A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I: Historic Contexts
6 - Education
What happens inside the classroom is only a small part of education. What, where, and how students learn is a function of the organization of the school system, prevailing theories about learning, local political pressures, and, of course, financial realities. The history of education in St. Louis is little different than that of most American cities, in that it forms another framework through which to view the community's past.
Ecoles des St. Louis
Earliest attempts at public education followed closely behind the founding of the village. Jean Baptiste Truteau's fee schools for boys and Madame Marie Rigauche's for girls served the social elite of St. Louis. But the Lancastrian, or monitorial, school model seemed the most viable. A monitorial school had one or two large rooms with students sitting on benches. Teachers started each day by calling several "monitors," who were pupils themselves, to their desk to learn the lesson for the day. They, in turn, taught a group of young scholars. One or two teachers could oversee several hundred pupils. The first such each-one-teach-one format school opened in St. Louis in 1815, based on the efforts of Thomas Riddick. His lobbying in Washington for a land grant for public schools compelled Congress to create a special school district in St. Louis in 1817, which set aside land for schools upon statehood.
Even after the founding of the first St. Louis school board in 1833 and first elementary schools five years later, St. Louis pupils attended monitorial-style schools. Funding came from the city earmarking five percent of the income it derived from its common lands, providing the lion's share of school dollars. Just after the Civil War, three of every four dollars the public schools received came from property taxes.
St. Louis opened its first high school in 1855, among the first coeducational high schools in the United States. When completed at 15th and Olive, one pundit hailed it as the "most lavish schoolhouse west of New York." And with good reason: the school cost some $50,000 to build. Within five years, 301 young scholars attended.
Gilded Age Americans came to realize that education was more than just the proverbial Three R's. School is also a place where youngsters learn discipline, life skills, and values as well as the mechanics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Working under such thinking, William Torrey Harris built St. Louis Public Schools into a national model during the 1870s, combining systematic teaching methods, strong discipline, and basic proficiencies. Susan Blow proposed to Harris that St. Louis Public Schools try the new "kindergarten" concept, an experiment in teaching young children needed skills before they start going to school all day. He authorized Blow to create the city's first kindergarten in 1875; at the century's end, nearly 200,000 St. Louis children attended them. So effective was the system Harris built that St. Louis won five grand prizes at the 1900 Paris Exposition for work created by local elementary and high school students.
Traditional views about school design suggested that almost any room could be transformed into a classroom. Early schools were rented spaces, after all. As recently as the late 1860s, the system leased rooms for African-American schools. By the turn of the century educational thinking held that the construction, design, and floor plan reflected the priorities of the school and its effectiveness as a place for learning.
St. Louis architect William B. Ittner was a national leader in designing school buildings. He combined ideas from other fields to create a new type of educational facility. He used ideas from urban planning to design interiors with better traffic flow and movement. He designed schools around the functions they needed to serve and the jobs that had to be done, letting the design emanate from them. Today's public school buildings designed by William Ittner, such as Soldan or Mullanphy, remain some of the finest early twentieth-century architecture in St. Louis.
As St. Louis grew with an influx of foreigners at the turn of the century, so too did its student population. These new arrivals placed further demands on the system because of language barriers. As late as 1881, 20,000 St. Louis teachers still used German in daily lessons; English became the only language used in public schools by legal mandate in 1887.
The other demand on the system that led to physical plant growth was compulsory education, signed into law in Missouri in 1905 by Governor (and former St. Louis attorney) Joseph Folk. Requiring that children go to school came from an impetus beyond the intrinsic value of an educated population. Progressive reformers during this period sought to end child labor in factories. Child labor laws prohibiting hiring workers below a certain age created a new problem, though: what to do with all those youngsters all day while parents worked. Requiring them to go to school addressed that need. At the same time, though, it also put an added burden on public school systems.
St. Louis public education is both heir and victim to its history. It holds the legacy of innovation and excellence in teaching, and possesses some of William Ittner's finest architectural work. The shoulders of William Torrey Harris and Susan Blow are there to stand upon. At the same time, it is also a victim of past politics. Its tax base has receded since the city is hemmed in by the 1876 Home Rule Charter, with highest property values-and taxes-outside the city system. Yet the demands on the system are greater than ever. Court-mandated desegregation is but the tip of the educational iceberg. Schooling requires quality teachers, new technology, and modern tools-all of which take money. Yet the ghost of 1876 remains.
Parallel to the public school system are private and parochial ones. Of course, private schooling for which parents paid was the only available education through the first third of the 1800s. But even as tax-supported public schools grew in quantity and popularity, private schools continued to thrive. In their own ways they address specific concerns, needs, or priorities.
The largest such group are those affiliated with religious denominations. The Catholic Church has a long history in St. Louis education. Fr. Augustin Paris organized a school for black Catholic girls in 1845 at 3rd and Poplar, most of whom were daughters of free blacks, but closed the following year under the pressures of the controversy over educating African-Americans. The Christian Brothers opened a school in 1849 in the new three-story addition on the north side of the Cathedral (now the Old Cathedral) as well.
The biggest of them, and the largest school system in Missouri, is the Archdiocese of St. Louis, established in 1886. Much of the growth of Catholic schools stemmed from the immigrant experience. Many preferred to send their children to parochial schools, where they would be taught in the Catholic faith and their native tongue rather than what they perceived as Protestant schools. The Archdiocese centralized administration of some seventy Catholic elementary schools enrolling 22,000 students.
