Monday, May 29, 2017

School days - so distant, so near

students and teachers outside a one-room schoolhouse in 1890s Florida
These students and teachers posed for a photo outside their
South Florida schoolhouse in the 1890s.
Photo credit: Florida Memory, State Archives of Florida
Two things stood out as I browsed school news from more than a century ago. One, people spouted opinions about education with vigor. Two, the sub-collegiate curriculum -- aka high school -- in the academy that grew to become Florida State University was surprisingly challenging to my 21st century eyes.

Really, I should make it three things. Third, teacher pay was pretty poor. School salaries in Ocala in 1897 ranged from $25 to $50 a month. The modern equivalent is $731 to $1,462. That was for a seven-month term.

The salaries were described in an Ocala Evening Star article about the July 5, 1897 Marion County Board of Public Instruction meeting. Nothing indicates whether the salary range applied to teachers in both white and black schools. These were the days of segregation. A separate article on the same news page noted the 40 teachers present at the opening exercises of "The Colored Normal" in Witness hall. The Normal was a teaching institute, but it seems it was conducted in a church. By the second day, 75 teachers were in attendance. No word on money. The article received a fraction of the space allocated to the board's affairs.

Downstate in Titusville a few years later, a letter writer in the Jan. 26, 1900 Florida Star
lamented he way his "former colleagues on the school board" wasted money. R.N. Andrews of Cocoa chastised officials for spending  more than $600 on charts, maps and books when they could have procured the same supplies at a much lower cost. In his long letter, he wrote he'd been contacted by numerous people who had complaints about school business.

That same year, 1900, back in Ocala, residents were protesting a proposed special school tax district. They wanted an election on the district postponed and the district's boundaries redrawn. You can read their reasons in the Sept. 6, 1900 issue of the Ocala Evening Star.

While adults agitated, students sweated at their studies, if the curriculum in the April 18, 1901 edition of The Weekly Tallahassean is any indication. A long article about the West Florida Seminary mentioned classes taken by students in the sub-collegiate course. These students had to be at least 12 to enroll, and had to "pass through three years of hard study" to advance to the collegiate level.

Their courses included: grammar, rhetoric, literature, business and higher arithmetic, bookkeeping and commercial law, algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, civil government, physiology and hygiene, botany, physical and political geography, history and Latin.

I suspect "business and higher arithmetic" was akin to the "finite mathematics" I took to fulfill the Quantitative Learning requirement when I returned to college in middle age. Granted, I was rusty and years out of practice. But the memory of calculating interest on mortgages, and other such business exercises, gives me renewed respect for those long-ago learners.

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