Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Origins of Chazy Central Rural School, Part 2

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the opening of Chazy Central Rural School, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at its origins. These blog posts, which will delve into the historical context of the school’s founding, are based on a talk I gave for the Clinton County Historical Association. Part 1 looked at the broad social changes happening at the turn of the century and their effect on education. In Part 2, we’ll see how proponents of the Country Life Movement tried to bring city innovations to country schools, and look at some of the urban schools that inspired William Miner and George Mott.

Interior of a Rural School
Instructional Lantern Slide produced by the NY State
Education Department
New York State Archives
For the most part, early progressive education reformers focused their efforts on urban schools. Cities had more resources and seemed to be in greater need of attention. So, by the turn of the century, the differences between urban and rural schools had become quite striking. The one-room country schoolhouse, where children of all ages were taught by a single, minimally-trained and supervised teacher, seemed all the more backward when compared to urban schools. Rural school reformers thus started from the presumption that the most effective way to help rural schools was to introduce the modifications that had been implemented in city schools.

In their correspondence regarding the Chazy Central Rural School, William Miner and George Mott most frequently cited three urban schools as their inspiration: John Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago; the Speyer School of Teachers College, Columbia University, which was a combined elementary school, social settlement, and teacher-training facility; and the school systems of Gary, Indiana under superintendent William Wirt.

Elementary Geography Class,
Laboratory School
George Mott spent two months in Gary taking a course for school superintendents in the winter of 1916. Like many people who were interested in education reform he was captivated by what Wirt had accomplished there, and in fact the original proposal presented to the town in November 1915 stated that the new school would adopt the so-called “Gary Plan.” Although CCRS ultimately decided not to implement the plan, it clearly had a powerful influence on Mott and other would-be reformers. 

Gary was a new city—it had been founded in 1906 by US Steel as a company town. When Superintendent William Wirt arrived in 1907, he had the opportunity to create an innovative school system more or less from scratch. Wirt introduced what he called the Platoon System, also known simply as the “Gary Plan.” Its main goal was to maximize use of school facilities in order to serve a growing number of students in limited space. The platoon system divided students into two groups. For part of the day, Platoon X used classrooms for traditional academic subjects, while Platoon Y did specialized activities—sports, music, art, library, field trips, assemblies, etc. They then switched places for the second part of the day.

Print Shop at Emerson School, Gary, Indiana
From The Gary Schools: A General Account
Wirt envisioned each school as what he called “a self-sustaining child community.” The school should contain all the elements that children would find in the adult world, so that they would be prepared for life in modern society. The Gary schools provided industrial and manual training facilities such as printing, electrical, carpentry, and metalworking shops, so that students could gain work experience and learn real skills. Students also worked on the school grounds, in the office, and in the cafeteria.

The Gary schools are a good example of the way the two strains of Progressive education reform could coexist. On the one hand, the platoon system was designed to maximize efficient use of resources and required coordination and planning from above. On the other hand, the curriculum grew out of a desire to provide an enriching environment in which children could naturally learn by doing.

While city schools frequently served as models for what rural school reformers were trying to accomplish, they also recognized that country children had specific needs and that the country school had a different role to fulfill in the rural community. In addressing the broader problems facing rural residents, proponents of the Country Life movement hoped that education and specifically, the rural school, would become a catalyst for change.

From Country Life and the Country School
The Country Life Movement aimed to counteract the forces that it was believed drove young people away from the country and pulled them to the cities. People left rural areas because of the lack of economic opportunity, but were also drawn toward the cities because of their social attractions. The solution, then, seemed to be finding ways to make country life more attractive so that people would not want to leave. 

In looking at the conditions of country life, reformers identified isolation as the root of many problems. It was unavoidable that people in rural areas would live at some distance from their neighbors, but there were other ways of fostering community and cooperation. Better methods of communication, like improved roads, the telephone, and rural mail delivery, would help. So would organizations like the Grange, Farmers Institutes, village improvement societies, and cooperative associations like creameries.

From Country Life and the Country School
Key to bringing about these changes was education, and so the school was at the center of all discussions about country life. Mabel Carney, one of the most prominent writers about rural schools, pointed out a number of reasons why the school could, and should, be at the forefront of the Country Life Movement. For one, the school was a “democratic community institution, representing the whole community.” Every community had a school, and it was guaranteed at least some financial support. As an agent of the state, it had a certain degree of authority and could compel “attention, support, and attendance.” Finally, properly trained school teachers were prepared to take up leadership roles in the community.

The first step was reforming the school itself. In the 1910 book The American Rural School (which George Mott advised all CCRS teachers to read) author Harold Foght identified six elements that were essential to the 20th century rural school:

1. More thorough school organization and administration
2. Greatly increased school support
3. Professional supervision and instruction
4. Modern school plant
5. Practical course of study
6. Centralization and consolidation of schools

In Part 3, we will see how Chazy Central Rural School implemented these school reforms.


Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Country-Life Movement in the United States (Macmillan, 1911)

Joseph C. Burke, William H. Miner: The Man and the Myth (Langdon Street Press, 2009)

Kenyon L. Butterfield, Chapters in Rural Progress (University of Chicago Press, 1908)

Mabel Carney, Country Life and the Country School: A Study of the Agencies of Rural Progress and of the Social Relationship of the School to the Country Community (Row, Peterson and Company, 1912)

Ronald D. Cohen and Raymond A. Mohl, The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling (Kennikat Press, 1979)

David B. Danbom, “Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920,” Agricultural History 53, no. 2 (April 1979), 462-474.

H. W. Foght, The American Rural School: Its Characteristics, Its Future and Its Problems (Macmillan, 1910)

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