Students with Special Needs
St. Louis has also offered schools responding to physical special needs as well. St. Joseph School for the Deaf opened in the 1840s. The Missouri School for the Blind opened in 1851; the state of Missouri took over its operation four years later. In 1860, it was the first school in the United States to adopt the new and revolutionary way for the visually impaired to read: the Braille system. Developed by Louis Braille, it is a system of raised dots representing letters, similar to the way Morse code uses dots and dashes on a telegraph. The Charles Turner Open Air School for Handicapped Children (now Turner Middle Branch) opened in 1925 for African-American children who were handicapped or tubercular. Although the first of its type for African-Americans in the United States, the school at 4235 Kennerly was phased out in the 1960-61 academic year.
Schools were segregated by race. Churches operated the first schools for African-American children until 1847, when Missouri law forbade teaching African-Americans to read and write. First Baptist Church pastor John Berry Meachum responded by opening the "Freedom School" on a barge in the Mississippi River, which was federally owned, and thus beyond the reach of state law.
Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision, gave legal foundation to segregated schools. Giving the power of law to the separate-but-equal doctrine, school systems nationally kept black and white children apart. The problem was that separate wasn't equal. In its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, the court reversed itself, saying that separate education was, by definition, unequal. Amidst a rising tide of social awareness about racial equality, Catholic schools in St. Louis had already figured this out, desegregating the Archdiocese system in 1948. The Brown decision did bring about one immediate change in St. Louis education. Stowe Teachers College evolved out of the Sumner High School program to train black school teachers since 1890. St. Louis Public Schools also ran a white counterpart dating to 1857, later named for former superintendent William Torrey Harris. The two merged in 1955, forming Harris-Stowe Teachers College. Harris-Stowe moved into the former Vashon High School building on Laclede Avenue in 1963, and became part of the state university system in 1979, as Harris-Stowe State College. Ironically, the other two major institutions of higher learning had already integrated their student bodies: St. Louis University in 1944 and Washington University ten years later.
But Brown v. Topeka Board didn't fully address the issue of de facto segregation brought on by housing patterns. Blacks were relegated to their own city neighborhoods, where their children attended neighborhood schools. When housing is segregated, so too are the schools. Funding, and therefore educational quality, receded during the 1950s and 1960s as well. What had once been one of the best public school systems in the United States had plummeted. Black students especially suffered as public schools declined in a core city with a disproportionately high African-American population. Three in four students in the St. Louis Public Schools were black in 1980, while more than two in five white youngsters attended school outside the system. Public education in St. Louis came under court supervision in 1980, with the goal of desegregating St. Louis Public Schools.
Like the schools, church-driven colleges came first. Private institutions followed, with government-supported colleges arriving most recently. They followed the population westward, and even paralleled the broader racial policies.
In 1818, Bishop Louis William Duborg opened St. Louis Academy. It elevated to "St. Louis College" in two years, and already had a two-story building for the 65 students using Duborg's personal library of 8,000 volumes for its printed materials. St. Mary's of the Barrens Seminary opened in 1822, so St. Louis College closed its duplicative program, but a handful of priests still taught other classes. The College closed in 1826, since clerical demands on faculty members left too little time to teach. The Society of Jesus reopened it two years later, chartering St. Louis University in 1832. First graduates received diplomas two years later.
Within a generation, other institutions for higher learning followed. The Missouri Synod-Lutheran Church opened its Concordia Seminary in 1849 as the first co-educational college in the state. Four years later, abolitionist Unitarian minister William Greenleaf Eliot created Eliot Seminary. With support of such prominent local figures as Wayman Crow, Hudson Bridge, and John Howe, it became Washington University in 1857, named for its street address.
Universities expanded beyond Grand in the 1880s along with the city. St. Louis University moved in 1888 to Grand and Lindell from its 9th and Washington quarters. St. Francis Xavier Church, known popularly as College Church, opened there ten years later. Meantime, Washington University continued its plans to move beyond the city limits.
Washington University erected Brookings Hall in 1901, and Ridgeley Hall as the library the next year. But it remained in its Washington Avenue home for two more years. The new university site and buildings were part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition administration, so it waited until the fair closed to relocate. The University's main campus expanded west, away from the city limits.
Such was not the case with St. Louis University. Hemmed in, the core of the city had enveloped the once-suburban location, and the institution was fast running out of room. Territory became available in the late 1950s, though, when urban renewal razed the Mill Creek Valley area, to the south and east of campus. SLU purchased 22.5 acres in 1962 for future buildings. With Midtown on the skids, SLU president Fr. Paul Reinert founded the Midtown Forum in 1972 to attract businesses and low-income housing back to the region. Further development spun from Grand Center, formed in 1987, to bring fine arts and performing arts organizations to the area between Powell Hall and the SLU campus.College enrollment was growing rapidly by the early 1960s, and skyrocketed as the "baby boomers" came to college age. Local response focused on St. Louis County. St. Louis Community College campuses opened at Florissant Valley and Meramac, as well as Forest Park Community College at the intersection of U S Route 40 and Kingshighway. The University of Missouri formed a new branch of its system in 1963 in north St. Louis County, UM-St. Louis.