Education in yesteryear
September 09 , 2014
Cherry Valley School circa 1909
Monroe County Historical Association
Fall has arrived, and school is back in session. Yellow buses are on the road, students are returning to their classrooms, and teachers have their lesson plans prepared for the upcoming year. Educating the younger generation has always been important to Monroe County residents; the earliest schools in the area date back to the late 1700s. This commitment to youngsters’ schooling notwithstanding, present-day education is quite a bit different than education was in the past.
Beginning in the 19th century, as Monroe County developed, all townships were subdivided into districts. A schoolhouse was located within each of these districts. The result was that schoolhouses were generally not more than two miles apart so that each child did not have to travel more than one mile to get to school.
(This means that when our parents or grandparents swore that when they were in school, they walked at least five miles uphill in two feet of snow to get to school, the odds are they were exaggerating!)
Because of these subdivisions within a township, students came from a defined geographical area, and all ages of pupils were represented in a single small school building. School started at first grade and continued until eighth grade; there was no kindergarten. Teachers recorded the ages of their students, and one local educator noted that her student’s ages ranged from 6 to 24 years.
Depending on enrollment, an age-class or two would sometimes be missing from an academic year, and two or more grades would be combined. It wasn’t surprising to teach history to a group of mixed seventh and eighth grade students. English was the official language, although lessons in many Monroe County schools, especially those in the West End portion of the county, were taught in German.
The school year was much shorter 150 years ago than it is today. In 1863, Monroe County schools were in session for only four months of the year: November through February. Monroe County was a rural farming community, and children were needed to help plant crops in the spring, assist with the numerous jobs during the summer, and lend an extra hand to help with the harvest in the fall.
Because school was in session during the winter months, a centrally-located pot-belly stove was needed to heat each school building. While larger structures existed, one-room schoolhouses were generally small, averaging 22 x 18 feet. Some schoolhouses were stone or brick but most were constructed of wooden clapboard. One Ross Township resident referred to the local schoolhouse as a “sequestered shed.”
The typical school day started after the students arrived at 9 a.m. Students would find their desks arranged in neat rows facing the front of the room, where a long, slate chalkboard hung. Some desks sat individual children; more commonly, two students would sit side-by-side at a single desk.
After taking their seats, students saluted the flag, read passages from the Bible, and sang songs. The following school day schedule was documented at the Bell School, located along Cherry Valley Road in Hamilton Township. The day began with arithmetic followed by recess. Once back in the classroom, students studied handwriting, reading, spelling, and geography before breaking for a one-hour lunch. Following their mid-day meal, students began their afternoon session which included reading, grammar, history, and another recess period. Art and music were or were not taught, depending on the teacher’s preference. Fridays would sometimes bring a special treat of mental arithmetic or spelling bee challenges. Most lessons lasted 10-20 minutes.
Students were issued textbooks and a booklet of paper. The small paper booklets were intended to last a month, so slates were often used. Teachers graded students on both their studies and their conduct. Report cards consisted of a numbering system ranging from 1 to 5 — one being very good and five being very poor.
An outhouse was located nearby or around the back of the schoolhouse, and drinking water was usually carried over from a well belonging to a neighbor. This water was placed in a pail and served as the community water fountain for that day; everyone shared the cup or ladle.
Teachers were important members of the community and had a great deal of responsibility. In addition to educating the area’s youth, they were to provide fuel (either wood or coal) to heat the schoolhouse, keep the interior tidy by dusting and sweeping, and make any necessary repairs to the building. One newspaper clipping in 1882 instructed teachers to “fill lamps, clean chimneys, and trim wicks; bring one bucket of water and one scuttle of coal to each day’s session; spend time after school reading the Bible or other good books; [and] lay aside a goodly sum from each pay for use during declining years, so as not to become a burden on society.”
In 1862, Monroe County teachers were paid a salary of $20 per month. Most were women who received an average of $4 less per month than their male counterparts. Teachers often boarded with area families and would move from month to month to different homes. Interestingly, Monroe County educators received the second lowest salary in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
In 1867, the state instituted a certification process for teachers. In addition to needing to obtain the new teaching certifice, educators also had to provide a health certificate clearing them of tuberculosis or any other diseases. The report also had to declare that the teacher did not use “narcotics, opium, or other intoxicating beverages.”
John B. Storm, the superintendent of Monroe County schools in the 1860s, welcomed these regulations and worked hard to improve local education. He pushed to increase the school year to 6-8 months and worked to secure better pay for teachers. By 1875, teachers received an increase in salary to $27.50 per month, and by 1934, the monthly pay had increased to $100.
Additional reforms included the establishment of Normal Schools (including East Stroudsburg Normal School, now East Stroudsburg University) which were designed to teach the craft of teaching to would-be educators. Eventually, one-room schoolhouses were consolidated into larger buildings, bringing students from a larger area together with a more streamlined and consistent format to their education.
As another academic year begins, it is interesting to reflect back on how education has remained the same but has also changed over the years. Schools continue to be a vital, central part of our community, and, no matter how early students wake for the bus these days, the importance of education cannot be overstated, nor can the positive impacts made on society by persons who value that education.