Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Detroit Schools, 19th century

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 Richard, Augustus Woodward, Lewis 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.  In 1827, the school moved to Ann Arbor and in reorganized.  It reopened in 1837 as the University of Michigan.
Private schools were numerous and expensive, and many offered evening and Sunday instruction to those who were employed.  The Mechanics’ Society provided classes to members and their children.  In 1830, the Woman’s Literary Society sponsored a school in the barracks of Fort Shelby.  Their teachers served cookies and gingerbread to attract the children to school. 

In 1832, members of the Free School Society sold baked goods and tomato catsup to raise funds to build a “plain but substantial school” and employ a teacher.  Their school was open to children aged four to ten, and ran on half day sessions.  It also supplied pupils with books and taught without a fee.  By 1837 the Society supported three schools and an attendance of two hundred.  At the time, the Society schools were the only free schools in the city.
By the 1830s, schools were overcrowded and many did not have books.  In 1841, Dr. Zina Pitcher, mayor of Detroit, called attention to the deplorable conditions existing among the youth of the city, who were spending their time in idleness.  In 1842, Detroit established its first Board of Education, composed of mayor Douglas Houghton as its president, a recorder, and two inspectors from each of six designated wards.  They served without pay.   Houghton, along with Dr. Pitcher before him, was largely responsible for the organization of new schools in the city.
In 1846, John F. Nichols, Detroit’s first school superintendent, conducted an Educational Survey of Detroit City Schools and reported faults he saw as weaknesses in the school’s efforts.  His list included a lack of grading guidelines, too frequent transfer of teachers, need for more cooperation of parents, 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 1847. 
The 1860s and 1870s brought much educational progress.   Segregated schools were disbanded and students were integrated into multi-cultural classrooms.   Citizens, particularly women, demanded a solution to the overcrowded conditions, better educational facilities and an administration to oversee the progress of the system.  By 1862, 80% of children between the ages of five and 20 attended school at least part of the time, and the ratio of teachers to students was approximately 1 to 24. 
In 1871, new state laws required all children between eight and 14 years of age to attend school for a minimum of twelve weeks each year, six of them consecutive.  A new educational philosophy stressed that the ideal teacher must be loyal, well trained, sympathetic, of proper moral development, with aptness to teach and govern, and a heart overflowing with love and kindness.  Wales C. Martindale, superintendent in 1897, believed that children should be led not driven, and that schools should develop the character as well as the mind of the child.

Written by Bernice Brown