The Lancaster School System in Schenectady

After the establishment of the Schenectady Academy, there came another type of public school, known as a Lancaster School. George Rogers Howell, again in his History of the County of Schenectady, N.Y. from 1662 to 1886, gives some of the background of Lancaster schools, which were developed in England by Joseph Lancaster, and relied heavily on the “monitor” system, by which students that have learned material are then tasked with passing it on to another pupil:

The seats and tables were arranged in the center of the school-room, leaving a passage clear around the outside; on the walls hung stiff cards or pasteboards containing the lessons, so that the class, standing in a semicircle, could learn to read and spell from the same card. The tables were divided into partitions, or shallow boxes, filled with sand, and occupying the spaces in front of each scholar. The child was taught the letters and how to make them by drawing them in the sand with a stick, cut sharp at one end and flat at the other, so that light and heavy lines could be made without having to retrace them. The sand was smoothed over with a rule of exactly the same width as the partition, and the lines to rule the sand were made by little pegs in the ruler, on the other side, which was used after the sand had been smoothed. After learning to trace the letters in the sand, the scholars were given slates and pencils, afterward pens and ink. Monitors from the higher classes were assigned classes to teach, being changed frequently, so that teaching might not occupy too much of their time to the detriment of their own studies.

Lancaster wrote Improvements in Education in 1803 and came to the United States to lecture on his ideas, beginning a model school in Philadelphia in 1818 to train teachers who would implement his system. For a while, Lancasterian schools were all the rage, and Schenectady was ahead of the curve, with an act to incorporate the Schenectady Lancaster School Society having passed in November 1816. The act provided, according to Howell, that the school could be established in the “compact parts of the first and second wards of the city,” and that thirteen trustees were to be appointed to receive moneys due to common schools; in other words, there was public funding, which came from the superintendent of common schools, resulting from real and personal estate taxes. The Lancaster School received an equal share as any other common school districts that would be organized.

The trustees were initially named in the act and then were to be elected annually by the citizens. Those first trustees, perhaps not surprisingly, were like a who’s who of Schenectady names: Maus Schermerhorn, Henry Yates Jr., Jacob Van Vechten, Hooper Cumming, Isaac Riggs, Elisha Taylor, Eliphalet Nott, James Bailey, David Boyd, Abraham S. Groot, Charles Kane and James C. Duane. Duane was made president, and the board had to sort out the cost of building a school-house. In December 1817, a committee reported that they had “obtained for the benefit of the Lancaster School Society, from the corporation of this city, seventy acres of land on the hill opposite Jacob Lyons’,” situated on the northeast side of the Albany and Schenectady turnpike, meaning somewhere on State Street. They expected to receive from taxes on the two inner wards of the city $213.72, and just about the same amount from the State, and they had $90 in hand for about $500 total. They apparently expected to receive sufficient additional tuition, because the board resolved to set the teacher’s salary at $750 yearly, “provided enough money was received to make that amount; if not, then the salary was to be all above the current expenses of the year.” Nicholas Van Vranken was selected as the school’s first teacher. The school-house was reported as complete on July 24, 1818, at a total cost of $809.95, and tuition was set at one dollar a quarter, paid in advance. (Prior to that, the school met briefly in a building later occupied by the Union School Primary Department on Union Street.)

Van Vranken presented his first Teacher’s Report to the Board in March, 1820. He reported:

The whole number of scholars admitted into the school since the 1st March, 1819, is 267. The school is divided into 8 reading classes; from the first to the second of these there have been 27 promotions; to the third, 28; to the fourth, 26; to the fifth, 44; to the sixth, 31; to the seventh, 39; and to the eighth, 36. . . . When it is taken into consideration that none are permitted to write on paper but those who write a fair and handsome hand on the slate, and that 154 out of 267 have done this, the excellence of the place . . . must stand unquestioned.

In 1824, tuition was reduced to twenty-five cents, and the teacher’s salary reduced to $500. At the same time it was resolved that “poor scholars, not exceeding forty, be admitted into the school gratuitously.”

