“Lowell Public Schools: The early years” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters shared the following:

  All of the information listed has been verified by the writer through the use of the Annals of the School Superintendent’s Office, dating back to 1826; the City Clerk’s Office, dating back to 1826; and private correspondence between people both living or deceased who put their observations down in writing.  Most of the information is the result of studying the School Committee Records going back to 1826, the year that the Lowell Public School System was founded.
    Most of the information was part of my Master’s Thesis.  I lean heavily on those notes in the writing of this historical blog.  Lowell’s educational history started with the womaning of 47 country day schools in the years preceding the incorporation of the town of Lowell in 1828.  According to the Clerk of the School Committee (not its proper title  but a little more understandable in todays lexicon), Lowell, in 1828, built the only K through 8th. grade school in the United States.  It was known as the Highland School, and one former administrator of the Morey School, on which site the school was built, remembers that when he was attending school there, a wooden structure was attached to the red brick of the Morey School.  The “Highland School” was listed as being on the site of the current Morey School.  Verification of this school’s existence is sketchy, but it is listed in School Committee Minutes as being in existence.  Now, there are a few problems inherent in this school’s existence.  In the first place, Kindergarten was not in place in most school districts until the 1900’s.  So, it is difficult to determine if a K through 8 school could exist at this time in history.  But, the fact is, that on that site stood a wooden structure dating back to the 1940’s.  The school itself was supposed  to be wooden.  This is a stretch in educational history in the 1800’s, but it was read, and in the reading, specifics of the school were attested to, like the need for a larger building than the pre-existing one-room schoolhouses that dotted Lowell, Dracut, Tewksbury, and Chelmsford.
    Those schoolhouses were run by one schoolmarm.  That lady was responbible or everyth9ing that went on in that school.  They had to get there early to start the fire, and warm the school.  They had to have good knowledge of all subjects.  They had to leave at the end of the day and leave a lesson plan of sorts, with a synopsis of difficulties of the day’s activities. They would be paid dependent on how well they ran their schoolhouse which was measured by:
*How warm they kept the schoolhouse.
*How pleasing of an appearance they presented of themselves.
*How clean their schoolhouse was.
*Their attention to the pedagogy of the day
*Whether or not they attended the Superintendent’s presentation of “White’s Pedagogy” at the District school department offices every Saturday.
*They had gotten married.  If they had they had to leave their job because, after all, they might be showing.
*They swept the schoolhouse daily,
The exterior and interior of the schoolhouse was also their responsibility,  And, they had to choose between school and marriage, as stated.
       The school department was very progressive.  The educational system in Massachusetts had been forged by the Pilgrims, who arrived in 1620.  They immediately sent their children to school to learn to read the Bible.  They believed in corporal punishment and passed it out liberally.  However, they did teach their children to learn, they took part in the formation of various colleges including Harvard.  They used their expertise with the written word to take over much of early Massachusetts.
    Lowell struggled with the twin demands placed upon the new city.  Those twin demands were the manufacture of cotton cloth and the need to educate our children.  We came from a forthright community which stood up for education for all.  I mentioned in last week’s blog that we were, at least in writing, comfortable with the idea of mixing all races and nationalities in our schools.  This integration was unexplored territory at that time.
    In my thesis, I had to compare Lowell to a co-relating Midwestern school system.  Cinncinati, Ohio was my choice for a city.  I can safely say that, fifty years before the founding of middle western school systems, Lowell was chugging along.  We had, by the 1850’s and 1860’s, started a technical education program to teach young workers how to run the textile looms.   We had, by the 1860’s, a fully funded evening school experience.  That was partially to give the workers something to look forward to in the evening.  A famous report, “The Report of the Committee of Ten,” was over three decades in the future when the Superintendent of Schools reported in 1862 that the Civil War would not disturb the education of the determined despite a depression in the city’s economy.
    1862 was the year that a new graded system was introduced to Lowell.   It has been in place ever since.  It seemed to have a beneficial effect on  the student learning.  Sociology was in its infancy, not really even invented yet but the Superintendent lamented the lack of adequate space and stated that;
       “Children in a primary school should never be put to thrashing old straw because there
        is not room in the schools.” (‘School Committee Minutes, 1862)
    The end of the Civil War saw us with a massive number of new buildings needed to teach at and learn from, and this included a hated intermediate school in the city.  No location was given.  It was replaced by the “Jewels in the Crown,” the Varnum School in Centerville, the Moody School in Lower Belvidere, and the Butler School on Gorham Street.  People were proud of their schools.  Soon a new Lowell High School would join them at the Kirk Street location.  It is still used today, and is considered to be in the best shape of any of the high school’s buildings.
    Curriculum was something else to deal with, and I mentioned the early teachers needing to go to the Administration building to study “White’s Pedagogy.”  Pedagogy is a simple word for teaching.  They were forced to study how to be a teacher.  A woman who got married was instantly without a job.  She might get pregnant and show and that was to be handled at home, not school.  That is why Lowell High had so many “misses” in the 1960’s.  My favorite one was Miss Rita Sullivan, English teacher.  I intend to get more into curriculum strategies and questions later.  This morning, I watched my show “Peters’ Principles,” on television and Veasna Nuon was hammering away at the idea that we want the best person in that classroom.  That is basically what all of my candidates on the show have had to say.  How do we determine the “best?”  That is the subject of a different blog.

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