Our Lady, Queen of Angels, Old Mission Plaza Church, Los Angeles

The Glory of the Schools of Los Angeles

(Excerpted) We are indebted to Laura Grover Smith for the following very illuminating and inspiring chronicle of the birth and growth of public education in the City of Los Angeles:

The school in the early pueblo of Los Angeles was not regarded as an indispensable thing in a new community, as it was in New England settlements. It was not until the tide of immigration brought eastern men and women from communities where schools had been established, that education by way of schools became important in the little pueblo of Our Lady of the Angels.

Thirty-seven years from the time of the founding of the pueblo, under a Spanish governor, Maxima Pina taught the first school. It lasted a short two years and he received $140 a year.

The next record found allowed the purchase of a bench and table for the use of a school in the pueblo. Doubtless the bench and table were for the school kept by Lucian Valdez from 1827-32. This was the longest school period under Mexican rule. The only paid officials in the pueblo were the secretary of the ayuntamiento, the sindic or tax collector, and the schoolmaster, when there was one.

The schoolmaster’s salary was not to exceed $15 a month, and the chief qualification and requirement was that he should not expect, and certainly must not ask for an increase of salary. In the latter event he was to be dismissed as unfit for the office.

In addition to the long vacations, there were frequent short ones when the teacher would be called to explain. It was apparently quite a satisfactory excuse to say that the scholars had run away! Saints’ days were holidays, and each child’s name saint’s day was invariably celebrated, so schools, to say the least, were intermittently conducted.

The full-text search capability of the American County Histories database permits the student/researcher to explore all the publications of a particular county by using a single query. In addition, those wishing to read or browse the text on a page by page basis may do so in the original format merely by scrolling down the screen and then continuing to the next chapter.
In 1844 Governor Micheltorena took the matter of education in his own hands and secured from the state funds a grant of $500 for any school to be established in the pueblo of Los Angeles. Doubtless he was regarded as very radical, for he went so far as to advocate education for girls. Up to this time girls were not regarded as a part of any scheme of education. What they learned at home in the way of embroidery and sewing were considered quite enough education for women.

Plaza Church

Plaza Church

A boys’ school was soon under way with Ensign Don Guadalupe Medina as teacher. He had already been detached by leave of absence from his military duties. The school was conducted on what was considered at the time most modern methods. And certainly he had an ingenious plan in teaching. By cleverly developing a class of older children under his immediate supervision, these same children were able to teach the younger ones and, in this way, all of his hundred or more pupils had some benefit of direction.

Among the many good things told about this enthusiastic young man, is the fact that he copied all the reports of the first census ever taken in Los Angeles. This was in the year 1836.

Don Guadalupe Medina, to the regret of the community, was recalled to military duty in 1844. His inventory signed February 2, 1844, reads:

Thirty spelling books, eleven second readers, fourteen catechisms by Father Repaldi, one table without cover, writing desk, six benches and one blackboard.

A side light on the recall of Medina to military duty, and the consequent closing of the school, is the fact that the schoolhouse was needed by Pico and Castro for the soldiers, and the bigger boys were expected to change their pens for swords.  A five years’ vacation followed.

Standing out in the intermittent teaching of these early days is the school which was presided over by Don Ignacio Coronel and his daughter, Soledad, in 1838-44. The children met in his own house, which was in the neighborhood of the Plaza. Don Ignacio was a man of ability, and the daughter far in advance of her day. She introduced in a simple way something of dramatic teaching and dancing in addition to the usual accomplishments. This was surely a “neighborhood school” and is a charming memory of the early days.

Panning on the Mokelumne

Panning on the Mokelumne

The gold excitement of 1849 brought eastern young men who left a sentiment about schools. But the lure of the gold fields was strong and the population constantly dwindled in numbers.

However, the feeling grew that schools were necessary. Under American rule on July 4, 1851, the first school ordinance was signed.

The first teacher’s contract under American rule was signed by Abel Stearns, president of the City Council. It was with Francisco Bustamente, who naively agreed: “to teach the scholars to read and count, and in so far as he was capable, to teach them orthography and good morals.” The school year was to last four months and his salary was $60 a month.

Another teacher of the early American days was Hugo Overns, who condescendingly agreed to teach a school aided by city funds, but the city should only send six boys!

The Rev. Henry Weeks and his wife conducted one of these combination schools, city and private, for which they received $150 a month.

With the increasing immigration of eastern people over the mountains and across the plains, and the occasional arrival of a well-trained teacher, the demand grew for an organized system, similar to that in existence in eastern communities, and in 1853, John T. Jones submitted an ordinance “for the establishment and government of city schools.”

To Stephen C. Foster, elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1854, is due the final and definite move to establish free education in this city. He himself was a man of education, was graduated from Yale College. In his appeal to the public at that time he says that “there is a school fund of $3,000 on hand; there are 500 children of school age, and there is no school house for them.”

The year 1855 marked further progress in the erection of the first public school building in the City of Los Angeles, which stood at the corner of Second and Spring streets. It cost $6,000.