In 1833, Van Vranken stepped down from teaching after 15 years, to be replaced by Ezekiel Sexton, who was very soon replaced by James Slater. Shortly thereafter, it was resolved to sell the school-house to Dr. Nott for $225, and that a lot on College street would be purchased from Gov. Yates to build a new school-house, which after some complications was first occupied in July of 1834.

On April 1, 1836, the city undertook the issue of education for the African American population. It was resolved “that this corporation feel themselves obliged to appropriate, for the purposes of the education of the colored children of this city, such proportion of the public money as may hereafter be collected on the enumeration of such children.” In June 1837, $25 was set aside to pay for a teacher in the “African Lancaster School Society.”

Soon, more schools would be necessary, and the Lancaster School Society wanted to maintain control. The Board, in 1839, adopted a resolution:

Whereas, Doubts have been expressed whether any other mode of instruction than what is called the ‘Lancaster System,’ can be used in the schools of this Society; Resolved, that this Board request our members of Assembly and the Senate . . . to procure a law to remove such doubts, and leave this Board the power of causing all the branches of education taught in any of the common schools of this State to be taught in the schools of this Society, and in any approved mode that this Society may deem expedient to adopt.

At the same time James Slater saw his salary increase but was assigned to employ at his own expense a female teacher for the female department. State money was used to pay for a school district library, and the Board appropriated $200 to establish a school or schools in the first ward and $300 for schools in the third or fourth wards or both. The Board proposed to continue using some parts of the Lancaster system “(such as the mode of teaching the names and mode of forming figures and letters) in the first or primary school, and in the other schools in the wards for beginners, but to depend upon instruction from the teachers personally so soon as the scholar has made progress beyond the first elements of literature.” William Cockran and a Miss Stiles were engaged as teachers for the Lancaster School, Martin C. Hall for the Ferry Street School, and Harvey Moore for the Liberty Street School; the latter two opened May 4, 1840.

In 1840, $1396.88 was received, of which $279.37 was paid for books, $48 to the African School, and the balance of $1069.51 for wages of teachers, who also received the tuition fees of about $450. There were 360 children in the schools run by the Lancaster Society board, out of about 1,065 children within the districts.

In 1846, the “gradual introduction of uniform text-books” was recommended. These included: Webster’s Spelling Book, Hazen’s Speller and Definer, Sanders’ First, Second and Third Reader, Hale’s History of the United States, Porter’s Rhetorical Reader, New Testament, Smith’s Grammar, Mitchell’s Geography, First and Second, Crittenden’s Arithmetic, Parley’s History, Davies’ Algebra, Olmstead’s Philosophy, Marsh’s Bookkeeping (Single Entry), Crittenden’s Bookkeeping (Double Entry). Music was also added to the curriculum, and in the next few years additional, and more advanced, texts were added.

The Lancaster system continued to prevail in Schenectady, but the State Legislature passed an act in 1849 establishing free public schools in New York State, and the Board reorganized into the Schenectady Free School System in 1854. The first free school was established in the West College building of Union College, and was called the Union School.

The West College building had passed back and forth between the City and Union College until its final establishment as the Union School. It had an addition that accommodated the Lancaster School, as well. The Encyclopedia of Union College History has this to say:

“About 1816, soon after the City bought Stone [West] College, a Lancasterian school – a precursor of the public school system – was built in the rear. A brick building, one full storey with a second storey under a steep roof, it stood between Stone College and Long College on North College Street. The school sold it to Eliphalet Nott in 1834 and erected a new wooden building on the west side of North College Street. In 1840 the library was moved from North College [on the current campus] and installed in a room in West College that was used for trustee meetings, while the Museum was moved to the brick building, thereafter called Geological Hall.

In 1854, over the objections of Mayor Mordecai Myers, who resigned in protest, the City again purchased West College, this time for $6,000. The structure became Schenectady’s first public school, called the Union School. Razed in 1890, it was replaced with a red brick building called The Union Street School, which was in turn razed in the 1940s. The site is now partially occupied by the parking lot of the Van Dyck restaurant.”

 

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