YESTERYEAR / 1874: Making the case for attending Dorchester High School

By 1874, four years after the 244-year-old Puritan town of Dorchester had been annexed to Boston, its educators had become alarmed at the outflow of neighborhood students from its high school to the city’s in-town secondary schools, most notably The Latin School.

In a report to the Boston School Committee, members of the Committee of the Dorchester High School spent virtually all of their space laying out the reasons why they felt students should study and learn close to home.

“While this Committee have no desire to interfere with the rights or preferences of the citizens of Dorchester,” the report noted, “they cannot help believing that “the greatest good to the greatest number” would be promoted by their sending their sons and daughters to the local High School. As this is a matter of no little importance to the interests of the section of the city for whose convenience this school is maintained at a large expense, some reasons are given to show why it is desirable that it should be used by those for whom it is intended.”

What followed was a litany of those reasons:

– Parents “impliedly disparage their own school when they ‘pass it by on the other side,’ and send the scholars which belong to it to the larger High Schools of the city proper. … but, whether intended or not, their action operates to the disadvantage of their own school.”

– Dorchester High School teachers “are the best than can be obtained, and, on the whole, are not inferior to those of any similar school in the city.”

– “The Dorchester High School has a new and elegant building, amply provided with every convenience for carrying on its work, and it is located in the territorial centre of the ward which furnishes its scholars. It is erected on high ground, in a healthy and pleasant situation, and its lot contains about an acre. So far as its location, its light and air, and its surroundings are concerned, it certainly possesses advantages superior to any High School in the city proper.”

– “The Latin and the English High Schools are at present crowded into inferior rooms, in the most undesirable locations in the city, where the noise and confusion of some of the busiest streets are a continual annoyance; and there is no hope of immediate relief.”

“Pupils from this ward taking the steam-cars must walk from three-quarters of a mile to a mile and a half after they reach the stations, in the city proper, or accomplish part of the journey by horse-cars. Those who use the Washington street-cars must travel in them four to twelve miles a day; not to mention the expense of these journeys, they require from one to three hours daily of a scholar’s time.”

What was “the large expense” noted in the committee’s report:

In that school year, 111 students (74 girls and 42 boys) attended classes, and the average attendance was 91.8 percent. Regulations provided that “the number of assistants shall not exceed one for every thirty pupils.” The teaching staff comprised a headmaster, a “female head-assistant, and three female assistants who together taught music, drawing, and military drill. Special instructors taught French (seven hours a week) and German (six hours).

In all, the expense outlay for the school year was $17,511.01, which sum included $4,974 in interest on the value of the building and the land. Average cost per student was $145.92, which, the report noted, was $2.65 above the average cost at the city’s six high schools.

Diversity was lacking in the Dorchester neighborhood of 1874 that was about two decades shy of the streetcar suburb era. In a school headed by Elbridge Smith and his assistant, Mary Wentworth Hall, the roster of students was filled with names straight out of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant address book.

Today, there is no Dorchester High School. There is, instead, Dorchester Academy, featuring an academic focus to help students prepare for college and career in public service, business and the law and made up of the former Edward G. Noonan Business Academy and the Academy of Public Service, and TechBoston Academy, a pilot middle and high school.