Palaces for the People’s Children?  A Very Short History of Providence Public Schools  

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19th century classroom

The Providence Eye is inaugurating a series on the origins of the names of Providence schools, primarily, but not exclusively, the public schools.

Everyone knows who Martin Luther King Jr. was, and ditto for Roger Williams. But who was Nathan Bishop? Who was George J. West? Who was Mary Fogarty?

When did they start naming schools?

Why are so many schools named for men?

What had they done to deserve a school name?

How is the student population reflected in the names of the schools they attend?

Every school has its particular history, but the overall history of Providence public schools is a good place to start to understand the school system’s development.

250 kids in one schoolroom

While there were several efforts to create public (then called “common”) schools in the early years of the colony of Rhode Island, and numerous private schools emerged for those who could pay, the General Assembly passed an act in1800 proposing free, public-supported schools (specifically for white children). Most of Rhode Island’s towns lobbied against the act, then proceeded to ignore it, but Providence (population 7,614) persevered. Conditions were less than ideal: each of the four new schoolhouses held up to 250 students of any age from 6-18, all seated in one room with one master and one usher in charge.

By 1828 the population of Providence had doubled (it was 16,836 in 1830), and these schools were, not surprisingly, found wanting. A new act was passed, allowing the schools to be financed from lotteries as well as excise taxes. This time Black children were not excluded, though their school, Meeting Street, only took children up to the age of ten. The schools that white students attended allowed students up to the age of sixteen, though most were aged 6-12, as older children went to work. Boys preparing for college would go to a tutor or one of the private schools. Higher education was not available for females in Rhode Island for over sixty years.

Asa Messer School, now unoccupied

In 1832, when Providence became a city with a population of some 17, 000, 1,150 children were being educated in Providence’s eleven public schools, and people felt something had to be done about the overcrowding.  For comparison, at the same time, 1,682 children attended the city’s 56 private schools.

In 1839, the school board hired a young Brown graduate, Nathan Bishop, who became Providence’s first superintendent of schools. He examined the city’s existing schools and found them all unfit for educating children; within two years thirteen new schoolhouses were built.

By 1841, Providence had nineteen schools, and the school board was saving money by hiring women teachers who generally earned three-fifths of the salary of male teachers—seven men and 36 women were trying to educate almost three thousand children, but perhaps fortunately, absenteeism was high, with one fifth of the children at work, rather than attending school. Nevertheless, when educator Henry Barnard was brought in to survey the state’s schools in 1843, he praised Providence, which, he said “has made itself a bright example to many other cities.”

The city realized it needed a high school and one was built on Benefit Street, between Angell Street and Waterman Avenue (on a sloping grassy site now known as RISD Beach) and opened for both boys and girls in 1843.

The city also needed to deal with delinquent children, and in 1850, the Reform School was created for children under 18 who had been convicted by the courts or sent by their parents if they were not “amenable to parental discipline.” It was transferred to the state in 1880, and in 1881, the school moved from the old Tockwotton House in Providence to the state farm at Cranston. The house was demolished in 1889, the land became a park, and in 1951 Fox Point Elementary School, now named for late Brown president Vartan Gregorian, was built on the site.

Photo courtesy of Small State History.com

Desegregation and Immigration

By the late 1850s, there was a movement to desegregate the Providence schools.  As of 1828 Black children could only attend the primary (ages 5-9) and grammar (ages 10-14) schools housed on Pond Street and Meeting Street, and were denied admission to the high school. Restauranteur and businessman George Downing and other Black citizens petitioned the Providence School Committee in 1864. When that was unsuccessful, they took their campaign to the General Assembly. As George Henry, a prosperous citizen in Providence’s Black community, wrote in his memoir, “my proposal was to petition the General Assembly that my child should go to school in my own ward, where I pay taxes and vote.” This argument was successful and in March 1866, the RI legislature determined that “in deciding upon application for admission to any school in this State, maintained wholly or in part at the public expense, no distinction shall be made on account of the race or the color of the applicant.”

Throughout the nineteenth century Providence grew, prospered, attracted immigrants from Europe, Quebec and the New England countryside, and after the Civil War, Blacks from the South. It became, without much exaggeration, the workshop of the world. Under Thomas Doyle, the ambitious and energetic mayor who served several terms in the 1870s and 1880s, the school system expanded enormously to cope with the number of children and the need for at least a nominally literate workforce.

The fanciest (and most expensive, at $133,668 dollars) Gilded Age Providence school was probably Point Street, which was demolished in 1960 to make way for I-95. In 1873, it was described as “a palace for the people’s children.” It had twelve classrooms and an assembly room and library under its mansard roof, a design forerunner of Providence City Hall, completed five years later.

Point Street School, circa 1903

Point Street School and a new high school on Summer Street were planned and built just before the Great Panic of 1873. The depression that followed lasted most of the 1870s and panicked the School Committee who decreed smaller, cheaper buildings “avoiding thereby the evils which spring from massing large numbers of children under one roof.” (Ironically, this is the opposite of PPSD’s current policy of “newer and fewer” schools. One hundred and fifty years ago the School Board was convinced that smaller schools would “avoid the evils which spring from massing large numbers of children under one roof.”)

By 1886, there were 92 public schools in Providence—one high school, eleven grammar schools, thirty-eight intermediate schools, and forty-three primary schools—all named for the streets where they were constructed.

After the late nineteenth-century flurry of construction—and surge in population and school board retrenchment—the next crisis occurred in the mid-1920s, by which time Providence was bursting at the seams with over a quarter million inhabitants (in 2022 it was an estimated 189,000). An outside consultant, Dr. George D. Strayer of Teacher’s College, Columbia University, was hired to survey the system. He found serious shortcomings with underfunding, old and unsuitable buildings and overcrowded classrooms. He recommended a tripartite system consisting of elementary (K-6) schools, junior high (7-9) and senior high (10-12).

Part of this plan was soon put into effect and led to the creation of Nathan Bishop School on Elmgrove Avenue (1929), Oliver Hazard Perry School on Hartford Avenue (1930), Nathanael Greene School on Chalkstone Avenue (1930), Gilbert Stuart School, Bucklin Street School (1931) and Roger Williams School on Thurbers Avenue (1932).

Those five names seem to be saying something about the values the school board hoped the students would emulate: reform, military prowess, artistic skill, religious toleration.

Recent Reforms

In more recent times, efforts at reform resumed in 1993, with the report of the PROBE commission which found “a school system confused about priorities, interested in personal rewards, patronage possibilities, or bureaucratic functions.”

Little happened until 2019 when the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education called in a team from Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. The investigators pointed out that while poverty and English-language learners were not unique to Providence there were unusually deep, systemic dysfunctions in the Providence Public School District’s (PPSD) education system that clearly, and very negatively, impacted the opportunities of children in Providence. They concluded “the great majority of students are not learning on, or even near, grade level, with rare exception; teachers are demoralized and feel unsupported; most parents feel shut out of their children’s education; principals find it very difficult to demonstrate leadership, many school buildings are deteriorating across the city, and some are even dangerous to students’ and teachers’ wellbeing.”

 

These conclusions have been reached before, at least eight times over the last two centuries. Each time new schools were built, more teachers were hired, new curricula were tried, and new ways of organizing the schools were sought. Urban schooling is difficult, its recent problems compounded by COVID, poverty, inadequate buildings and a high proportion of English language learners. But the schools have to persevere, find a way to reach the students where they are and guide them to where they could be.

Jane Lancaster PhD is a historian and former public school teacher (in the UK) who lives in Providence. She is an award-winning historian and has taught at RISD and Brown, and even (once) in Taiwan.