Public education started in leaking school houses

Springfield’s Eastern and Western schools both added to soon after their completion.

(With school under way, this is second in a series on the early history of Springfield schools.)

Nonpareil means “having no equal.”

And in 1854, a Springfield newspaper by that name had no equal in waxing poetic over the hopes attached to the building of Springfield’s first two truly public schools, Eastern and Western.

In a sentence so long, we’ll divided it here, the paper wrote:

“We sincerely hope that in this nursery of the youth of our place there may be laid … by the in-grafting of correct principles of truth and right and the assistance of education and morality … a foundation even more substantial than that of stone … one which will continue to grow stronger and stronger until ‘the perfect day’ … casting a genial ray of sunshine on all within its reach.”

Whatever might be said for the rest of its wishes, the Non Pareil’s hope for “a genial ray of sunshine” was on target.

Not only were both buildings unattractive inside and out, according to an account by E.G. Dial in the 1880 Beers History of Clark County, “when the board of education took charge of these houses in 1855, it found their roofs leaking badly,” apparently on days when there was not genial sunshine.

“To remedy this and to give them a more sightly exterior,” it continues, “the board immediately made contracts for raising the walls about four feet higher and for putting on shingle roofs” to replace the flat ones of tar and gravel.

It was a time of change for a growing city.

Twenty years earlier, when Springfield petitioned the Ohio legislature for its first high school, it had been “a community in which as yet there was little wealth, and the country around was yet sparsely settled,” according to the 1880 Beers History of Clark County.

Those conditions served to make the building of the school “the question of the day” in 1834, “and men of all parties and religious denominations united heartily in this measure and worked harmoniously together.”

Established in 1835, “the plan of the school was to make it preparatory to a collegiate course when desired, and not only preparatory, to pursue the collegiate branches as far as the junior year.”

While that approach attracted others from out of town, the school “also had a primary and intermediate department which received a large attendance from the town,” the account says.

But it was a time before the community had reached a consensus that schools were a public responsibility. As a result, Springfield’s first high school went through a series of transitions that made it essentially a private institution.

It first was transferred to the responsibility of the Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, then admitted girls as well as boys and finally morphed into the Springfield Female Academy.

The school had changed enough that Beers contrasts it with the public schools established in the 1850s: “It in no way conflicts with the public schools, but supplies a demand which would be sought elsewhere, if not found at home.”

As James Frankart writes in his 1961 paper “The Educational Rise of Springfield, Ohio: 1850-1875: “The first decade of (public) educational development (the 1850s) was filled with the pitfalls of learning to work together toward the common good.”

Eastern and Western schools grew out of the establishment of the city’s first official government in 1850. In 1851, the City Council had the mayor place a tax levy on the ballot for building schools. The measure passed 372-86.

But the schools’ leaking roofs were signals of the political mess about to come. One of the early controversies involved Superintendent F.W. Hurt, whose name seems to have fitted his personality.

First the school board “earnestly exhorted” him and a principal with whom he could not get along “to lay aside their hostility and engage heartily in mutual efforts to promote the interests of the schools,” Beers writes.

Hurt seems to have had similar problems with students as well.

“The following month the superintendent was arraigned before the civil authorities on a charge of inflicting punishment upon certain pupils, unnecessarily and unwarrantably severe.”

He refused to give the board of education his resignation when they demanded it. This, in turn, led the board to leave the position open for two years.

And when, a couple of years later, Superintendent Chandler Robbins insisted on having a raise to continue in the position, citizens who had seen their taxes for all city buildings raised from 3 cents to 15 cents had a chance to protest.

“In just a short time,” Frankart writes, “the people of Springfield had formed into two factions: one faction in favor of the office of superintendent, the other against it.”

“A dispute such as this certainly was an aid to the circulation of the local newspaper,” Frankart adds, and angry petitions were circulated by both sides.

“The interesting fact brought out by these petitions was the one in favor of the office was signed by the owners of the largest block of taxable property in the city,” Beers writes.

Like other issues, this, too, gave way to another: The relationship between the city and its hybrid high school.

Dial argued “the public ought not to be taxed to sustain” the High School because “no man had a right to say that another should be taxed to educate his children.”

J. Warren Keifer agreed, arguing that tax money should be spent “to educate the masses, not the 47 who attended the high school.”

Samson Mason and brother Rodney raised two different issues. Samson said the public schools had to be improved so as not to offer an inferior brand of education, Rodney that that public schools should prepare students not for college but for the trades and farm work most would graduate to.

Even before the Civil War, Springfielders were grappling with another longstanding issue in education.

Reports Beers: “It should have been stated that the first action of the first Board of Education of the city of Springfield was to pass an order ‘to continue the colored (sic) schools.’ ”

“It has been the design of the board to make the colored schools equal in all respects to the others. An effort was made some years ago by colored parents and others to have the board remove all distinctions in this regard,” the account adds.

That effort, so far as national policy was concerned, proved to be about 100 years ahead of its time.

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