History of the Schools and the Public School Society of New York City 1872

Delivered At The Organization meeting of the Department of Public Instruction of the City of New York, on the 29th Day of April, 1871, by the Presiding Officer, Commissioner Hooper C. Van Vorst.

The sentiment of the people of new York in favor of public instruction was early developed, and has been of constant, steady, and progressive growth. It has long since been fixed as a wise State policy. Even in its colonial condition some efforts were made in that direction; but when the State had come to be thoroughly organized, and its political status established one of the first of its deliberate acts was a provision made for the organization of a system of instruction for the young. The importance, as a measure of State, of the establishment of a system of common-school education was apparent to the mind of Gov. George Clinton, who, as
early as 1792, called attention of the Legislature to it in his annual message. Under his administration, and upon his recommendation, the first important and practical legislation was had looking to the foundation of a sound system of public instruction, and the sum of fifty thousand dollars a year, a large appropriation for those days for five years was made for this object. In 1798, and before the expiration of the five years limited by the act, schools had been established in a majority of the then counties of the State, and about sixty thousand children during that year received public instruction. The legislation so happily
inaugurated by Governor Clinton was further supported by subsequent executives and legislatures. Through the encouragement of Governors Jay and Tompkins in the early period of its history, and in later years of Governors Marcy, Seward, and others, all legislation needed to firmly establish and liberally sustain the system was from time to time secured. it is impracticable now to follow the various stages in the history of this important subject. But its movement, although at times retarded, steadily progressed. Appropriations were from time to time made as its wants demanded, and funds were established for its support and complete
administration. The amount of public money now appropriated in the various districts of the State for the support of free schools exceeds ten millions of dollars, and which sum is chiefly raised by direct taxation; and the number of children who received instruction during the past year is about nine hundred and seventy thousand. To such a magnitude has this system grown in the State, under its fostering care, in the space of about sixty years.

New York City Schools.

But I beg to call attention for a few moments to the history of the schools of this city, which has a peculiar interest to us. When that distinguished statesman, De Witt Clinton, was Mayor of the city of New York, a Free School Society was established in the city "for the education of such poor children as do not belong to or are not provided for by any religious society." This organization was formed in pursuance of an act of incorporation obtained from the Legislature, the mayor himself being one of the incorporators, and the first President of the Society. The first school under this act of incorporation was opened in the year 1806. It depended chiefly for its support on the contributions of the benevolent. In the course of twenty years this excellent society had established in the city several well-organized schools, for the support of which they had received both municipal and State aid.

Public School Society of New York City

In the year 1826 the various schools of this society, together with others which were in existence and not under its control, were united and directed under the management of a corporation called the "Public School Society." This organization gave a new impulse to the cause of popular education, and placed the whole system on a broader basis and infused new energy in all its operations. This society performed a most useful service to the State and to the cause of education during the period of its existence, and those who managed its affairs deserve high commendation for their disinterested public service. During the existence of this society not less than six hundred thousand youth of the city had been educated, and a large number of teachers prepared for service. The Board of Education was organized under an act of the Legislature, passed April 18th, 1842, which act extended to the city of New York the common-school system which prevailed in the other portions of the State, the schools under which were managed by officers elected by the people for the purpose. The Board of Education commenced its operations as soon as its measures could be perfected, and proceeded to erect school-houses and gather scholars for instruction. It was evident that the mission of the "Public School Society" was now over, that it was neither wise nor economical to have two systems of instruction proceeding at the same time, in the same field of operation; it would lead to conflict of opinion, and that both judicious action and usefulness would be impaired. This was soon felt by all the friends of education and good government. The necessity for unity of system, and administration without distraction became manifest. In 1853, an act of the Legislature was passed authorizing the Public School Society to discontinue its organization, and to transfer its property, real and personal, to the city of New York, and a portion of its trustees to become Commissioners at large of the common schools of the city and members of the Board of Education; and its property, valued at over $600,000.00, under the act, and by the action of the society itself, passed to the control of the Board of Education, upon whom the administration of the common-school system was thenceforth solely to depend. The influence of the consolidation of these two organizations into one harmonious body was beneficial tot he salutary working of the system.

The Board of Education

Since the year 1853 and up to the present time, the public schools of new York have been under the control of this organization, called the "Board of Education," the members of which have been elected by the people, and during that period of time our school system has attained to its present great prosperity and usefulness. Under its care and management has been perfected a wise and judicious system of instruction; it has progressed and expanded and adapted itself to the improvements which have taken place in science and arts and the methods of instruction. The cause of education or its administration has not been stationary. It has
steadily grown and increased in its means of usefulness. It has appropriated to itself and endeavored to put in practice in the schools whatever experience has established to be beneficial in method or subjects of instruction. The results of its operations may this day be regarded with emotions of honorable pride by every citizen of New York. Under the means and influences which this Board has furnished, the great mass of the children and youth of the city have been educated. Contemplate for one moment the result of its work. It has established and well maintained thirty-four Primary Departments and Schools, in which were instructed this day at least sixty-five thousand children. It has established and well maintained eighty-nine Grammar Schools male and female in which were instructed this day over thirty-five thousand children.

