History of Lansing’s Early Schools

Copied from The State Journal – Lansing, Michigan – Sunday, September 27, 1936

Little Red School House Passes Out of the Picture
Today’s Modern Education Plant Teaches Many Things Besides Three R’s
Lansing Public School System Ranks with Best in Nation for Cities of Its Size
By Howard J. Rugg

Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,’
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick –

These words of a song popular a score of years ago would be a gross libel today upon the school systems of America. The little red schoolhouse where our parents went to school and where “readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic” were the principal forms of instruction has passed into history. In its place has come the vast city educational system with its variety of courses that prepare the child for a life in the business world that could not have been dreamed of half a century ago.

Education has set a rapid pace through the years and perhaps no city in America has a better record of achievement along educational lines than Lansing.

When the school bells rang out this month summoning 17,000 Lansing children to the opening of the 1936 fall term, this vast educational plant swung into action.

With its 23 elementary schools, three junior high and two senior high schools employing a staff of 534 teachers, the Lansing public school system takes its place with any school setup in a city of similar size in the United States.

Included in this list of teachers are 286 elementary instructors, 138 junior high school teachers, 111 senior high school teachers, and 17 special instructors.

These 17 special, perhaps, represent the modern trend in education better than any other division of the school system. They include the superintendent of schools, Dr. Jay W. Sexton, who has held that position since 1916 and who prior to that was principal of Central high school; his assistant, supervisors, director of tests and measurements, attendance officers, physiotherapist, and special teachers in the school for the crippled children and in speech correction class.

Years ago such instructors were unknown except, perhaps, in the school systems of the largest cities. A physiotherapist, for instance, was unheard of as part of a school faculty and directors of tests and measurements were equally unknown.

Today the child’s body as well as his mind is developed in his school work. Schools of today are building for the America of tomorrow and doing a good job of it.

Of late years a new course of safety has been taught the younger children. Back in 1927 safety patrols were organized in the city’s schools through the co-operation of the school authorities and the police department and under the sponsorship of The State Journal. The safety patrol organization today numbers some 1,800 boys and girls whose duty it is see that the younger schoolmates cross streets safely and observe the cardinal rule of safety: “Always be careful.” The program as conducted on the school grounds by Sgt. Harry B. Snider of the police department and in the classrooms by the teachers has been the means of reducing child accidents in Lansing to a minimum.

* * *

As Lansing has grown from a struggling village to the fourth city of Michigan, so have its schools kept pace with the modern educational developments. The school system verily has come a long way in the 89 years of its life.

History tells us that the city of Lansing began its existence in 1837 but it was not until 10 years later that first evidence of a school appears in the records.

The first schoolhouse here was built in 1847 on the site of the present Cedar street school grounds. It was a one-room log house with an opening in one side which served as a window, and a door which was hung by leather “hinges.”

Eliza Powell was the first teacher and she was paid a “salary” of $2 a week.

The three R’s were stressed to the nth degree and constant drills and much memorizing was the order of every class period. There were 10 pupils under Schoolmistress Powell’s guidance but within three months the enrollment had increased to 40.

In the fall of 1847 a one-room frame building, painted white, was built, facing Wall street, near the site of the log structure. Elihu Elwood was engaged as teacher and the attendance increased rapidly.

Two years later, in 1849, a second school was built on the site of the Townsend street school at Townsend and West Washtenaw streets. The school was known as the Union which may be remembered by some residents still here. By 1857 the Union school had an enrollment of 200 pupils of whom, records show, 70 were “in the branches of learning.”

The old Union school was torn down and the Townsend street building, now used as the board of education offices, was erected.

* * *

The city school system was organized in 1859 when the two school districts – Cedar and Townsend – were consolidated under one board of education compromised of 12 members. Ephriam Longyear was the president of the first board and Charles Butler was clerk. Other members were James Turner, Smith Tooker, R. B. Jeffers, S. S. Coryell, A. W. Williams, G. I. Strong, Ezra Jones, G. W. Peck, James Somerville and Louis Saur.

In 1868, the system of primary, grammar, and high school was organized and the old seminary or union system was replaced by the Adrian rules. The first high school building was also built that year and saved the necessity of erecting several union schools. It was erected on the present site of Central high school on North Capitol avenue at Shiawassee street.

Kindergarten classes first were established in 1871 but proved a rather heavy expense and were discontinued in 1873.

In 1874 the old high school building was moved to Shiawassee street and used as a dwelling and the city bonded itself for $50,000 to erect a new high school which was built in 1874-75. It was a three-story brick building and the total cost of construction and equipment was $150,000.

This school was used for 34 years when it was condemned and wrecked in 1909. In 1893 there were 373 pupils and six teachers.

The main building of the present Central high school was built in 1909 on the foundation of the old building which had been enlarged. It served both as a high school and elementary school until 1913 when the lower grades were removed and it was used exclusively for the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. The building was remodeled in 1910 and an addition was built in 1917. A year later the gymnasium was added.

* * *

With the city growing steadily, need for junior high schools became apparent. The first of these – West Junior – was built in 1920. A second unit was added in 1922. Pattengill junior high, first known as East Junior, was built in 1921 and in 1925 Walter French to serve pupils on the south side of the city was erected at Mt. Hope avenue and Cedar street.

