This Was Then: Attendance required

School reform and reform school


In October 1837, teachers and officials from around the Island gathered in Edgartown for the first-ever “Dukes County Common School Convention” — a public look at the state of schools on the Vineyard, which they felt “have not been sufficiently regarded by the people.”

In 1837, there were 15 public and 23 private schools on the Island, serving more than 1000 school-age children (more than a quarter of the population at the time.) We know these numbers (and many later ones) thanks to the keynote speaker at this 1837 convention: a revolutionary young educator named Horace Mann, who had just been appointed as the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, the first of its kind in the nation.

Mann’s vision for public education would eventually become the model for all public schools in the United States, guided by his then-controversial principles like “education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public”, “education is best provided in schools embracing children from varying backgrounds” and “education must be nonsectarian.” And in 1837, Mann was completing his initial goal to visit every town in the Commonwealth, meeting teachers and collecting hard data from every school. At the end of the conference, a society was formed, its membership consisting of every educator and school committee member on the island. It was named the “Dukes County Association for the Improvement of Common Schools”.

Public schools on the Island in the early 1800s were brief and tenuous affairs. “Persons between the ages of seven and 16, are divided into five classes, of 52 each,” read Mann’s subsequent report on Edgartown’s “free schools” in 1837. “Each class attends school for ten weeks, and then goes out for the residue of the year, to give opportunity to the other four classes to attend.” Even during those ten weeks, attendance was terrible; according to Mann’s data, only about half of the students in the island’s public schools (then known as “common schools”) attended on any one day.

The convention had immediate effects. After much opposition, in 1838 the town of Edgartown successfully appropriated $2000 for a new schoolhouse. “This first attempt to establish public schools on such a footing as eventually to supersede private ones,” reported the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror on the new Edgartown school, “is an effort highly praiseworthy to the District. In all probability but a few more years will roll over our heads ere every town in our ancient Commonwealth will be obliged by statute law to diffuse upon all, the benefits of a good education.”

By 1850, Chimark had four public schools (including Cape Higgon, Southeast/Quansoo, and Menemsha schools), Edgartown 9 schools (including Pohoganut, Plains, Chappaquiddick, Clevelandtown, Farm Neck, and the “North” and “South” Schools), and Tisbury 10 schools (including two in Holmes Hole, one at the “Neck”, four in West Tisbury, and one at Lambert’s Cove.) More came and went.

Each school has its tales to tell. The Cove School was a one-room schoolhouse in Lambert’s Cove; in the 1870s it was led by Maria Gurney, reportedly only 16 or 17 at the time she began teaching. (Later, the school’s bell was said to have been salvaged from the City of Columbus, the steamer lost in the deadly 1884 disaster off Gay Head.) The Locust Grove School on Indian Hill was led by teacher Horace Lovell for decades until his mysterious disappearance in 1909. (His lifeless body was found in a nearby pond some months later.) William West, who taught school at Chilmark’s “Southeast District School” on South Road near Quansoo around 1860 had grown up as Rebecca West, a girl, until openly changing genders as a teenager. The oldest schoolhouse in Oak Bluffs was the ancient Farm Neck School, by which British troops drove their stolen sheep in 1778’s infamous “Grey’s Raid.” In a 1792 journal entry, Farm Neck teacher William Butler recorded, “A singular instance took place this day in school as the scholars stood up spelling, James Johnson struck Jethro Coffin over the head with his hand, being vext with him for pulling hair he said, as he was hanging up his slait. I think it was not owing to my not keeping order in school but to the ungarded disposition of the boy.” In 1852, West Tisbury’s “Northwest District” school was closed after two months, after teacher Charlotte Dunham was “unable to maintain control” of her 56 pupils.

While Mann’s outreach and reforms were quite effective in ultimately providing publicly-funded education for all students, taught by new generations of better-trained professional teachers, new problems arose which were addressed by less-effective politicians wielding clumsier tools.

