“Lowell Public Schools in 1862” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters shares another essay on the history of the Lowell public schools.
By the year, 1862, there were 47 primary schools, most were one room schoolhouses.  There was 1 junior high school which was considered intermediate and was not well liked, 8 grammar schools, and 1 High School in Lowell.  The programs, which were altered somewhat to appease those in the Civil War, included vocational training.  Grading was discussed in a previous writing, it was very successful and kept the need for corporal punishment down from a high of ten incidents per day to a low of one punishment per day.
     The role of the Principal changed markedly.  The Principal no longer sat in one large school room with hundreds of students but in an office where his influence “…is more felt through all (of) the building under the plan of smaller rooms.”  He was the chief authority figure in the school, and people liked the change, which also was instituted in 1862.  It was a big year for change in the school system.
     The “Intermediate School” was broken up and “absorbed into the various departments of the Grammar School…”  There was “great disappointment” in the intermediate school.  It was thrown out of “…the sphere of instruction…” (School Committee Minutes, 1862).  There was an effort to try city-wide grading.  One course was in Spelling, one in Reading, and one in “Physical Training.”   Mr. Scripture was a person who taught “by having each student understand the office and power of each of the vocal organs. (ibid.).  “The growth of the mind cannot be stayed.” according to the Superintendent.  Lowell was a highly centralized school system and the Superintendent was a powerful player.
     Grading, as discussed “Has already justified itself and proved its own wisdom.  The actual advantages gained by thus grading our schools have far outrun all (of) our theories and exceeded our highest participation,” the Superintendent said at a meeting.  “The wear of nervous energies is greatly reduced.” (ibid.)
     There was one teacher in a hall of two hundred people, probably to save money in the classroom.  There was a steady cry for grading and pressure to get rid of excess teachers, especially since the number of students decreased during the war.  The Appropriation of money was playing a major part in academic considerations – returning measurable financial investment per student was considered essential by City Fathers.
     While the City Council could direct or advise the School Committee, the committee was not a city committee or  agency.  All existing records point to it being autonomous.  (Mayor’s Report to the Board of Aldermen).  “Despite the war,” the Superintendent said, “…the year has not failed to bring its full proportion of responsibilities and duties.” (ibid)  “Our public schools have not been neglected, and the work of education must go on.”
     While admitting that the lack of educational progress was offset by education and its processes, the Superintendent noted that, in spite of, or because of , the Civil War, the “…cherished and noble plan was passing through fierce trials.” (Superintendent’s Report of 1862)  “The plan is to provide a decent education to all who want it.  In spite of the conflict, he reported, “Idle hands will not remain idle heads.” (ibid).  To guarantee that, the school system continued to offer both evening and morning classes, with vocational curriculum was the mainstay of the evening classes, even though an academic offering still existed.  Academic pursuits continued as the core of the daytime program.
      We learned, in Lowell’s educational system, to “press on” and how did we do that in earlier times?   “Records show that we did it with sheer tenacity.”  Our nation was in a fratricidal war, but we continued teaching and learning.  What was our curriculum?  What was our promise?  We manufactured it in the same way as those people at the time manufactured cloth.  We refused to give in.  To the war, or to the naysayers in the educational system.  In “The Field of Dreams,” James Earl Jones tells Kevin Costner that the game of baseball was the constant.  In Lowell’s educational system, it was the consistency of our academic excellence that was constant.  We taught vocational training, but we excelled in academic excellence.
     Progress at the High School was rewarded by the Carney Medals.  The medals recognized the top six students in the class, three males, and three females.     The school building program was underway in eighteen years, during the 1880’s. The three “jewels” were the Coburn, the Moody, and the Butler.  The Pawtucket Memorial was built in 1880 along the same design as the Butler.  Both have been torn down.  They were magnificient buildings and I miss them.  The Pawtucket Memorial had only four principals including Mr. Leonard Flynn who served approximately thirty two years.  Mr. McAvinnue served over thirty years and brought the school to Mass at St. Rita’s every Holy Day in the Catholic Church.  He did not seem to care if the students were Catholic or Protestant.  Mass was Mass.
     My mind is on the school system tonight.  More on that at another time.