Shouts of the Masses – The Shaping of Portland High School

New England has prided itself on its progressive view of education. Boston Massachusetts created the first public boys high school in 1821. Portland Maine soon followed suit in the same year. Since its beginnings in 1821, the Portland Public Education System has struggled with the competing interests of the townsfolk and society. The Portland School Board spent many years debating the merits of a public education curriculum meant for college bound students in an industrializing society. Also deliberated was the issue of allowing girls entrance into the public education system. When it came to public education in the 19th century, the wants of the community did not always coincide with the needs of society.

The education of boys in Portland began in earnest in 1821. A Latin school was constructed on Exchange St. The Latin School curriculum, which was considered a classical education, consisted of the following:

Latin: Grammar; Caesar, Books I-IV; Virgil, Books I-IV, and Eclogues; Ovid, 3,000 lines; Cicero, Seven orations, and Latin Compositions.
Greek: Grammar; Lessons; Anabasis, Books I-IV; Iliad, Books I-III; and Greek Composition.
Mathematics: Algebra, through equations of the second degree; Geometry, Plane; Arithmetic reviewed.
History: Same as regular course, except Modern History.
Geography: Ancient and Modern.
English: Same as regular course.
French: One year of regular, course for those pupils who intend to enter all colleges except Bowdoin.
Sciences: Such of those studies in the regular course as are required for college

Throughout the state during the 1820s, many public schools, including elementary and high schools were built. A tax of 40 cents per inhabitant was levied to pay for the cost.

The general populace was glad to have the Portland boys off the streets. Before the schools arrived, the boys had nothing to occupy their time. Gangs were formed and violence ensued. “The town, from Munjoy’s Hill to State Street, was the scene of constant hostilities” It was not unknown for gangs of boys to battle with stones and bats. The schools brought an element of discipline to the town. School encouraged the boys to strive to better themselves and behave. The schools were so successful at taming the feral boys of Portland that Edward Elwell claimed the actions and attitudes of early Portland’s boys would, “not be tolerated in present day” and that “Portland can boast no city has better behaved youth.” Certainly, the populace was glad to support the school with results like these, knowing that a few extra cents would keep the children off the streets and out of trouble.

Sending the boys off to school was beneficial to the citizens of Portland. Those planning on attending higher learning were more than adequately prepared to meet the standards of the time. This type of classical education previously was not for every student. Though it was perfectly acceptable for a boy planning to attend college to be studying ancient Greek and Latin, this type of education was hardly applicable to those whom would not seek higher education . The Portland School board in its 1863 report recognized the problem. Stubbornly they chose to do nothing to remedy this. Instead, they lay the blame on apathetic children and shortsighted parents.

Young boys leave school not because High School does not prepare them for practical life, but because they wish to try this life without preparing for it…The time and labor of school culture are begrudged-the value of thorough mental training, as the best preparation for a practical career, is not known, or not rightly estimated. The faculty which a child may have to earn money in early life, is thought more important than his faculty of becoming, by education, a well-trained man, equal to all duties of the highest positions in his maturer years.

The transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial one was greatly accelerated after the Civil War. Fueled by immigrant labor and new technological breakthroughs, America was quickly becoming an industrial power. The teachings of old were not adequate for those intending to join the work force straight from high school. They recognized that most of the boys graduating perused not college but mechanical or business jobs. It was not until the Civil War had ended and America had begun its Second Industrial Revolution that the Portland School Board realized that they needed to adapt the curricula of the high school boys.

It may be well to notice here the evident partiality shown in favor of “college boys”. Teachers are employed whose qualifications entitle them to our highest salaries, and these give no little time exclusively to the boys who are preparing for college. This is well; this is as it should be: but the boy who does not choose to go to college, and the boy whose father cannot afford to send him to college, – these also are entitled to as much of special instruction, of one kind or another, as are the comparatively few who seek to become “professional men.”