From this time on the school records become more and more interesting, for, connected with the development of the schools in administration and teaching are many names which are as honored now as they were then. The builders of our school system builded well, and their children and grandchildren are reaping the benefits today.

Mr. Newmark, in his interesting history of Los Angeles, tells of the faculty of that little school on Spring Street. Miss Louisa Hayes, who was the first woman teacher here, directed the girls’ department.

The population during the period of the Civil war numbered many southern sympathizers, and sectional feeling was bitter at times. This affected the schools in many ways. The oath of allegiance was required at that time from the teachers of the state, and has been since then obligatory. Many were called to the colors at the time, and the school attendance for that reason, and for economic reasons as well, dwindled to 350.

At the close of the war prosperity began, and Los Angeles grew rapidly, and the schools multiplied.

Source: History of Los Angeles County – Volume I — John Steven McGroarty, Editor published in 1923.

Los Angeles Schools Chronology

  • 1769: First European overland expedition, scouting mission locations along El Camino Real, enters present-day Los Angeles via Elysian Park, led by Father Junipero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portola and accompanied by Father Juan Crespi. Present-day California is a territory
    of Spain.
  • 1771: Nearby Mission San Gabriel is founded by Father Junipero Serra.
  • 1781: Founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula) by Felipe de Neve, Spanish Governor of California, on the orders of King Carlos III.
  • 1790: Los Angeles totals 28 households and a population of 139.
  • 1812: First ayuntamiento (town council) established to govern civic affairs.
  • 1817: First primary school opens in Los Angeles by order of Pablo Vicente de Sola, the last Spanish governor of Alta (Upper) California  (present-day California).
  • 1821: Mexico declares independence from Spain.
  • 1822: Mexican government assumes control of Alta California.
  • 1827: Second school in Los Angeles opens on Los Angeles Street near Arcadia; noted as first school to accept female pupils and teachers.
  • 1835: Los Angeles awarded city status by the Mexican Congress, replacing Monterey as the capital of California.
  • 1846: Mexican American War begins.
  • 1848: California becomes a territory of the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following two years of hostilities with Mexico.
  • 1849: State Constitution establishes position for a Superintendent of Public Instruction, creates schools fund, makes it mandatory that the legislature provide for a system of common schools to be kept open at least three months per year.
  • 1850: California becomes the 31st state in the Union; County of Los Angeles is established; City of Los Angeles incorporates.
  • 1851: Legislation authorizes creation of local school districts and boards, levy of district school taxes, and establishment of high schools.
  • 1851: First English-speaking school in Los Angeles opens its doors.
  • 1853: City adopts public schools ordinance, appoints first Board of Education and Superintendent.
  • 1855: First dedicated schoolhouse built at Second and Spring Streets.
  • 1866: District-wide enrollment reaches 244 students in three schools.
  • 1872: City school district formed as the result of passage of the “Act to Enforce the Educational Rights of Children”; education becomes compulsory.
  • 1873: Southern California’s first high school built in Los Angeles on “Pound Cake Hill,” present-day site of County Courthouse (Temple and Broadway Streets).
  • 1876: First kindergarten established, widespread program in place by 1890.
  • 1881: Los Angeles State Normal School established for education of teachers on present-day site of Central Library.
  • 1884: District enrollment reaches 3,417 students and 66 teachers.
  • 1886-1888 “Boom of the 80s” reaches its height as railroad fare war brings thousands of real estate speculators and new residents to southern California; Los Angeles population approaches 100,000 by end of 1880s.
  • 1910: District encompasses over 85 square miles, 46,500 students; Los Angeles population reaches 319,000.
  • 1911: First junior high school established.
  • 1914: First World War begins.
  • 1916: District grows to over 400 square miles (larger than City) and 78,658 students.
  • 1918: End of World War I.
  • 1920s: Huge increases in population in Los Angeles County touch off a school building boom.
  • 1925: Frank Wiggins Trade School established to provide adult vocational training; offers first culinary training program in nation; evolves into present-day Los Angles Trade-Technical College.
  • 1929: First junior college established.
  • 1931: District grows to encompass 688 square miles (Elementary School District) and 1,039 square miles (High School District), plus a Junior College District; enrollment stands at 404,351 students in 350 schools.
  • 1933: Long Beach Earthquake strikes; 40 of the district’s 1,691 unreinforced masonry buildings damaged beyond repair.
  • 1933: Field Bill (Act) passed by state legislature, directing the State Division of Architecture to oversee school reconstruction, establish a building code and enforce a program of construction inspection for schools to ensure earthquake resistant school structures. Massive school building program begins in Los Angeles.
  • 1936- Beverly Hills, Torrance, Culver City and William S. Hart Union High School districts
  • 1945: formed after leaving the Los Angeles City School District.
  • 1945: World War II
  • 1950s: Postwar baby boom results in explosive growth of enrollment in district, concentrated in San Fernando Valley and other suburbs

Source:  Historic Schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District (PDF)

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