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From the promise of public education to a national model: facts and history about NYC schools

The city has come a long way from early ambitions to expand public education to all to today's debates over testing, charters and Common Core standards.

New York began funding public education as early as 1795, but school attendance was far from universal even by the 19th century.

It was not unusual for children to be taking on jobs instead of going to school and thousands of new immigrants were turned away from an overburdened public education system. In the absence of public education institutions, philanthropic agencies in the poorest neighborhoods worked to provide educational programs, lodging and even meals.

But after the consolidation of New York City in 1898, Charles B.J. Snyder, superintendent of school buildings, directed an expansive development of new educational structures throughout the city. By the mid-twentieth century, New York City's public school system had developed, in many respects, into a national model.

The New-York Historical Society's staff took a look back at key moments and figures in the city's public education.

The African Free School

James McCune Smith graduated from the African Free
Photo Credit: Patrick H. Reason, James McCune Smith, ca. 1850. New-York Historical Society

James McCune Smith graduated from the African Free School (with honors) at 15. Despite the passage of New York's gradual manumission act, many African Americans were still barred from attending public schools. Located on Mullberry Street, the African Free School was committed to educating free black children to become productive members of society. After studying abroad in Scotland, Smith became the first university-trained African American doctor and an active abolitionist.

--Alice Stevenson, director of New-York Historical Society's DiMenna Children's History Museum

Child laborers

Today, no one expects kids to work for
Photo Credit: Lewis Hine, Samuel Cohen, 1908-1912. New-York Historical Society.

Today, no one expects kids to work for a living, but people in earlier times had different ideas about childhood. The majority of poorer children ? particularly from agricultural or urban immigrant communities ? worked instead of going to school. In 19th century New York, boys (and some girls) as young as 5 sold newspapers on street corners. When two of the newspapers decided to increase the newsies' wholesale price, the angry newsies did something they had seen adults do: they went on strike.

? Alice Stevenson, director of New-York Historical Society's DiMenna Children?s History Museum

Providing meals to schoolchildren

Founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, The
Photo Credit: Tennyson Beals, The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, 1915

Founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, The Children's Aid Society has been providing assistance to schoolchildren and families in New York for more than 160 years. Throughout the 75-year span of the Orphan Train Movement, they and other organizations placed at least 200,000 children into new homes throughout the midwestern United States. Thanks to the Society's work, these beautiful children at the West Side School were able to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in 1915.

--Tammy Kiter, manuscript librarian at the New-York Historical Society's Klingenstein Library

A school reformer

Charles Snyder served as New York City's superintendent
Photo Credit: New-York Historical Society

Charles Snyder served as New York City's superintendent of school buildings from 1891 to 1922. During his tenure, he designed or renovated more than 350 schools. At least 13 of his buildings have been designated landmarks, including this Renaissance Revival beauty in Harlem (now used as an apartment building).

--Timothy Wroten, senior communications manager at the New-York Historical Society

Room for joy among their studies

School can be a lot of pure fun,
Photo Credit: A. Tennyson Beals, Children at the Henrietta School celebrate Halloween in style, 1920s. New-York Hi

School can be a lot of pure fun, too. In this wonderful photo, five youngsters from the Henrietta Industrial School don their Halloween hats while eating tasty apples!

--Tammy Kiter, manuscript librarian at the New-York Historical Society's Klingenstein Library

Incubators of creative brilliance

From LaGuardia to Stuyvesant, many New York City
Photo Credit: Reigel Agron, Clinton Comics #1, 1973. New-York Historical Society

From LaGuardia to Stuyvesant, many New York City high schools have incubated generations of intellectual and creative geniuses. Comic book creators Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Stan Lee all attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx during the 1930s. A later group of DeWitt Clinton students paid homage to their school's artistic legacy, and created their own superheroes to combat the harsh realities of Bronx life in the 1970s.

--Nina Nazionale, co-curator of New-York Historical's upcoming "Superheroes in Gotham" exhibition

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