval and economic hardship. The economic situation he, personally, could do nothing about, but in making education conform to changing social needs, he demonstrated considerable skill and strength.

Social change had occurred in three main areas during the last several years: the new status of women, the increase in leisure time and the growth of technology. The new responsibilities thrust upon women both by their enfranchisement and by the opening of new job opportunities had resulted in curriculum revisions which offered more satisfactory preparation. The challenge of over-abundant leisure was met partly by attention to subjects for avocations, and partly by evening classes.

Adult Education Matures

Though evening schools had existed since the early 1800's, their purpose for almost one hundred years had been merely to accommodate those who could not attend during daytime hours — either because they worked or because they were reluctant to attend with "the little kids." After the turn of the century, the size and number of evening classes had been appreciably swelled by recurrent waves of immigrants, determined to conquer the English language. Gradually, these classes had come to include all subjects and all ages. Not until the period of the depression in the early 30's, however, did Adult Education lose its air of embarrassment. With the introduction of courses designed to fill the public's varied needs for work and play, people began to go openly to school, without apology, without alibi, even, in time, with pride. For thousands, evening classes which were, at first, a welcome means of passing time, became later, a matchless method of enriching life.

By far the most demanding and most spectacular social change to exert an impact upon the schools, though, came as a result of phenomenal technological advancement. New materials, new products, new processes, and new equipment were being created at a fantastic rate. These, in turn, created the demand for a new category of workman — a cross between the professional engineer and the skilled craftsman. People were needed who could design, make, test, sell and service all the elements of the new industries, and the work couldn't be done without pre-job training.

Vocational High School Develops

In the early 30's, the age at which children were allowed to leave school was raised by law to 16 years. Since 14- and 15-year-olds were thus held full-time in school, and since there were comparatively few 16-year-olds, this law spelled the end of the Continuation School in Schenectady. However, since 1927 a full-time Vocational School was operating partly in the Broadway (Edison) School and partly in the Union Street School. At first the school was not strictly graded, but before long a ninth grade was developed, and later, a tenth, eleventh and twelfth. By 1933, the school housed by then in three different places (1), had achieved full status as a Vocational High School. In the school on Broadway classes were held in machine shop practice, drafting, electrical work, automobile repair and woodworking; in the Union Street building — typing, office machines, stenography, filing and printing; and in the Barrett Street building — dressmaking and homemaking.

Half the school time at these buildings was spent in the skill subject of the student's curriculum choice and related drawing, mathematics and science. The other half was devoted to English, history, citizenship, and physical education. At its peak, the school enrolled about four hundred students. The unusual warmth and understanding which had been so characteristic of the teaching staff of the Continuation School were carried by the same teachers into the Vocational School and with the same gratifying results. Pupils from this school continued to be snapped up by local business and industry, many employers even dispensing with the customary preliminary examinations.

Mont Pleasant High School Opens

In September, 1931, the Mont Pleasant High School had been opened on Forest Road at a cost of $1,200,000, and the "Schenectady High School" had changed its name to Nott Terrace High School. Due to the combination of additional space and a decline in enrollments, there was now, for the first time in thirty years, room for all secondary pupils, full time. Continuing scientific developments were spotlighting the need for the technician. In the new Mont Pleasant High School, a technical department was established, the purpose of which was to train pupils interested in careers as laboratory technicians or engineers. Although manual skills were included in the curriculum, the emphasis was rather upon mathematics and science, and pupils gifted in these subjects were sought for the program. The results were so satisfactory that not only were the graduates of these courses in electricity and mechanics in great demand, but the program itself became a model for other school systems in many parts of the world.

Two years after the opening of the new school, the secondary school buildings were again packed. The number of secondary pupils had reached an all-time record of 4,237, but the school building program was at a standstill. The depression had left the taxpayer with a deep-seated financial anxiety that made him increasingly sensitive on the subject of school spending. During the next several years, two other problems growing out of the accelerating war effort cast their shadows over the school building program: not enough building material was available for school construction, and too many children were congregated in particular areas due to huge housing developments. Schonowee Village was completed in 1938, and within four or five years, Steinmetz Homes and Lincoln Heights were erected for war workers.

Vocational Curriculum Grows

If the school system was becalmed in its building program, at least other departments were making some headway. Despite the fact that Nott Terrace High School had already gained a reputation as being unfit for modern educational purposes, and all efforts to improve the situation had met with failure, new and useful courses — the electrical, machine shop and auto mechanic — were introduced. Extension Vocational Education, a program that had started even before the first world war, and which was conducted in evening classes, was also expanding. The purpose of the program was to build upon the experience of the individual. Aimed, basically, at adults and apprentices, it offered instruction in industrial subjects, and furnished many people with new skills, new information, and new methods. Some of the courses presented in this program had been developed by arrangement with the General Electric Company and the American Locomotive Company, now Alco Products.

Broad Program for Handicapped

A department of Health, Physical Education and Social Adjustment was hard at work. Classes for all manner of handicapped were receiving attention, in large measure due to Mrs. Zoller's particular sympathy. Schooling was made available for the partially-sighted, the hard-of-hearing, the crippled, the hospitalized, the home-bound, the mentally retarded and those with speech defects.

Other programs, too, received encouragement. The visual aid program was augmented; the school buildings came in for more extensive community use; the work of the research department was broadened; a child-guidance bureau was formed, and a museum designed primarily for children (later to become the Schenectady Museum) was inaugurated. The social studies and science programs, the health and physical education programs, the guidance program, the education for leadership program, and the adult education program were all enlivened and enlarged. Mr. Pillsbury's term had been plagued by hardship. That he managed to leave the school system so much better than it was when he took over, is a tribute to his high and practical ideals. That he managed to do so in the face of opposition and discouragement, is a tribute to his tenacity and determination. When Mr. Pillsbury left the Schenectady School System, he was both respected as a man and honored as an administrator.

Notes for Chapter XV

  1. A dwelling at 135 Front Street was used for educational purposes for a short time, but after it was torn down and Riverside School erected on the site, a house at 124 Barrett Street housed the homemaking and dressmaking classes.

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