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Sesquicentennial Memories

Normal Education in Rhode Island 1857-1871:
Decline and Resurrection

By Michael Smith

As is the case with so many great institutions throughout history, the early years of the Rhode Island Normal School were marked by both triumph and struggle. Founded in 1854, the institution’s early years were highly successful. Opponents and other circumstances soon combined, however, to challenge the vitality of the Normal School.

In 1857, after the General Assembly chose to reduce substantially its annual appropriation, the Normal School was moved to Bristol, a vibrant seafaring town but a distant horseback ride (or expensive train ride) from the state’s major centers of population. That Bristol won out over two other suitors was the result of a peculiar coalition of local and educational interests that played out in the General Assembly. Before the legislature in April of 1857 were three proposals, and the order in which they were voted upon had a role in the outcome. The first vote taken was to continue operations in Providence, even though few resources were available for support of the School within the city. Largely on the strength of legislators from Woonsocket and Bristol, combined with those opposed to the Normal School entirely, this proposal was defeated.

Next came a proposal from Woonsocket to host the Normal School, but Providence solons, stung by the betrayal of their Blackstone Valley brethren, formed a coalition with hopeful Bristol legislators to defeat that proposal. Finally, the Bristol proposal was before the General Assembly. Because of the free accommodations offered by the town, it may have been the best option based on merit, but another consideration was foremost: as the last option remaining on the table, the choice was not a matter of geography or even finance as it was a choice between a Bristol-based Normal School or no normal school at all. Given that option, all supporters of normal education joined together to support the school’s relocation, and the measure was approved.

The Bristol years were marked with numerous challenges, with lack of funding a continual factor. The promised accommodations were not ready for the beginning of the 1857 fall semester and two (inadequate) temporary locations served as home until October 23. In December of 1859, the charismatic first Principal of the Normal School, Dana P. Colburn, suffered an untimely death. In addition, because of Bristol’s remoteness, it was difficult to attract students and faculty, and the ties to Brown University that the School had enjoyed while in Providence were effectively severed. Finally, the Civil War siphoned off many potential students into military service and into the civilian industries mobilized to support the war effort.

In an attempt to revivify the institution, a campaign was begun in the spring of 1864 to return the school to Providence. Opposed by numerous interests, including leaders of the Providence Conference Seminary in East Greenwich (which had designs on becoming the state’s center for teacher education), this campaign failed. The situation in Bristol became increasingly dire, and in July of 1865, the Board of Education voted to suspend operations of the Normal School indefinitely.

In allowing the Normal School to succumb to financial deprivation, legislative opponents noted that normal instruction could still be had at institutions located out of state, or at in-state private academies that charged tuition. Within months of the closure of the Normal School, however, it became clear that such thinking was shortsighted. Then (as now), Rhode Islanders were not accustomed to traveling great distances to pursue their education. Further, considering that in 1866 teacher salaries ranged from $25 to $40 per month, the teaching profession was certainly not so lucrative as to justify a substantial personal investment in one’s postsecondary education.

With the Normal School in dormancy, local school officials soon began to despair for the lack of competent and professionally educated teachers. Accordingly, communities throughout the state began to call for the public subsidy of teacher education at private academies, even as these friends of public education continued to hope that the Normal School might soon be re-opened. So it came to pass that in the very next session of the General Assembly, the legislature voted on March 31, 1866 to approve “An Act to Provide Common School Teachers With Additional Normal Instruction.” The act would provide tuition payments to qualified academies of $15 per student per term, with the total annual amount capped at $1,500.

The academies of that era were more akin to modern-day boarding schools and provided an education roughly analogous to the middle and high schools of today. While instruction at private academies was no substitute for post-secondary instruction, in an era when census data show that just two percent of high school age students actually earned a diploma, graduates of such institutions were considered highly educated indeed.

image: Main Building, East Grenwich AcademyIn 1866, only one private academy in Rhode Island was offering normal instruction: the Providence Conference Seminary, located in East Greenwich. Established in 1802 as the Kent Academy, the school was taken over by the Providence Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1841. It was hardly a novice in the realm of normal instruction; indeed, normal courses were first taught there in 1841, just two years after the founding of the country’s first State Normal School by Horace Mann in Lexington, Massachusetts. While the normal program at the Providence Conference Seminary did not prove an initial success and was discontinued until after the Civil War, the institution was fully ready to accept tuition students under the new state law in the fall of 1866. In fact, the Seminary had created an entirely new Normal Department just to accommodate these students.

