San Francisco Genealogy
Early Girls’ High School History
by John Swett.


The Girls’ High School, at the time I took charge of it in July, 1876 numbered about four hundred pupils in charge of twelve regular teachers, with a course of study limited, like other high schools in California at that time, to three years. From the time of its establishment in 1864 it had remained exclusively an English high school except for two years.

In 1871—72, when I was deputy superintendent, on my recommendation the board of education adopted the following rule: “Whenever there shall be a sufficient number of pupils desiring instruction in the ancient languages to form a class of at least fifteen pupils, a classical course shall be established in the Girls’ High School for the purpose of fitting students to enter the college of letters in the University of California.” Under this rule a small class maintained a lingering existence for two years, when the discouraged teacher of Latin and Greek resigned and the class was discontinued.

In 1876 George Tait was a leading member of the city board of education. He had formerly been a grammar-school principal, then city superintendent of schools for four years, next for two years principal of the State Normal School in San Francisco previous to its removal to San José. It was through his influence in the San Francisco board of education that I secured an indirect extension of the course of study in the Girls’ High School to four years instead of the previous limitation of three years.

The resolution adopted by the board provided for the establishment of a post-graduate class to consist of high-school graduates who wished to fit for admission to the University of California, with a normal department for graduates that wished to fit themselves for teaching in elementary schools.

There were found forty graduates who desired to become teachers, but not a single one who desired to enter the university. Consequently only the normal class was organized. Mrs. Mary W. Kincaid, then head assistant in the South Cosmopolitan Grammar School, was appointed teacher of this class. Educated in a young ladies’ seminary, she was herself without normal training, but she soon developed into a superior teacher.

What time I could spare from my regular high-school duties was given to instruction in methods of teaching. In the course of a few years the number of applicants for admission increased to a hundred, and Professor George W. Minns was invited from Boston to act as an assistant.
Mr. Minns was one of the earlier teachers in the English High School for boys and girls in San Francisco (1856) and was afterwards for several years principal of the first State Normal School during a part of the time that the school was located in San Francisco. He was a graduate of Harvard University and a man of rare scholarship.

A teacher of German was elected to the high school in 1877, and as he was employed only a part of his time, I was allowed by the board to organize a class in Latin under his instruction. There were no pupils who desired to take Greek. In most respects the course otherwise continued in the line of the traditions of the school, — an English High School.

The course of study was not all that could be desired, but it had some good features, and in the main was adapted to the needs of the pupils; for the high school is essentially an outgrowth of the grammar school. Its course of study and its mental status are largely determined by the training given in the lower departments of the school system. At that time the fact that more than one half of all the pupils who entered the Girls’ High School intended to become       teachers was also to be taken into consideration in the curriculum.

Without going into details, the leading purpose of the school was to graduate girls with the ability to read and spell well; a fair knowledge of English grammar; some knowledge of the meaning and use of words, of etymology and of synonyms; a fair knowledge of algebra and geometry; some knowledge of physical and political geography; a general outline of the history of the world; some knowledge of what to read in English literature, and how to read it; the ability to express their thoughts in correct English, gained by actual practice in composition, rather than by study of technical textbooks on rhetoric; an elementary knowledge of physics, botany, and zoölogy; of physiology and of the laws of health; some training in vocal culture and vocal music; a course, for those who desired it, of Latin, French, or German.

The main purpose of the school was, not to fit young women for the State University, but to give them a substantial general secondary education .Yet the school afforded the means of fitting for the university if students desired to go there. The average number from the school who entered the university was three or four a year, or less than two per cent of the graduates. It was found impossible to secure enough pupils to make up a “university class,” not because the girls were not encouraged to enter such a class, but because few parents were financially able to send their girls through the university.

I soon found that my ideal of a high school with a normal department could not be realized, but I did what I could under existing conditions. Under any financial stringency the high schools were the first to suffer. From time to time special teachers of music, drawing, French, German, and Latin were dismissed as a measure of economy.

As the school increased in numbers, the classes were crowded up to fifty pupils to a teacher. When the normal class increased to eighty pupils, it was found impossible to crowd them into a room containing only fifty-six desks. But there was only one room available in the school building, and we were compelled to divide the class into two sections of forty each, one section being distributed among the primary schools of the city for practice work while the other was under instruction.

The school soon outgrew the Bush Street building, and three branch classes were opened in a rented building, on Market Street nearly a mile away, and later two or three classes were located in the old high-school building on Powell Street near Clay.