Their solution to the lack of classes for boys not attending college was to add drawing classes to the curriculum. The School Board reasoned a drawing class would be of great help in many areas of study, including mechanics, architecture, and engineering. “One may easily express his ideas on paper if they were good at drawing” This was not successful. Students continued to drop out of school around the second and third years of high school. Again, the problem of young men dropping out of high school was raised, this time in the 1878 Portland School Board Report. French studies, required for both the classical and general degrees, were causing many young men to perform poorly, become discouraged in their studies, and leave school.

By 1883, the citizens of Portland were calling for a change in the High School curriculum. The taxpayers claimed it was unfair to tax the entire populace for children to attend the classical studies program, which prepared them for college. They felt the taxpayers should not have to pay for a department utilized by so few young men. The citizens of Portland reasoned that private schools were better equipped to educate college bound boys. The Portland School Board felt the community did not understand the importance of education and its application later in life.

While the men of the School Board told those not headed for college not tailor their school career to fit their intended profession post-school, college bound boys, however, were told the opposite. In fact, they even went as far as to add it to the updated rules and regulations posted in 1883. ” Pupils who intend to try to enter Harvard College must give notice at the end of the second year of their school life to insure a proper fit.”

1897 was the year the School Board decided to catch up to the times. Some five hundred thousand people had immigrated to America between 1881 and 1893 and more were coming each day. Textile, shipping, and other industries were on the rise. America’s Second Industrial Revolution was forging the nation into an industrial power of the world. The Portland School Board could no longer ignore the voice of the Portland people. The School Board recognized that students needed to plan their studies according to their intended careers after high school. They decreed that a new manual training school for boys would be built at the intersection of Casco St. and Cumberland Ave. Practical physical sciences would be taught including: steam, electricity, telegraph, telephone, and the electric car.

The high school education of girls, however, lagged behind that of the boys for some time. Though the first boy’s high school began in 1821 , the girls did not receive a public high school until 1850. The Seneca Falls Convention had been held two years earlier in 1848. At Seneca Falls, New York on July 14, 300 men and women convened to discus abolition as well as women’s rights. Here the women produced the Declaration of Sentiments, which declared, “…We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

This sentiment spread throughout New England as well. The public want for allowance of girls into public education grew great. The School Board agreed that a Girls High School was now needed.

Such a school, in the opinion of the Committee, has been long needed as a matter of simple justice to the female part of our growing population, who would seem to have the same claim upon the higher educational advantages provided by the city, as the male…It must be a matter alike of pride and gratitude with every intelligent citizen, that we have in force among us a system of public education which offers alike to all – to the rich and poor, to the humblest as well as the most gifted capacity – the means of a thorough education, in all the elementary branches of both English and classical study. A High School for Boys has long been established, and we think it not too early, or at all unreasonable, to ask now for a similar institution for girls.

The Board added a clause allowing girls to pursue a public high school education. They “would seem to have the same claim…as males.” This was a risky experiment for the School Board. Though education of girls was “known and warmly cherished” throughout large New England communities, there were some in Portland that did not welcome public education for girls.

From the first there had been, on the part of the larger tax paying citizens, who were able to send their children to the academy or to private schools of a high grade, a strong opposition to the establishment of a public high school.

Wealthy young women had greater opportunities for education then girls without money. The wealthy could afford many of the already existing private schools in the Portland area. One of these schools was Miss Martin’s School, a three-story mansion on India St. English, French, music, painting, “fancy work”, lace-making, filigree, geography, respect for elders, courtesy to all, graceful manners, and “lady-like” behavior was taught. Another private girl’s school, Miss Mayo’s School was “celebrated for their skill in exquisite needle-work” . Edward Elwell makes special note that “some of the ladies of our day have to thank [Miss Paine’s school] for an erect figure and the correct use of language” Learning social graces at these private schools would allow the girls to marry rich husbands, for she would bare children and host lavish parties.

The School Board sought to make public education for girls similar to that of boys, including Algebra, English, Chemistry, Rhetoric, Latin, Botany, Geometry, and Astronomy. The Girls High School would not be a place catering to those “fancy studies”, nor would it follow “the mere accomplishments of a fashionable education” Mr. Moses Woolson, the Girl’s High School head master, saw too it this would not be so.

