Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Detroit Schools, 19th century

In the early years of the 19th century, private individuals interested in the education of children developed subscription schools. Typically, a group of parents hired a schoolmaster to teach a designated curriculum at an agreed-upon rate. The unofficial school was located in the home of the teacher, a room rented for the purpose, or in a place provided by the subscribers. Based on the number of students they sent to the school, parents assumed a proportionate share of the cost of firewood and candles. 

In 1816, Reverend John Monteith, a New England missionary, came to Detroit and formed a classical school in the Meldrum House on Woodbridge near Shelby Street. In 1817, in collaboration with Father Gabriel RichardAugustus WoodwardLewis Cass and William Woodbridge, Monteith established a school, called “Catholepistemiad,” as a means to provide education from the lowest primary grade through college. Money for its construction came almost entirely from private contributions and free tuition was given to the poor. However, the primary grades of the institution were unsuccessful, so in 1827 the school moved to Ann Arbor and reorganized, reopening in 1837 as the University of Michigan.

In 1827 a territorial law required all townships with 50 or more residents to have a school. The length of the school year and number of schools and teachers were based on the township’s population. The city of Detroit hired a Mr. Cook as its first teacher, the beginning of a failed attempt by government to establish common or public schools. When Mr. Cook died shortly after his appointment, the school was closed. An 1833 school law created a commission and divided the city into districts, but tuition was required of those who could pay, and no public schools were created under the act.

Meanwhile, private schools still abounded, however their cost made many of them unavailable to the poor. Various societies, such as the Mechanics’ Society, had classes for their members and families. In 1830, children who lived with their families in the Fort Shelby barracks were served by the Woman’s Literary Society, whose teachers enticed the children to school with sweet treats.

In 1832, funds were raised by the sale of baked goods and tomato catsup by members of the Free School Society in order to build a “plain but substantial school” and employ a teacher. Children aged four to ten, attended half day sessions and received free books and tuition. By 1837 the Society supported three schools and an attendance of two hundred, at the time, the only free schools in the city. 

In 1841, Dr. Zina Pitcher, mayor of Detroit, pointed out that the city’s youth spent idle hours in wretched conditions. In 1842, Detroit established its first Board of Education, with mayor Douglass Houghton as its president. A recorder and two inspectors from each of six designated wards served without pay. Houghton, along with Dr. Pitcher before him, was largely responsible for the organization of new schools in the city. By the end of 1842, 500 students were enrolled in middle schools. Male teachers earned $30 a month, and female teachers earned $18 a month.

In 1856, John F. Nichols, Detroit’s first school superintendent, conducted an educational survey of Detroit city schools and reported faults he saw in the school’s efforts. His list included a lack of grading, frequent transfer of teachers, lack of help from parents with tardiness, need for additional art and music courses, and better training for primary grade teachers. The next superintendent, D. Bethune Duffield, created a uniform course of study and system of grading in 1857.

During the 1860s and 1870s improvements like better lighting and ventilation, and the addition of gym classes, advanced the state of education. An 1867 General Schools Law ended segregated schools in Michigan, but African Americans had to fight in court for it to take effect in Detroit, which it did in 1869. 

Compulsory education was established in 1871, when all children between age eight and 14 were required by state law to attend school for at least 12 weeks a year, six of them consecutive. Qualities valued in the teaching professional were loyalty, good training, moral rectitude, aptitude for teaching and governing, and a sympathetic sensibility, not to mention a loving and kind heart.

By 1880 there were still 15 private schools teaching approximately 1600 students. In 1897, superintendent Wales C. Martindale thought that schools should guide children into knowledge, not force them to learn, with the goal of developing character along with the mind. As the superintendent whose 15-year term bridged the 19th and 20thcenturies, he was also faced with meeting the needs of a growing industrial city.

With a population that had doubled between 1880 to 1900 to 285,704 people, and with more non-English speakers than any city in the U.S., Detroit faced significant educational challenges at the beginning of the 20th century.