VISION OF SEMPLE, SWETT
IN BROAD, FIRM EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
WILL C. WOOD
Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Christopher Wood (1880-1939) was a progressive Republican, in the Hiram
Johnson mold, and was thought of as a strong candidate for governor in
1925, as the progressives battled the conservative wing of the Republican
Party. He withdrew his name from consideration one month after this article
appeared, and supported another progressive, Clement Calhoun Young, for
governor. Young was elected, and Wood resigned as state superintendent
of schools January 21, 1927, and was immediately appointed state superintendent
of banks by Gov. Young. Wood died at his Piedmont home May 15, 1939.
regard education as a subject of particular importance here in California,
from our location and the circumstances under which we are placed, the
immense value of our lands and the extent and wealth of the country.
spoke Robert Semple, delegate from Solano county in the first Constitutional
Convention of California, held in the quaint old city of Monterey in 1849.
He was voicing the hopes and aspirations of hardy pioneers who had come
round the Horn, across the plains or over the Isthmus of Panama to lay
the foundations of the first American state established on the shores of
think, continued Mr. Semple, that here, above all places in the Union,
we should have, and we possess the resources to have, a well regulated
system of education. Education, sir, is the foundation, sir, is the foundation
of republican institutions; the school system suits the genius and the
spirit of our form of government. If the people are to govern themselves,
they should be qualified to do it. They must be educated; they must educate
their children; they must provide means for the diffusion of knowledge
and the progress of enlightened principles.
was the vision of the one of the leaders in that body of wise men who drafted
the original organic law of California accepted by Congress as the basis
for admission into the Union in 1850. That splendid vision is being realized
today in the great school system of California, which stands pre-eminent
among the school systems of the world.
the public school system of California which had not come into being at
the time Semple spoke so eloquently in its behalf, now enrolls more than
a million people in all its branches. It offers opportunity to all human
beings who are capable of being educated, and aims to train each to serve
himself and his community to fullest and best advantage, according to his
capabilities and to enjoy life while serving. Over one-fourth of the population
of the state was enrolled in various branches of the school system during
other state can boast of the enrollment of so large a proportion of its
population. No other people has been so generous in its support of education
as the people of California. The vision of Semple and other pioneer statesmen
has been realized.
who came to the Golden West in the great gold rush did not wait, however,
for the adoption of the constitution in order to establish schools. A love
for public education seemingly is inborn in Americans, and this love manifested
itself in California even before Marshalls
great discovery at Coloma.
California became American territory at least one American school had been
established within the confines of what has become our state. In the autumn
of 1846 a band of American immigrants straggled into Santa Clara county
after a tedious and hazardous journey across the plains. With the band
was a young woman who afterward became Mrs. Olive M. Isbell. It was she
who opened the first school for American children in California, in an
old adobe near Santa Clara Mission in December, 1846. She must have been
a patient service-loving soul.
her death some years ago in Ventura county she told how, in the absence
of slate, a blackboard or paper, she wrote the alphabet on the backs of
her pupils hands in order that they might learn the rudiments of our language.
A few months later she moved to Monterey, where she opened a school in
the old custom house, later to become historic as the place where Sloat
and Larkin first raised the American flag to mark the beginning of American
occupation of California.
after Mrs. Isbell opened her little school at Santa Clara a Mr. Marston
opened a private school in San Francisco. It was held in a little shanty
located on the block between Broadway and Pacific streets, west of Dupont
[Grant Ave.]. However, inasmuch as the teacher was not attentive to his
duties, the school lasted less than a year.
forestall a lapse in education, the ayuntimento, or town council, late
in 1847, erected a one-room school house on the town plaza, now Portsmouth
Square. The school was under public control, but was supported almost entirely
by tuition fees. The school opened in April 1848, with Thomas Douglas as
teacher, but it was ill starred. Word soon came from up the river that
gold had been discovered at Coloma and Mr. Douglas, singularly thoughtless
of his little flock of children, deserted overnight to seek his fortune
in the diggins.
October, 1849, John C. Pelton opened a school in the old Baptist Church
in San Francisco, depending entirely upon voluntary subscriptions for its
support. It was free only to poor children. In the spring of 1850 the city
council came to his assistance and adopted an ordinance making it free
public school, the first in California. The school continued under the
original ordinance until September, 1851, when it was reorganized under
an ordinance providing for a city board of education and a city superintendent.
The first superintendent, T.J. Nevins outlined the organization for the
first city school system in the state. It was he who proposed the establishment
of the San Francisco high school, the grading of the school, the grading
of schools and the adoption of a uniform course of study.
sporadic local attempts at education which I have mentioned gave way to
the beginning of a comprehensive state school system under the Constitution
of 1849, which enjoined the legislature to encourage by all suitable means
the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement.
Constitution set aside a vast domain of public lands to be sold for the
benefit of the permanent public school fund, which now amounts to over
$9,000,000, and required the maintenance of a public school in each district
of the state for at least three months each year.
provisions of the California Constitution relating to education were borrowed,
almost word for word, from the Constitution of Michigan, which had been
admitted to the Union only 12 years before and had established a splendid
school system for that time.
legislature of 1849-1850 was kept so busy laying the foundations of law
and order in California that it found no time for enacting a school code.
Near the close of the session the committee on education reported taxes
were so heavy it was deemed inadvisable to tax the people still further
for the support of schools-- an argument which persists in some sections
of California even to this day.
legislature of 1851, however, which was revised by the succeeding legislature
under the direction of John G. Marvin, the first superintendent of public
instruction. It was under this law that the early schools were organized
in the state. The law, still imperfect, served fairly well for a full decade.
was not until John Swett became superintendent of public instruction in
1863 that the California school system got its stride. No statesman produced
by California is entitled to greater honor than John Swett. Other statesmen
have achieved great things in the field of politics, but Swett achieved
great things in behalf of children who had no votes to reward him for his
feeling ran high in California and the loyalists organized themselves
into the Union party. The party convention met in Sacramento to nominate
a ticket. Some of Swetts friends urged the young mans name for the office
of state superintendent and he finally consented to the presentation of
representatives of the mining and agricultural counties did not respond
to his candidacy at first. they were skeptical about him, first because
he came from San Francisco, and second because one of his opponents pointed
out that Swett hadnt a classical education.
Jennings Bryan at Chicago in 1896, John Swett won the nomination by
making a speech to the convention, in which he showed those hard-fisted
miners that he had grit as well as capacity. He was elected by an overwhelming
majority and entered into the discharge of his duties at the age of 33.
found the laws relative to schools were a patchwork. Teachers were underpaid
and most of them had little professional training. With little assistance
in the office, Swett found the task of reorganization a heavy one. He was
obliged to make long journeys to distant part of the state to visit schools
and acquaint himself with the school situation.
the days of the stage coach the time spent in necessary travel was very
great, while the hardships of travel were such as only a young man could
endure without breaking under the strain. How he found time to do the constructive
work that marked his term is almost a marvel.
his term Swett secured the passage of laws creating a state board of education,
providing for teachers institutes where poorly equipped teachers might
get help, organizing the schools into grades, establishing school libraries,
providing for the certification of teachers and laying a splendid financial
basis for the support of public education.
the close of his term he had secured the abolition of rate bills under
which parents were charged tuition and made the schools absolutely free
in all districts for at least five months each year. He succeeded in having
school boards build better school houses, secured necessary increases in
teachers salaries and lengthened the school year. Since the time of Horace
Mann, the public schools had found no more ardent champion than John Swett.
the days of Semple and Swett the California schools have developed by leaps
and bounds. No layman has had an adequate conception of the extent or complexity
of our school system. The lowest division of the school system in point
of age is the kindergarten, and Californias kindergarten enrollment is
larger than that of any other state. However, some of the larger cities
have found it necessary in working districts to go beyond the kindergarten
and establish days nurseries for the care of children of working mothers.
elementary schools are represented in every district of the state. High
schools enrolling over 300,000 students offer unparalleled opportunities
to young people, while their evening classes enroll over 30,000 adults
or near adults. The State University and teachers colleges enroll over
believes in education and has manifested her faith in schooling in very
substantial ways. She has carried out the promise of Semple and Swett by
supporting a school system that provides in full measure means for the
diffusion of knowledge and the progress of enlightened principles.
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