In 1852, with both manufacturing and immigration on the uptick in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth led the nation in addressing child labor abuses. A law was passed requiring every child between eight and 14 to attend school in the town where they reside, for at least 12 weeks, or face a $20 fine. It was the first compulsory attendance law in the United States.

The laws became stricter a decade later when the Massachusetts Truancy Law of 1862 was passed: “Any child convicted of wandering about in the street or public places of any city or town, having no lawful occupation or business, not attending school, and growing up in ignorance, between the ages of seven and 16 years, may … be committed to any such institution of instruction, house of reformation, or suitable situation…as such justice or court may determine.”

But that wasn’t sufficient for Martha’s Vineyard. In 1863, the Rev. William Sturtevant of West Tisbury, our representative in the state legislature, introduced a bill specifically concerning truant children in Dukes County. His proposed law provided for the arrest of truant and vagrant children on the island, who upon conviction would be committed to the House of Reformation in New Bedford. The bill was amended — sending them to the “Farm School” in New Bedford instead — and passed into law in April 1863.

The State Reform School at Westborough (later known as the Lyman School for Boys) was established about 1847. It was the first state-operated “juvenile reformatory” in the country, and housed boys aged 11 to 19. (Younger children were sent to State Primary School at Monson, the state-run orphanage.) By 1881, at least nine boys were committed to Westborough’s reform school from the Vineyard, where they would stay until they reached 21, were “bound out” to a “master,” or otherwise discharged.

Eleven-year-old Elijah Norton of Tisbury was sentenced there in 1851. So was 11-year-old William Charles of Edgartown in 1853. In 1881, when 16-year-old Frank Sanders of Edgartown was caught with his buddy Clifford Fisher breaking and entering Dr. Walker’s Edgartown drug store “with force and arms” to steal $1.76, he too was committed to reform school at Westborough “for the term of his minority.” The same month, 13-year-old Leroy Johnson and his two young Wampanoag friends, half-brothers Charles Thompson and Alton Francis, both about aged about 9 or 10, and all of Gay Head, were found guilty of breaking and entering Abram Rodman’s store to steal a bushel of meal valued at $1. All three were sentenced to reform school at Westborough, although Charles and Alton were later transferred to Monson because of their young ages. (Alton would later return to the Vineyard and marry one of Rodman’s daughters.) Massachusetts girls over the age of 12 found guilty of truancy, vagrancy, or other crimes were sentenced to the State Industrial School at Lancaster, although there are no records of Vineyard girls being sent to the facilities at either Lancaster or Monson.

Meanwhile, the public school system continued to expand on the Vineyard. In 1850, there were 23 public schools (four in Chilmark, nine in Edgartown, and 10 in Tisbury.) By 1879, there were 24 (including one in Gay Head, which until 1870 had been part of a separate, state-run system.) In 1879, the Island school system boasted the best attendance records in the state (just over 90%) if also the shortest school year (six and a half months, two months shorter than the state average.)

Most Island students ended their education after about eighth grade. Tallying the educational records, for instance, of all the Chilmark residents over fifty years old in the 1940 census — the first census to ask about education — one can calculate that the average highest completed school grade for these generations was between 8th and 9th. (Older Chilmark men reported finishing on average after 7th or 8th grade; older women after 9th or 10th. Only two older residents reported finishing four years of college — Edith Harris and Bart Mayhew — and a handful had dropped out after 2nd or 3rd grade.)

For about 40 years, there was only one public high school on the island, established in the late 1850s in Edgartown. It opened for two terms of 13 and 16 weeks, and had 74 scholars enrolled in 1864. The curriculum emphasized mathematics, foreign languages, and science, particularly agricultural chemistry. (They even had their own semi-monthly published literary journal, “The Casket”, in 1856.) Oak Bluffs High School and Tisbury High School did not open until the mid-1890s.

“The Common School,” summarized Mann from Boston in 1841, “is the greatest discovery ever made by man. Other social organizations are curative and remedial; this is a preventive and an antidote.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.