Throughout these years all the pupils in Lansing upon graduation from junior high schools traveled to Lansing high school, regardless of what part of the city their homes might be located. But in 1926 the board of education constructed a second senior high school, known as Eastern high, adjoining Pattengill junior at Pennsylvania avenue and Jerome street. It is one of the finest school buildings in the city.

With Eastern opened, Lansing high school has become known as Central and a friendly rivalry in athletics has grown up between these two institutions.

Schools built in the early days which are still being used include Cedar street, built in 1851 and remodeled in 1876, 1901, and 1918; Townsend street, built in 1849 and rebuilt in 1904; Walnut street built in 1868 and remodeled several times since then; Clark street school now known as Kalamazoo street school, built in 1883, later named Third Ward school and changed to Kalamazoo street school in 1884. It was remodeled in 1911. Larch street school built in 1886, Bingham street school, built in 1890, and remodeled in 1909; West Michigan avenue school, built in 1890 and rebuilt in 1916; Cherry street school, now used as a repair shop by the board of education, built in 1894 and remodeled in 1914.

There were several other old schools which now have passed out of the picture. The South street school for instance, was built in 1874 and sold in 1914. It is now used by H. G. Christman Lansing company. Then, too, there was the old Mill street school which was built on 1874 and the Logan street building, built in 1896 and remodeled in 1912. On the site of that building workmen now are constructing a modern new building to be known as the Lincoln school.

In addition to the junior high schools and the Eastern high school, new buildings constructed during the past 16 years include the Main street school on West Main street at West street, and the Verlinden school on Verlinden avenue at North Genesee drive.

Within the past few years the city extended its limits to include Thomas street in the northernmost section. Plans are being made for the construction of a modern grade school building there in the near future to be followed later by the construction of another junior high school building.

* * *

The first high school commencement exercises here were held in 1873. Alumni records show there were three members of that class, Ada L. Thompson, Mrs. Ella F. Shank, and Mrs. Alice A. Crosby. The class of 1874 was larger, including Clarence E. Bement, Emma L. Jenne, Jason E. Nichols, Mrs. Minnie Hartness, Burton Harris, Mary H. Shine. There were but two graduates in 1875, Mrs. Florence Judd and Kate B. Mack. The 1876 class had five members, M. Alice Frary, Ella Stedman, Bettie M. Sutcliff, Mrs. Lou Parmelee, and Mrs. Fanny ? Nichols, but in 1877 it again dropped back to two members, Mary E. Sheridan and Theron North. There were no graduates in 1878.

The class of 1879 included Mrs. Belle Breck, Esther C. Steadman, Mary Wolcott, Franc J. Dart, Hattie S. Haze, and Edith V. Budington.

Members of the class of 1880 were Carrie M. Osborn, Lucia D. Cowles, Mrs. Ida M. Watson, and Millie Bingham, while graduates a year later were Corinna B. Gleason, Eliza B. Hinman, Lewis F. Esselstyn, Kate Marvin, Joie Smith, and Carrie O. Lott.

The largest class of them all in the first 11 years of graduation exercises was that of 1882 which numbered nine members: Charles L. Everett, Mrs. Linda L. Broas, Mrs. Jennie E. Prudden, Etta DeLamarter, Maud E. Cannell, Carrie M. French, Mrs. Emma F. Crittenden, Neela J. Root and Julia R. Everett.

In 1883 the graduates included Jessie M. Ward, Cassie E. McClure, Ida M. Robins, Orah H. Glaister, Carrie M. Berridge, and Nellie E. Osband.

The program for the graduation exercises of 1884, as printed in “Lansing And Its Yesterdays,” a collection of historical material from the 75th anniversary edition of The State Journal, shows that Prof. Joseph Estabrook of Olivet delivered the commencement address. Others who took part were Jennie B. Greene, Ada L. Aber, John L. Bush, jr., Charlotte A. Earle, and Inez E. Smith.

* * *

As the years rolled by the Lansing school system grew steadily until today its investment, including buildings and equipment runs high into the millions of dollars.

In addition to the regular scholastic subjects, a pupil in the Lansing schools can fit himself for various trades, including printing, wood working, automobile mechanics, typewriting, bookkeeping, mechanical drawing, music, and numerous other technical subjects.

The public school music department is recognized as one of the finest in Michigan. Bands are maintained at Central high, Eastern high, Walter French junior, Pattengill and West junior high schools, where also orchestras and glee clubs are organized.

A new course in sight conversation is to be introduced during the present term. It is designed for those children of school age whose eyes are faulty in the hope that it will not only improve their vision but also enable them to conserve and use to advantage the sight they now have.

* * *

The board of education membership when first organized years ago had 12 members. This number has decreased today to seven, which provides for a more compact body.

Carl H. McLean is the president of the board, an office he has held for two years, Mrs. F. E. Mills is secretary, and Lee C. Moore is treasurer.


*Transcribed by Timothy Bowman, October 9, 2014.

the original 1936 article

the original 1936 article


2 responses to “History of Lansing’s Early Schools

  1. Patricia (Arntson) Schultz

    When I was a child, I heard my Dad went to Walter French Junior High School. I remember hearing that he wrote the school song. His name was Kolbert O. Arntson. He was born 1910. Is there any record of this?
    Thank you very much for your time.

  2. I sent an answer to ya at the aol e-mail.

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