A School Ahead of its Time

Discussions about “charter” schools is a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, the first charter school law in the United States was written in Minnesota in 1991. Charter schools are semi-autonomous public schools that receive public funds. They operate under a written contract, or charter, with a state, district or other entity. The charter details how the school will be organized and managed, what students will be expected to achieve, and how success will be measured.

Forgotten in that historical perspective was a school located in Bordentown, NJ, from 1886 to 1955 that operated very much like today’s charter schools: the Manual Training and Industrial School for African-American children from south Jersey. The school reflected John Dewey’s ideas on progressive education to teach, not only academics, but training in prevailing occupations, a strong work ethic and community engagement.

As a part of its African-American History Month celebration, the NJ State Library hosted author and historian Dr. Connie Goddard who presented “The Unique Legacy of New Jersey’s Manual Training and Industrial School 1886-1955” reviewing the background of that successful school of which few have ever heard.

Borrowing freely from ideas about education articulated by Booker T. Washington, John Dewey and W.E.B. DuBois, the Manual Training and Industrial School may well have been the only state-supported boarding school for African-American students in the nation. Founded in 1886 by a group of black ministers and taken over by the state a decade later, it thrived until Brown v. Board of Education made its continued existence unconstitutional and some of its practices dated. During the first half of the 20th century, it offered a unique educational experience that combined academics, preparation for work and for contributions to the community. From 1915 to 1940, the number of students increased from 93 to 450, with an almost equal mix of boys and girls. It was a self-contained community. All students were required to devote a half day a week to maintaining the school. The highly experienced faculty lived on campus.

After closing, the site became a correctional facility, which is now being closed.

Goddard, a writer and historian of education, has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago; she has taught history and composition at Mercer County Community College, The College of New Jersey and two state prisons, as well as in Chicago and Romania. Her scholarly interests focus on schooling in colonial America and during the Progressive Era. Currently she is writing about Chicago’s eminent educator and Dewey colleague Ella Flagg Young, including the latter’s intellectual and pragmatic sympathies with both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.