The girls were schooled in a wide variety of studies. Math (Algebra, Geometry, Analytical Geometry, Navigation and Trigonometry), Latin, Science, History, Rhetoric, and reading were taught. Field trips were also taken. The botany of Portland was well documented by the girls of Mr. Woolson’s school. Portland Co. (to see the workings of a steam engine) and Cumberland Mills (paper making machinery) were also visited. Woolson’s school was a pioneer in these areas. They were including knowledge of machinery, long before they boys, who would actually be filling these positions, would be taught of machinery.

Many of these subjects were taught at a college level. Individual thoughts were encouraged. When drawing geometry examples on the board, girls were not allowed to duplicate those found in their texts. Current events discussions were a favorite of Mr. Woolson. “Mr Woolson was socially inclined and a great talker, and he no sooner grasped an idea or fact then he was restless till he could impart it. Girls would arrive early to talk the mornings news with him.” A visiting professor was so impressed with Woolson’s girls he stated, “those Portland girls were much keener than the dull-witted boys he had to teach.”

Woolson’s School was known for its great library. Mr. Woolson could be found at his school’s library nearly every Saturday. He encouraged his students to join him. The library contained many texts including, poetry, travel, histories, and “pure” literature”. Woolson did not allow popular novels such as those written by Dickens or Thackeray in the library and discouraged the girls from reading them. After the great fire of 1866, this library was the largest public library left in Portland.

Mr. Woolson kept his school, which became known as Woolson’s school, strict. He knew there were those ready to criticize on any failure from the girls including their ability to be punctual.

Latecomers went home, nor was it of the slightest use to plead that the clocks were wrong, that we had to do an errand, that we got to the steps before the first stroke, or that we couldn’t get across Congress Street because of an Irish Funeral…

These strict policies were very successful. In 1863, there was perfect attendance of every single student.
Students at Mr. Woolson’s school were judged on their academic accomplishments, not their wealth or who their parents and relatives were. Classroom chores were shared between all the girls. These included sweeping, cleaning the desks, tending the fire, and the winter chores.

Once a girl went home without doing her part of the work and sent the “hired girl” to sweep the stairs. Oh dear, what “nuts” that was for Mr. Woolson! What a text for him! He laughed and preached and jeered till the girl would have swept the street from Congress to Cumberland to insure forgetfulness of her lazy and toplofty action.

A great deal was expected of the girls, they were not left to on their own with studies. Each student was given individual time with one of the teachers. If a girl had trouble with her studies, there were several options she could take, such as entering into a lower grade, taking fewer classes, or dropping out of school entirely. Dropping out of school altogether, however, was greatly discouraged. As long as one made an effort with her studies and attended school regularly, the teachers would offer a helping hand. Those who were careless, lazy, or unpunctual found things were made difficult for them. These students were given the option to reform their behavior or leave school.

When the Portland Boys HS and Woolson’s School facilities grew overcrowded in 1856, there was a call to build a school that would hold both the boys and the girls. This was a radical view for the time. Even Boston, “the Hub of the Universe”, did not yet accept that girls deserved the public educational opportunities afforded to males.
The building was completed in 1863, but the boys and girls were not actually co-educated, in fact, boys and girls were kept separated except for their recitations. They did not even enter the building from the same street; boys entered from Congress St while girls entered from Cumberland Ave. A wall separated the male from the female students. Principal AP Stone was the first to initiate a change in this partitioning. He labeled it “the wall of prejudice”. Stone remedied this prejudice by knocking a doorway into the wall. This symbolic gesture had a great impact on the impression of the co-education of both males and females.

The high school educational system in Nineteenth Century Portland Maine did not always follow the wants of the citizens of Portland. An education for boys not bound for college was not fully realized until the 1890s, when the Second Industrial Revolution made the need for this type of education to great to ignore. Girls were not given an education equal to boys until the 1850s, after the great women’s movements of the Quakers and Methodists, as well as others, had begun to take hold. The needs of society are what have brought direct change to our nations educational system and it is this that will continue to spur change on.


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