Early County Public Schools

By Bernard Freedman

(This article was originally written in June, 1996.)

A work-in-progress at the History Center is a compilation of newspaper reports concerning the county's public schools. The collection currently includes hundreds of clippings covering the years 1860 through 1875. Reports often offer insights into living conditions and the commonly-held beliefs and practices of the Contra Costa community.

The period was one of growth in the number of school age children (5 to 17) and a corresponding increase in physical plant. Student population in 1852 was estimated at 25, all in attendance atone school. By 1865 there were 28 schools nurturing 1,050 pupils.

Having a group of pupils and a building in which to school them was one thing. Getting the young scholars to the school was sometimes a problem. Almost every winter it was necessary to close down a school because rains made the county's primitive roads a formidable barrier to the walking youngsters. Almost as erratic and unpredictable was the school term. Martinez ended a school term on May 28, 1874 and announced the new term would begin "in the second week in July" but the newly-hired principal had a heart attack and the opening was delayed until August 31. In the following year the trustees decided not to ask for a "further tax, and funds having run out, the term was ended on April 29. The Pacheco School began a new term on March 9 and in Somersville a new term was begun on August 5 after a four-month vacation.

In the 19th century privacy had not attained the status of a constitutionally-protected right and pupils were afforded none. The assault on privacy began benignly enough with monthly reports in the Contra Costa Gazette of school honor rolls. Separate listings for boys and girls at first furnished only the names of those honored but in a few years the grades achieved by each honoree were published and soon the Gazette was listing every pupil's monthly examination score. It is easy to imagine the wave of emotion that must have swept through the San Pablo home of third grader George Marich when the Gazette announced his 42% score in the monthly exam.

Later individual tardiness and attendance records were open to public scrutiny and, eventually, published grades were revised to distinguish between scholarship and classroom conduct.

This was an age of unabashed discrimination on the basis of both race and gender. Racial discrimination may have been reflected in school attendance figures for 1874. Of 2,836 white children of school age, 2,164 were in school. Of 10 Indians, 3 were in school. Of 5 Negroes, none were in school.

Gender discrimination manifested itself in teacher salaries. In 1868 males averaged $86.73 and females averaged $55.60. In the following year the Teachers' Institute adopted a resolution calling for the same salary without regard to sex."

In a day when women were disenfranchised and barred from holding most public offices, it was generously conceded that they could serve on school boards. Male voters in the San Ramon School District seem to have elected the county's first woman trustee, Mrs. J.O. Boone, in June 1874. A year later Walnut Creek elected a three-woman board and the Gazette, while conceding the merit of women school trustees, wondered whether the voters of Walnut Creek had gone too far.

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