How Private Schools Evolved in the United States

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How Private Schools Evolved in the United States
Private schools came first. Then public education took root.
In the infancy of the United States of America, schooling for young people, such as it was, was provided by small, private schools, not public schools. Education in colonial days was quite stratified. Boys learned core subjects such as reading and math. Girls learned the domestic arts. Only white children received an education until slavery was abolished. Very often teachers were well-intentioned men who themselves did not have much formal education. Yes, back then, most teachers were men.

The first private schools were established by the religious missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church in Florida and Louisiana. By all accounts education in the northeastern colonies was better organized in the 18th century than its counterpart in the southern states. Schools such as Boston Latin School were founded in order to teach the Classical
Languages of Latin and Greek. In Manhattan Collegiate School "was established by the Dutch West India Company and the Classis of Amsterdam, the parent ecclesiastical body of the Dutch Reformed Church for the colonists of New Amsterdam." In Washington, DC, Georgetown Preparatory School was "founded in 1789 by America's first Catholic bishop,
Prep is the nation's oldest Jesuit school and the only Jesuit boarding school." In the early part of the 18th century English grammar schools taught more subjects as the need for a more educated populace grew. The latter part of the 18th century saw the development of the genre known as the Academy. Visionaries such as William Penn guided the educational thinking of the time.

In the 19th century a uniform, organized system of public education did not take shape until the 1840s. Leading the push for better education in the northeastern colonies were leaders such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard. They were the architects of the concept of public funding for schools at the local level, a model which still flourishes in the 21st century.

No different back then than in the 21st century there were parents who wanted a better education for their children. And there were civic-minded leaders who understood how a rigorous academic education was essential to ensuring the solid growth of the new nation.The Phillips family, for example, founded Exeter and Andover Academies with serious, high-minded purposes. The Deed of Gift which established Exeter states that the Academy should teach its students "not only in the English and Latin grammar, writing, arithmetic, and those sciences wherein they are commonly taught, but more especially to learn them the great end and real business of living." Andover’s 1778 Constitution charges the Academy to prepare “Youth from every quarter” to understand that “goodness without knowledge is weak…yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous.”

As we move into the 19th century philanthropists such as Stephen Girard (1750-1831) play a pivotal role in establishing private schools to educate children from poor families. The altruistic thread permeates the late 18th and 19th centuries as wealthy businessmen understood the social and economic implications of a good education for every quarter of society. Milton Hershey (1857-1945) and Princess Bernice (1831-1884) came from quite different backgrounds but shared a common goal of educating young people at no cost to their families. The schools which they established are some of the grandest examples of educational philanthropy to be found anywhere in the world.

Essentially then, private education in the colonies came before public education. As public education took hold, private schools sprang up in order to fill a need not provided for in the public sector. Parents who felt that they wanted more for their children had options even back in the early days of the nation. That concept of options has not changed in the 21st century. A parent who desires a particular type of education has a wide variety of options available to him. 80% of American children are educated in the public system. The other 20% find what their parents are looking for in a private school.


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