The system of instruction of the males terminates in a full and complete course of collegiate education of four years in the College of New York, fitting and preparing them for any sphere of action or usefulness in life; and that of the females in a Normal College, which at this time contains over one thousand pupils who are themselves being educated and trained to become the teachers and guides of others. The number of schools wholly under the control of the Board of Education was 221, in addition to which there are some fifty corporate schools, partly under the charge of this Board, and who participate in the enjoyment of the public moneys. In the work of instruction are daily engaged 363 male teachers and 2,326 female teachers, making a total of 2,689 teachers. And the extent of the work accomplished by these earnest and painstaking toilers in this interesting department of the work of life, charged
with so much responsibility for the present and future, to the individual and to the State, may be appreciated when it is considered that during the year past nearly 235,000 pupils have received instruction in the public schools, and that the average daily attendance in all the schools under the charge of the Board is over one hundred thousand.

Female Teachers

When it is considered that quite eight tenths of all the instruction of the youth of the city of New York, of both sexes, is performed by females, no one can well exaggerate the importance of the results to follow from the establishment of the Normal College for their education and discipline. This institution, completely and thoroughly organized during the past year, under its efficient President and able corps of teachers and instructors, may well command the interested attention and invoke the best wishes and prayers of all who are interested in successful and useful education. But the Board of Education, as the other organizations which have preceded it, has done its work. Under that name it belongs to the past. But from this rapid summary of what it has accomplished it must be conceded that its mission was a good one, and its work, if not perfect, was at least well done.

The New Department

The Department of Public Instruction, under the recent act of the Legislature amending the city charter, now commences its career under our direction as its Commissioners. I have deemed it proper to give this brief but yet very imperfect survey of the past history and accomplishment of the cause of education in New York, in order that we may be sensibly and properly impressed with the importance of the work in which we are engaged and with the magnitude of the trust to which we have, by the appointment of the Mayor of New York, succeeded. The change at this time wrought is not in the system of the schools, nor in their administration, nor in the course of instruction. Nothing is extended or diminished. The recent act establishes a connection between the administration of public instruction and the municipal government. The Department of Public Instruction is in name and in fact a branch and department of the city government. If instruction is the business of the State, this is as it should be. Our duties as Commissioners are no more and no less than they were as members of the Board of Education.

But as Commissioners of Public Instruction our term of office has been extended, nor may the number of this body be increased or diminished, except by force of additional legislation or by death or resignation of the members. There is, then, before this Commission, a term of five years for disinterested and useful devotion to the cause of education, and the good of the State, and the happiness and welfare of its people. We have succeeded to the public schools when they are in successful operation, well officered with principals and teachers; and when they enjoy to a very large extent the confidence, and when they are earnestly
regarded with the warm interest of the people. For we all know that these schools lie close to the heart of the people of this great metropolis.

We take these schools when our city has a population of one million of souls, and at a time when the proper education and discipline of our youth is justly regarded by every observing mind as the foundation of the continued prosperity and safety of the State and city. Those who have preceded us have so perfected and amplified the subjects and methods of instruction as to have brought the means of education and the acquisition of useful elementary knowledge, in an attractive form, to every house, and within the reach of every child in the city, of teachable years. They have erected for us large, commodious, and well-ventilated school-houses, constructed with reference to the comfort, cheerfulness, and health of the teacher and the pupils. We have, at our hands, already supplied books and apparatus such as are suggested by the latest improvements in arts and science, and advanced methods of
instruction. And we have to aid us an able and experienced Superintendent of the schools, with his assistants, upon whom is imposed the duty of visitation and examination, without which no system is complete, and a large band of skilled teachers and instructors eager for the discharge of their duties, and ready to co-operate with us and second our efforts to further extend the blessings and advantages of education. Both the State and city are liberal in the dispensation of their funds to us; no reasonable demand for money for the purpose of public instruction has ever been denied. For the coming year there is placed at our disposal
two million seven hundred thousand dollars. These weighty considerations should give us a corresponding sense of our duties and responsibilities, and we should be prepared to bring to this work a disposition faithfully and as intelligently as we can, to discharge its duties, as we will justly be held to a great accountability. Ours is not a work of construction, but of improvement and extension.

Dr. Franklin, as early as 1752, advocated a scheme for the education of the youth in Pennsylvania, which embraced instruction in book-keeping, the rudiments of geometry, astronomy, geography, history, logic, and natural science.

In addition to the Latin and Greek, he advocated instruction in the French, German, and Spanish languages. To all of which was to be added good morals and good manners. Franklin thus early saw how useful to the American youth, business man, and citizen, would prove the knowledge of these modern tongues, the languages of people with whom, as he foresaw, we were to have extensive commercial intercourse, and who in a great degree would in time become a constituent part of our own people.

Gentlemen, in the administration of this trust, as Commissioners of Public Instruction, let us be ever impressed with its importance and its responsibility. Let it be our office to devote our time and our attention to the duties of the place. Let it be ours to suggest and carry out any needed improvement and just advance in the cause of education and in methods and systems of instruction, and where errors exist let us correct them in all cases. Let us see to it that the youth of this generation be well instructed; let us place within their reach every means of knowledge which will make their lives more useful and happy, and enable them to become good citizens of the Republic, always remembering that no system of education is valuable which does not tend to improve the intellect, strengthen the physical and develop the moral nature.

No education is valuable which does not lead the pupil into habits of right thought, knowledge, and action, and which does not furnish him with the means to be of service to the State, by being a law-abiding, peaceful, intelligent, and virtuous citizen, whose
highest aim in life is to be faithful in all his relations to his God, his country, and mankind.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: History of the Schools and the Public School Society of New York City 1872
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


History of New York City From the Discovery to the Present Day; Virtue & Yorston-New York 1872.
Time & Date Stamp: