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October 16, 2007 > Pioneer Students

Pioneer Students

Pioneer students had little time to worry about what they were going to wear to school. Usually they had to be content with whatever clothes their family could provide. They were lucky to have any clothes that hung together. In later years, students were expected to come to school in "proper attire." Girls wore dresses and long stockings, and boys wore long trousers.

Students were often more concerned about getting to school, because they had to walk long distances from scattered homes. A Centerville student left this account. "We - my sister, two cousins and I - started early in the morning and cheerfully walked the three long miles of lonely road with the high mustard growing high above our heads." Students who rode horses to school tied them out back or in a shed.

At first, the students sat at homemade desks or on benches lighted only by the windows. Paper, slates and blackboards were scarce, and most reading was done aloud. Some students stood in line to recite. They were expected to memorize "important" things and recite from memory. Textbooks were rare and had to be provided by parents for many years. Students had to be careful with their books, so they could be handed down to their younger brothers or sisters.

Students advanced according to their age and oral recitation abilities until eight-year graded schools became the norm. When schools grew larger, they were divided into primary, intermediate and grammar departments. Student efforts, respect and discipline provided an atmosphere for effective learning. Retention of students who did not demonstrate academic progress was common and the upper grades at times, included large boys who were not academically inclined, presenting a problem for teachers. Students were required to pass a county test to graduate from the eighth grade.

Students played a variety of games at recess. Playgrounds were packed dirt and had no equipment. Teachers in one-room schools often played with the children. Students who lived close to home often walked home for lunch. Those who rode horses to school usually watered them and walked them around. Some schools had divided playgrounds so boys played on one side, and girls on the other.

Rev. W. W. Brier, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools, began a May Day tradition in 1859. At this time, neighboring schools gathered to celebrate. Picnics, tournaments and games with other schools were school year highlights along with Christmas programs and closing exhibitions. Niles students enjoyed field trips on the train in later years, and some classes even hiked up Mission Peak. The high point of the year for many students was the last day of school picnic. Parents sometimes joined the children to celebrate the day.

Regular attendance was a problem for many students. Sometimes they would quit school because they were needed to work on the farm. Muddy roads in the wet season made travel very difficult but the worst problem was caused by diseases such as diphtheria and measles. Classes were sometimes crowded and seats were in short supply. Schools closed many times because of epidemics of contagious disease.

The state adopted a law for a school library system to support the educational program, but it did not provide funds. Since teachers and trustees had to supply the books as best they could, library collections were small. Alviso reported 63 books in 1870, and Niles had 73 a few years later. Some schools eventually obtained special rooms for libraries. Centerville District erected a new building in 1877 that included two school rooms, a hall and a library. When enrollment rose, the library had to be used for a classroom.

Early schools were often housed in buildings rented or donated by local farmers. Education was taking place "due to the heroic efforts of teachers." The first school houses were small, plain and often unpainted buildings. When classes became too large for a single room, larger buildings were constructed, and one-teacher schools became two or three-teacher schools.

Some buildings had an entrance or cloak room where students kept their lunches and hung their coats. The second Niles School had separate entrances, one marked "boys" and the other marked "girls." Small schools usually were heated by wood-burning potbelly stoves. Larger schools sometimes had furnaces, or special heating systems. Mission San Jose's school boasted of floor matting, whitened walls, painted desks, and the usual clock and teacher's desk.

Larger schools led to special daily opening ceremonies. Former Centerville students recalled that they marched to the front lawn to the beat of Principal Joseph Dias' big drum for flag salute ceremonies. Niles students lined up when the big brass bell was rung and marched in as one of the boys beat on a drum.

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