Some sage advice from 1858

Posted 9/14/22

You never know what you might find when making a move. It’s not that I’ve moved, for surely from within all the boxes on shelves and in the attic, not to mention drawers rarely opened, I …

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Some sage advice from 1858


You never know what you might find when making a move. It’s not that I’ve moved, for surely from within all the boxes on shelves and in the attic, not to mention drawers rarely opened, I would discover a trove of long forgotten items.

In fact, the move that brought to light a copy of the annual report of the School Committee of the Town of Warwick was made several years ago when school administration offices moved from Warwick Avenue to what was Gorton Junior High School and Gorton High School before that.

On a recent visit to Gorton that was pressed into service as a school again when Sherman was forced to close because of mold – the elementary school is housed on the first floor and administrators moved upstairs – I stopped in the superintendent’s office. Cathy Bonang was standing at her computer, phone blinking at her side and in the thick of school business. That’s the norm for Superintendent Lynn Dambruch’s secretary who stays on top of all that has to do with Warwick schools. Lynn and Cathy share what was once a classroom for as many as 30 students. It’s spacious with a conference table with chairs to one side and their two desks on the other.

Cathy got a break from the phone and emails to give me a progress report on Winman Middle School renovations and that its opening would be delayed until the Tuesday following Labor Day. As she got into the details we touched on costs that evidently brought to mind the committee report from 1858 she found when administration offices moved from Warwick Avenue.

She pulled it and a handful of other reports – one even older that was written in neat penmanship – from a shelf. The report with a heaver stock cover is the size of a sheet of paper folded in half and 16 pages.

“Look at this,” she said with a tingle of excitement of having found something remarkable.

Indeed, the report is a revelation.

I must say the first page of the report “to the Freeman of the Town of Warwick” by A.D. Greene, clerk of the committee, provides a stark contrast to today’s school operations.  Greene reports that 1,823 “scholars have been registered in the schools the past yea” and that average attendance was 1,124. Greene put the budget at $4,374.58 of which $2,446.76 was state aid that put the per pupil cost at $3.61.  The school budget this year is $179.5 million and the per pupil tuition is more than $22,000. 

The observations of Superintendent Benjamin Phelon, however, show that perhaps not all that much has changed in the classroom despite all the advances in teaching and technology.

“Perfection, however, is not yet attained in the school room. There is too much mechanical teaching. The usual studies are indeed being taught according to the class books, but with some teachers nothing more is attempted. With such instruction they will ever be dull. Let them venture out of their class books, and teach their scholars to think practically, and the dullness will be removed.”

Phelon also focuses on parent saying they “are not always judicious.”

“They think, of course that their own children are faultless – that they will not lie – will not deceive – will no misrepresent. The teacher finds it necessary to correct one of this stamp. The scholar carries his story home. The parent believes it. He consults not the teacher. The child is supported at home. The evil is augmented.”

Phelon also talks of the impact of the condition of schools on faculty and students. If there’s a parallel it’s one reason today’s committee and administration is pushing for the $350 million bond issue to build new high schools.

Phelon notes some school houses are dingy and need repainting and repairs. He points out that one is cold.

“The beauty of the school house has much to do with the moral and mental improvement of the scholars. Ambition is excited when every thing connected with the school is tasteful,” he writes.

Lessons from 1858? It would appear so. But if only the remedies approached anything near the costs of then.

editorial, Side Up