The first year under the tuition subsidy plan was far from the success its advocates had hoped. Just 19 students qualified for the program, at a cost to the state of $285. Perhaps this may have led William B. Lawton, President of the Board of Trustees of the Providence Conference Seminary, to join with State Education Commissioner Joshua Chapin in noting for the record that the Seminary’s Normal Department was in no way intended to substitute for a “proper” Normal School.

In the fall of 1867, a second academy joined in providing normal instruction: the Lapham Institute, located in the village of North Scituate. Founded by the Rhode Island Association of Free Baptists in 1839 as the Smithville Seminary, the institution was the site of Henry Barnard’s first Rhode Island Teachers Institute, held in 1845. The Seminary closed in 1857 but reopened in 1863 as the Lapham Institute. It developed a normal program to take advantage of the state’s subsidy but the curriculum was not as rigorous as that offered by its counterpart in East Greenwich. Nonetheless, 39 students enrolled in the Latham Institute program during its first year.

The subsidy program continued until changes in the state’s educational leadership – notably the ascension of an energetic young Education Commissioner, Thomas W. Bicknell -- as well as a more favorable political and fiscal climate, enabled the re-establishment of an adequately-funded Rhode Island Normal School in 1871.

A total of 234 students were educated at the two academies under the state’s tuition assistance program, at a total cost of $3,510.
And what became of the two academies that served as “lifeboats” for normal education in the state during the Normal School’s interregnum?
Withdrawal of the state subsidy for normal instruction led the Lapham Institute to suspend its normal courses in 1871. The Institute itself closed its doors in 1875, but later reopened as the Watchman Institute, a boarding school for African-American children. The building fell into disrepair in the 20th century, especially after a series of fires believed set by the Ku Klux Klan in 1924, 1926, and 1934. It was renovated and restored as an apartment complex in the 1970’s. Now known as Scituate Commons, the magnificent and imposing Greek Revival structure is accessible from the Village Green or by taking the very narrow street named “Institute Lane” just off the Danielson Pike in the village of North Scituate.

Unlike the Lapham Institute, the Providence Conference Seminary (soon renamed “East Greenwich Academy”) continued providing normal instruction after the reopening of the Normal School. At one point, before being overtaken by the growing legions of Normal School graduates, its catalogue claimed as alumni some three-quarters of all teachers in the state. Nor was the Academy’s commitment to normal education half-hearted; its Normal Department pioneered the establishment of practice teaching as part of the curriculum while the Normal School was still planning its own practice teaching program. Only in 1898 did the East Greenwich Academy disband its Normal Department because of new and more stringent state certification requirements for teachers.

East Greenwich Academy would close as a private institution in 1943 when it was sold to the town to serve as the first East Greenwich High School. It remained in that capacity until the opening of a new, purpose-built structure in 1959 (now Cole Junior High School). Although many of the old Seminary buildings were demolished during the 20th century, four buildings remain: Rose Cottage (c1850) at 112 Pierce Street, which served as the Headmaster’s House; Olney House (1897) at 56 Church Street, which served as a boys dormitory; South Cottage, another former dormitory; and Swift Gym (1907), named for its benefactor, the widow of the founder of the Chicago-based meat-packing company.

Both of the 19th century academies are well worth visiting, as the respective campuses retain much of their former charm and it is not difficult to imagine them as they were in their heyday as the centers for teacher education in Rhode Island.


The author gratefully acknowledges Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for her assistance with research for the Sesquicentennial Memories series. Much of the information for this article is available from the College Archives, including History of Higher Education in Rhode Island, published in 1894 by William Howe Tolman; The Story of the Rhode Island Normal School, published in 1911 by Thomas Bicknell; Public Education in Rhode Island, published in 1918 by Charles Carroll; and History of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction, published in 1971 by Hector Richard Carbone.


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