San Francisco History

Public Schools


A good system of public schools is essential to the existence of a republican form of government.

Public schools are not peculiar to the United States; but the American free schools differ very materially from those of European nations. There, they are designed for those who are too poor to pay private tuition, and the children of the rich never darken their doors; here, the wealthiest and most aristocratic make no apology for sending their children to the free schools, which public opinion pronounces the best in discipline and training, and most in accordance with our republican institutions.

A system like ours is too great a leveller to be encouraged by a titled aristocracy.

The American system of free schools was nurtured and sustained by the liberty-loving, God-serving Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, and wherever the sons of New England have settled, they have carried it with them as a household god. Across a mighty continent, stretching further and further west, the little school houses have taken up their line of march, until, pouring over the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, they rest, with the weary emigrants, on the golden shores of the Pacific; and, to-day, the schools of San Francisco will compare not unfavorably with those of Boston—the great radiating point of the system on the Atlantic coast.

The school department owns two fine buildings—the Union Street and Denman—the other schools are mostly held in inferior rented rooms. Those teachers, who, like the present Superintendent, and ex-Superintendent Mr. Pelton, taught in the "shanties" of early times, would consider them comparatively comfortable, but compared with the palaces of eastern cities, they are inadequate, ill-ventilated and unsightly. In other respects our schools will generally compare pretty favorably with eastern ones, though irregularity and change of pupils, render it impossible to advance classes with the same degree of accuracy as in more stationary communities. Neither is there the same strict discipline here as in eastern City schools; children are under less rigid home-government, and consequently more difficult to govern at school. And the system of running at large, from one school to another, over the whole city, is destructive to school government. In some respects, our schools are undoubtedly in advance of the less progressive ones of older States.

There is less of the forcing system,—less of overtaxed brain and precocious development. The school room is made a pleasanter place. More attention is given to physical training. The hours of study are fewer, though at present too long. A return to the hours of two years ago—from 10 A. M. to three o'clock P. M.—would be far better, and more acceptable to a vast majority of parents.

Many of the schools are well provided with gymnastic apparatus, and in some, the classes are regularly drilled in gymnastic feats on the "horizontal bar," "parallels," "ladders," and with "clubs," "dumb-bells" and "rods." Two years ago, on a visit to the schools of Boston and New York, we found none of the schools so provided; we doubt if any now are. The muscular development given to the boys, the love of athletic exercises and manly sports, will be worth quite as much to their future life, as the mental culture and book knowledge there imparted. The boy needs strong muscles to fight his way in the world;—coop him up in close rooms, leave his muscles too flabby and soft, and no amount of book -feed will make a manly man of him.

In some of the schools calisthenic exercises are as regularly given as the daily recitations; and the girls are deriving incalculable benefit from the daily drill. Erect forms, well developed chests, grace of movement, and ease of carriage are the results.

Dancing is also very generally a part of school recreation; what would the staid old Puritans have said at the thought of it? No harm seems to result, however.

The annual May parties are quite a feature of the schools, giving a vast amount of enjoyment to smiling faces and twinkling feet, and real delight, and a merry time, to friends and parents—not Puritanical, but social. Singing receives a good degree of attention, but should receive still more.

Music is an essential element in the education of girls. It is vastly more important for a young lady, in the social circle, to know how to sing, than to comprehend all the mysteries even of cube root, square root, algebra and geometry. "A gentle voice is a pleasant thing in a woman."

We think the course of study in the grammar schools might be slightly modified for the better. One half the time in all the schools is devoted to arithmetic—the grand hobby of American teachers, and Yankee ones, in particular—while penmanship, drawing, and spelling receive comparatively little attention. The crack classes are the arithmetic classes, and the merits of a whole school not unfrequently rise or fall with exploits of the great first class in arithmetic, on "examination day." Arithmetic is well enough in its place, but the sky is not a black-board, nor are mountains all made of chalk; children have other faculties than that of calculation, which can better be exercised on something else. Is it not quite as important that a boy of fifteen should write a neat, well-spelled letter, as to give the analysis for dividing one fraction by another, or, "to explain the reason of the rule for extracting cube root"? Might not the girls learn the elements of botany, eat a few less figures, and admire flowers a little more? Could not the boys, who devote two hours a day, for three years, to arithmetic, spare a little of that time to learn of Natural History to tell the difference between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros; or a condor and a gray eagle; or a fish and a quadruped?

Ought not both boys and girls to learn enough of Physiology and Hygienne, to understand and obey the common laws of health? Ought not a boy of fifteen, leaving a grammar school, to know how to keep a common, plain, working man's account book? Practical men would say, that all these things were quite as important as complicated problems in arithmetic, or complex analysis in grammar?

A natural system of teaching little children would train them to use their senses for gaining a knowledge of common things around them; yet most of the primary room teaching still consists in "learning how to read and spell." In this respect, our primary schools are a quarter of a century behind the European. It is now an exploded notion that education consists in learning how to "read, and spell, and cypher." Education is development—the harmonious development of all the faculties of man's nature. The perceptive and expansive faculties, and training, as well as the reasoning and reflective.

The physical nature should be cared for; and the soul needs expansion quite as much as either mind or body. The best teachers are not those who can cram the most mathematics into the heads of pupils; or hitch on the longest trains of pondrous verbatim recitations to the pondrous verbatim recitations to the crack teams of "smart" classes, but those who can win the love, and touch the hearts, and awaken the sympathies, and move the souls of unfolding manhood and womanhood. Feeling, affection, and sympathy are better teachers than cold, reasoning intellect.

The truest teaching is something intangible—an electric fire, which cannot be set down in figures and percentages, by examining committees. A teacher with a great heart is better than one with a great head. It will always be so, while children have souls as well as brains.

