Education in R.I.


To the Editor:

Education came the hard way in Rhode Island’s small towns, or should I say in most towns in the early days.

Education was not a subject to be taken seriously. Many persons believed work in the factory, or in the fields, more important. There was a great deal of talk about formation of a school system, but it was mostly politics, with different towns slowly pushing for schools. In 1811, the friends of education in northwest Coventry decided to build a school; the men of the town voted to build a schoolhouse 17 feet wide, 23 feet long on the land owned by one of the men.

On July 4, 1812, the schoolhouse was completed and there was a celebration of the event. Half of the people in the neighborhood got drunk before the day was over.

For quite a few years, there had been a school in Rice City, but it was nothing to stir the hearts, for it was closed half the time. With so many cotton manufacturing companies, paper mills, clothiers works, grain mills, etc., obviously the whole population was working and had little time for consideration of education for children, as even the children were working.

Boys came to school with cloths saturated with the odor of cow manure. Some classrooms smelled like pigpens. Personal hygiene was unknown. Children took a bath only in the warm weather, when they could jump in the local pond.

Class was held for six hours, with no recess or intermission. No schoolyard. Smoke from an open fireplace escaped in the room, causing eyes to smart. Some children brought their pets to school into the schoolroom; it was not unusual to find pets waiting outside the school. The master could invent his own punishment.

The governor of Rhode Island, himself an owner of an outstanding manufacturing company, Governor Knight urged action be taken to educate the youth who were working in the cotton factories. The state was duty-bound, he pointed out, to give protection to agriculture, commerce and manufacturers, but it was guardian of the public morals and education. The governor’s appeal hardly made a ripple on the public’s conscience, for the talk then to take the children out of mills would wreck the cotton industry.

Now those who promoted education had a long, wearisome battle on behalf of schools. In 1799, a committee or association of mechanics and manufacturers asking for the creation of school districts was taken up in the General Assembly. It called for the opening of free schools and for establishment of school districts in every town in the state. By 1800, the act establishing free schools became a law in the state. Coventry, along with other towns, rose up in opposition and as a result, in 1803 the law was repealed; only Providence went ahead with plans.

Children whose parents could afford it went to East Greenwich, where an academy called the Kent was established. Later, this academy was taken over by the Methodists, and under their direction, it became a noted school. Others chose to leave the state and went to Connecticut. The head of different towns pushed for school districts. Since 1828, public education had been kicked around. Only the rich could be educated; the poor didn’t have a chance.

It was a day in October of 1843 that would go down in Rhode Island history. Wilkins Updike of South Kingston stood up in the House of Representatives and asked to be heard, calling for an examination of teachers and books and supervision of schools by qualified officers. “Our teaches come from abroad, they are hired without producing evidence of fitness to teach or of moral character. They stay, and within a couple of months, are gone to places unknown.” The legislation ought to know what becomes of the $25,000 drawn from the treasury.

The people of the state should know just how things stand in the education system. Up until now, it was shown that Rhode Island was behind the other New England states in this matter.

In some towns, groups of parents got together to hire an instructor who was trained as a teacher, but by today’s standards, he would hardly qualify as a teacher. All he taught was the three R’s, and even this was rudimentary. Most good teachers came from Connecticut. Little pay was offered. He would board with one family then another. When the school year was over, he went away, sometimes never to return.

A classroom could have been in a convenient farmhouse where the children could assemble; sometimes an out building was chosen. No blackboards. Seats were made of pine or oak slabs and didn’t have backs. A class consisted of different ages in one room.

The bill the governor introduced called for improvement and better management, as well as the appointment of an agent to investigate school conditions and make a report. Henry Barnard from Hartford, Conn., a leading educator, was chosen. Barnard came from a state noted for its educators. He called for a selection of a school committee. He approved the idea of school districts, and teachers had to bring certificates to be examined; everything had to be known of their character. Above all, Barnard wanted children take out of the factories. Under the age of 12, a child must be kept out of the factory.

Suddenly, friends of education began to pop up in some towns, urging the appointment of a school committee. School districts would follow. Teachers received a monthly wage ranging from $14 to $26. The committee also adopted a standard set of textbooks; previously each new teacher brought his own books.

The teachers under Barnard began holding teachers institutes. By 1853, there was legislation limiting the hours of labor for children. The following year, minors under 15 could not be employed in the factories. In 1904, school districts were abolished and the towns took over. It has been a long struggle, but from a state of religious liberty and known for independence, “We did it.” Yes, there is still room for improvement, and with Hope flying on our state flag!

Natalie Comstock Murphy



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