Celebrating 184 Years of Public Education in Baltimore: Nineteenth-Century Beginnings


Archaeologists working on historic sites often find fragmented slate pencils once used on writing slates, but it is less typical to recover flat pieces of slate once used as writing surfaces.

Archaeologists working on historic sites often find fragmented slate pencils once used on writing slates, but it is less typical to recover flat pieces of slate once used as writing surfaces.

As I creep to work this time of year behind bright orange school buses on two-lane county roads, I am inspired to write about the advent of public education in Baltimore. Without a doubt, the perfect artifact to illustrate such an essay is this delightful little writing slate recovered from the site of the Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore City (18BC139). Found in a privy filled between 1815 and 1830, this slate was incised front and back with a grid and numbers from 1 to 72. The unworn areas along the finished top and side edges of the slate suggest it had originally been set into a wooden frame. Although fragmentary, the slate’s original dimensions were approximately 4 x 6 inches. Stationers sold slates by the second half of the eighteenth century, but no real evidence supports their educational use by children until the nineteenth century. Research suggests that Joseph Lancaster, an English proponent of mass education, was at least partly responsible for the widespread development of slate as an educational tool beginning in the early nineteenth century (Hall n.d.).

Prior to the establishment of public schools, wealthy children—primarily boys—were taught by private tutors or attended schools in England. In the late eighteenth century, Marylander and Presbyterian minister Samuel Knox advocated non-religious public education, proposing a system of state supported primary schools, academies and state colleges (Bruegger 1988:173). Various Baltimore churches established charity schools in the early nineteenth century, but they unfortunately did not attract large numbers of students (Clark 1976:243-253).

By 1820, Baltimore had become a major urban center with over 62,000 residents (Sheller 1982:24). Crime and vagrancy were a few of the social ills that accompanied the rapid expansion of the city in the early nineteenth century. City leaders, unsettled by these social problems, turned to the idea of education as one of the ways to alleviate these issues by providing moral education for the lower classes (Sheller 1982). Another goal included promoting both the general and technological knowledge of future city workers at a time when manufacturing and industry were beginning to play much more crucial roles in the city’s economy. Influenced by the success of public schools in Boston and New York City, Baltimore formed the Union Committee to formulate policy and regulate the operations of schools (Sheller 1982:27).

Despite interest and enthusiasm in some circles for a system of public education, there were a number of opponents as well. The Union Committee’s proposed school bill failed to pass in the Maryland General Assembly when it was put forward in 1825 (Sheller 1982:36). The Baltimore City Public School system was authorized in 1827 by the General Assembly of Maryland, with the first school opening on September 21, 1829 (BCPS 2013a). Two more schools opened in rapid succession and by the end of the year, 269 students were enrolled. In early 1830, financial support for the schools began to come from a tax of 12.5 cents on every hundred dollars of assessable property (Ordinances 1830).

Public School No. 3, located on Aisquith Street in central Baltimore.

Public School No. 3, located on Aisquith Street in central Baltimore.

Despite the assurance of funding, Baltimore schools struggled to survive during the 1830s as public sentiment remained undecided about the necessity of public education. By the late 1830s, a reorganization of the Board of Commissioners led to changes that finally cemented public approval for the school system (BCPS 2013b). These changes included reduction in class size, hiring assistant teachers, opening night schools and a high school.

The July 26, 1843 edition of The Sun reported on the examinations of male and female students at Public Schools 1, 2 and 3 as the first order of business under Local Matters. Male and female students were tested, under the eyes of school commissioners, on the subjects of geography, arithmetic, English grammar, penmanship and history. The paper went on to state:

“The satisfaction expressed by parents upon the decided improvement of their children, is perhaps after all the best criterion of the success of the system; and the degree of satisfaction which prevails in this quarter, may be easily and unerringly inferred from the crowded state of all the schools, a vacant seat being rare to the eye, in any of them (The Sun 1843).

By this time, Baltimore Public Schools were a firmly established part of the city’s infrastructure. Baltimore Schools remained a part of the city’s government until 1997, when partial control was ceded to the state in exchange for increased funding.

References Cited

Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS)
2013a Early Schools. Baltimore City Public Schools. Website http://vtma.baltimorecityschools.org/About/History/Early_Public_Ed.asp accessed September 18, 2013.

2013b Early Public Education in Baltimore. Baltimore City Public Schools Website http://vtma.baltimorecityschools.org/About/History/index.asp accessed September 18, 2013.

Bruegger, Robert
1988 Maryland; A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Clark, Dennis R.
1976 Baltimore 1729-1829: The Genesis of a Community. PhD dissertation, Catholic University.

Hall, Nigel
n.d. The role of the slate in Lancesterian schools as evidenced by their manuals and handbooks. Available at http://faculty.ed.uiuc.edu/westbury/paradigm/Hall.doc

Ordinances
1830 Ordinances of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, #9, 25th February 1830.

Sheller, Tina H.
1982 The Origins of Public Education in Baltimore, 1825-1829. History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 23-44.

The Sun
1843 The Sun. Baltimore. Volume 13, Number 60, page 2. Online resource available at http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/37408779/.

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