Many of our best female teachers never pass "brilliant" examinations; their column of "percentage" is always low, but a great woman's heart, womanly tact, love, and kindness which are all set down as "zero" in the column of "percentage," if expressed in figures—as such a thing were possible—would place them far up in the scale. A week in the school-room is a better test than forty columns of "percentages."

The truest teaching, that which influences manner, stamps the character, electrifies the heart, cannot be reduced to a mathematical system; it is superior to "rules and regulations." It needs neither "reviews" nor regulations forbidding them. It will not be limited to so many pages of arithmetic, or grammar, or geography. It is the intangible Aurora which plays over the sky of the school, until one gorgeous glow rests upon the firmament of heavenly faces. Bunglers may think that a school is a complicated mechanism of wheels and pivots—a weekly clock, which the teacher has only to "wind up" and then watch its running—but in truth, each individual unit of humanity is a living harp, ready to breathe forth harmonious tones, if touched with the light fingers of a master hand. Would you have the teacher an organ grinder or a harpist?

On the whole, the present condition of our schools is encouraging. The teachers, as a body, are enthusiastic and progressive. The present Superintendent is a man in every way fitted for his position. Five years a teacher in our schools, rough-hewing the elements into symmetry, few understand their wants so well as he. He has no "crotchets" in teaching; no particular hobbies; no fine spun theories of attenuated transcendental instruction, or homoepathic dilutions of milk-and-water "reforms." There is much work for him to do, and we shall be much mistaken if he does not do it,and do it well.

The "nativities" of the pupils illustrate the cosmopolitan character of our population. Every State in the Union is represented, every nation of Europe but four—Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Asia gives us the "Mongolians," and even Africa sends us a return wave of civilization. All the islands of the Pacific yield us their mite of humanity, and "off Cape Horn" and the Atlantic, swell the rising generation. What a composite race will result from this strange mixture of nationalities? Of the States, it will be seen that New York leads the list, but Massachusetts is more largely represented in proportion to population. Here are the statistics:

Born In Born In
Maine 168 Louisiana 334
New Hampshire 55 Texas 30
Vermont 17 Wisconsin 19
Massachusetts 726 Michigan 40
Rhode Island 48 Ohio 70
Connecticut 45 Kentucky 39
New York 1468 Tennessee 19
New Jersey 102 Arkansas 11
Pennsylvania 230 Missouri 84
Delaware 10 Iowa 10
Maryland 72 Illinois 57
Virginia 29 Indiana 10
North Carolina 5 Minnesota 6
South Carolina 8 Oregon 5
Georgia 14 California 1010
Florida 6 Utah 1
Alabama 17 Dist. Columbia 18
Mississippi 29 Wash. Territory 1

Nationality Nationality
England 150 Panama 5
Scotland 35 Chili [sic] 59
Ireland 72 Peru 3
Canada 53 Brazil 1
Australia 191 Mexico 47
France 57 Van D. Land 5
Germany 149 New Zealand 16
Austria 14 Sandwich Isls. 13
Prussia 15 Prince Edward 2
Switzerland 6 West Indies 2
Holland 1 China 29
Italy 7 Africa 1
Denmark 1
Belgium 4 Off Cape Horn,
voyage to Cal.
Sweden 1 Pacific Ocean 1
South America 19 Atlantic Ocean 1

By the Annual Report of the City Superintendent, for the year ending November 1st, 1859, to the State Superintendent, the number of pupils attending the public schools, is as follows:—
Total No.
of Pupils
Average Daily
No. of
Rincon School 912 470 11
Denman 445 225 6
Powell Street 506 231 6
Union Street 937 338 10
Spring Valley 246 126 4
Mission Dolores 152 80 2
Market Street 489 212 5
Hyde Street 364 165 4
Sutter St. Intermediate 268 137 3
Sutter St. Primary 512 179 4
Greenwich Street 341 153 4
Washington St. Primary 361 151 4
Mission St. Primary 257 82 2
Evening School 91 38 2
Chinese School 32 21 1
Colored School 100 39 1
High School 139 97 3
Total 6152 2704 72

The whole number of pupils registered is 6152: deduct from this total 600 promoted from one department to another and registered twice; also, 600 more who have changed schools, there will remain 4952, an approximation to the exact number. The returns by this census indicate 4865 in attendance at the public schools. For this large number, the average daily attendance is only 2704—being 55 per cent, of the whole number. This does not indicate the irregular attendance of children, but only shows the floating character of the population. The number belonging to school at any one time is about two-thirds of the whole number registered for the year, which would give 66 per cent. for regularity of attendance.

In 1854, the number of pupils was 1803; in 1855, 2081; in 1857, 2823; in 1858, 5283, all subject to the same deductions as the returns for 1859.

To teach these schools, seventy-two teachers are employed—fifteen gentlemen and fifty-seven ladies; also a teacher of foreign languages in the High School, and a general teacher of singing.

Their salaries are as follows:—
Principal of High School $250 per month.
Teacher of Natural Sciences $240 per month.
Assistant, lady $125 per month.
Principals of Grammar, $200 per month.
Female Prin. Prim. & Inter. $105 per month.
Assistants $85 per month.

But the teachers are seldom employed ten months, and the average annual salaries would be about ten per cent. discount on the above rates. 

A PARENT who sends his son into the world uneducated, and without skill in any art or science, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family: he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to it a nuisance. 
LIFE is what we make it. Let us call back images of joy and gladness, rather than those of grief and care. The latter may sometimes be our guests to sup and dine, but let them never be permitted to lodge with us. 
Source: Hutchings' California Magazine. January 1858.

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