Friday, September 30, 2011

History of Education in Northampton County

Engraving of Pennsylvania Governor George Wolf.

     Before 1834, when the “Free School Act” was passed in Pennsylvania, church schools commonly provided education. When settlers formed a community large enough to support the building a church, a school was usually built next. The curriculum for these schools included reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic and religion. If parents could not afford the subscription cost or did not approve of the religious instructions, their children went without a school education.
     The Bethlehem Moravians arrived in America as an organized community. Separately, a girls and boys schools were opened in 1742. The female seminary was organized in 1785, which was the first secondary school for girls, in the United States.
     The Free School Act put the Moravian Church leaders in a difficult position. Bethlehem already had strong educational institutions when the act was passed. To accommodate the new act the Moravian day schools, separate schools for boys and girls, were converted into public schools. A public school board was elected with the same individuals that served on the previous board for the Moravian private schools. The Bethlehem Area School District as an entity was approved by the state legislature in 1836. This collaboration came to an end in 1844 when there were enough non-Moravian children in Bethlehem, whose parents sought secular instruction.
     In 1854, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed an act requiring the professional supervision of all public schools. The county superintendent was elected for three-year terms by the school boards of directors, within the county. Every June, all the county superintendents submitted a report for the school year. These reports were published in a hardbound book. Today, you can find this books in the special history collections of the Bethlehem Area Library and Easton Public Library.
     Valentine Hilburn was elected as the first Northampton County Superintendent in 1854. Hilburn was very outspoken which made him unpopular with teachers and school boards. He wrote in his Superintendent Report of 1855 that too many teachers in their dry presentation of information were dull and heavy and discouraging to students. He stated that most school board directors refused to do their job and were corrupt by their frequent requests for funds from the district treasurer. He instituted exams for teacher certifications for the first time in the county. During Hilburn’s term more than half of the students in the county did not speak, read or write in English. German was the primary language in use. Teaching English to the county’s students became a top priority for Hilburn.
     The next superintendent to serve Northampton County was Abraham Kind. He served two terms (1860-1866). The Civil War drained the county of seventy male teachers. Superintendent Kind pushed for female replacements. He said, “Their success and usefulness was equal to that of the best male teachers.”
     In 1875, Superintendent of Public Instruction J. P. Wickersham reported that male teachers were receiving an average of $6.98 more a month in salary than their female counterparts, who received $34.09 a month. All the teachers had received a decrease in salary from the previous year of $1.83. The average length of the school term, through the state was 6.85 months. The percentage of registered students who attended school was 62%. The state paid about 12% of the educational costs of the districts. Wickersham deliberated over the role of the bible in public schools. He acknowledged that it was unfair to use public money for sectarian purposes. His solution was, “the Bible-reading should take place at the end of the day, neither loss of time nor disorder need result from a part of the pupils quietly leaving the school room at a given signal.”
    The Northampton County superintendent, B.F. Raesly, in 1875, reported that no new schoolhouses in the county were built during the past year. He stated that all the schoolhouses were equipped with out-houses and the teachers were responsible for their cleanliness. The most up-to-date schools had factory made desks (as opposed to homemade desks and benches), along with blackboards, globes, maps and charts. Parents were responsible for purchasing their children’s schoolbooks. Raesly had high praise for the South Bethlehem High School, one of only two high schools in the county. He commended the excellent condition of the room where the high school was held, as it was furnished with Bancroft seats and desks. Alexander C. La Barre of Bethlehem assisted in preparing the program for the Northampton County Teachers Institute. La Barre was the Supervising Principal of the Bethlehem School District.
model of schoolhouse
     The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 was held in Philadelphia. In the Pennsylvania Hall, exhibits were selected to impress domestic and foreign visitors. A model of the ideal Pennsylvania schoolhouse caused a stir. It represented a 22 X 34 foot structure, which received light through six windows. A cellar wood or coal stove heated the building from the basement. The large platform in front of the building was built at a height of the floor in the average horse driven carriage. A person could step easily from a carriage onto the platform in front of the school. The teacher’s desk sat on an elevated platform. The estimate for building the school was $1,500. The model was a hit with foreign visitors. Japanese officials offered to purchase the model as they were so taken with it.
     Beginning in 1883, Bethlehem public education was under the direction of its own district superintendent, George H. Desh. The school districts of South Bethlehem and West Bethlehem continued under the supervision of the county superintendent. In 1888, Oren R. Wilt was elected as the first district superintendent of South Bethlehem.
Lutz-Franklin Schoolhouse, built in 1880, in Lower Saucon Township.
     As the population grew and school districts consolidated, school districts elected their own superintendents. The Edmonds Act of 1921 ended the county superintendents' role in certification of teachers. In 1969, the name of the Department of Public Instruction was changed to the Department of Education, with the title of Superintendent of Public Instruction changed to the Secretary of Education.


  1. Karen - please - your choice of font and background colors make this article almost impossible for us older folks to read.

  2. I have to agree, the background and font make it an effort to read the interesting information.

  3. So far, i failed almost all the history tests and worst of all, i can not bring myself to like it. I don't know how to link up events to answer questions. Can anyone give me some tips to rekindle my learning spirit. Sigh. Is there anyway that i can like this subject, as much as i do for math and science??

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