The distribution of the pupils in three buildings a mile apart was a great disadvantage to the school. Aside from the loss of time by principal and special teachers in traveling a daily round of three miles, no number of scattered classes could constitute a school in the full sense of the term. There was a pressing need for a centrally located building capable of accommodating one thousand pupils, but there was no money to be obtained for that purpose. Meanwhile, with every change in the board of education there was more or less tinkering on the course of study. At one time a commercial member of the board insisted on forcing the study of commercial bookkeeping into the school, making it immediately compulsory on every class from the lowest to the highest, including the normal class. When the term of this school director expired, bookkeeping was discontinued.

I think it was in 1882, during the summer vacation, that a secret movement was made to abolish the normal department, which then had grown to three classes numbering one hundred and fifty students. I discovered the plot and immediately went to the president of the board, Mr. Stubbs, of the Central Pacific Railroad. I said, “Mr. Stubbs, I hear the board intend to abolish the normal department of the high school; is my information correct?”

He answered “Yes, it is. There are too many teachers already.”

“Mr. Stubbs, you are a business man, and I want to make you a business proposition. Limit the normal department to one class of fifty students, selecting from the graduates of the high school those who stand highest in scholarship. The city can afford the cost of one teacher for the normal class.”

“That’s a fair business proposition. I’ll accept it,” said he. The business was settled in less than five minutes, and the class was saved. Meanwhile all my efforts to secure a larger building ended in failure.

. . .


Meanwhile, the Girls’ High School moved along with varied fortunes. It was in 1885, I think, that seventy-five pupils from the highest grade of the grammar schools failed to pass the annual written examination for admission to the two city high schools. The board of education passed an order that they should all be promoted on trial. The Girls’ High School thus received a class of forty-five girls entirely unfitted for high-school work. After a trial of three months we reported them as “failures,” but the board insisted that they should remain in the school. At the end of the year they failed to be promoted, and the parents, as well as most of the members of the board, laid the blame on the teachers and the principal.

Furthermore, the teacher of a class in general history and Latin, Henry E. Senger, made some remarks on a topic in medieval history which offended some Catholic parents; whereupon he was disciplined by the board and the school superintendent with a suspension for one month.  I endeavored to save him from this sentence, but without avail. He resigned, and secured a position in the University of California as assistant professor in German. The high school was left without a Latin teacher, and the board neglected to appoint another to the vacancy. In 1888, during the summer vacation, when I was absent from the city, the board of education adopted a new course of study without any consultation with the teachers or the principal, materially changing the organization of the school. Long afterwards I learned that it was hoped that this action would secure my resignation.

At this time the political condition of San Francisco was deplorable. Christopher Buckley, known as “the blind boss,” had secured absolute control of the city government. Mr. Buckley had been trained to politics in the city of New York, and he set up in San Francisco a local “Tammany Hall.” The president of the board of education, Buckley’s lieutenant, died several years ago, and I need not mention his name nor characterize his acts. There was a reign of terror in the school department. During the school year 1887-1888 I worked hard to bring order out of chaos in the high school, but the whole political power was against me. The political “boss” of the board of education first demanded the resignation of George W. Minns, the veteran high-school and normal-school teacher, on the ground that he was “too old to teach school.” Deeply grieved, Mr. Minns resigned from the Girls’ High School and returned to Boston. For the same reason one of the oldest and ablest teachers in the school, Mrs. Dorcas Clark, was requested to resign, and she retired to grieve over her great wrong. Another veteran teacher was given a leave of absence, and she did not again return to the school. The remaining teachers were alarmed and dissatisfied, but they did the best they could under trying conditions.

When the term closed in May, 1889, I knew that my turn would come next. During the vacation the “boss” of the board requested my resignation, which I sent in without any explanation. I had too much pride to submit to further humiliation and insult. I did not intend to be publicly tried and dismissed by a packed jury under the control of a political boss. I have never regretted my action. The main complaint urged against me was that I was too old, and I had to plead guilty to the fact that I was fifty-nine years of age. It was a pet idea of the “boss” that no man or woman was fit to teach school after forty years of age. At the next succeeding election the boss of the board disappeared forever from public office. As for myself, though I retired under a cloud of misrepresentations and petty persecutions, I received my vindication at the hands of the citizens of San Francisco in the general election a year and a half later, at which I was elected city superintendent of schools by the overwhelming majority of two-thirds of the entire vote cast.

During the time that I was principal of the high school, from 1876 to 1889, thirteen years, the total number of graduates was 1312, or an average of 101 a year. From the normal class during the same period, the number of graduates was 844, or an average of 65 a year. My reputation as a teacher is safe in the memories of these graduates.

My successor was Mrs. Mary W. Kincaid, instead of the man who had been “slated” for the position by the boss of the board. Soon after, the high school building was burned to the ground, and the school was quartered in a primary school building. After two or three years, Mrs. Kincaid found the position intolerable, and resigned. The normal class maintained a lingering existence for several years, and was then disconnected from the high school, and made a “City Normal School,” in the old Powell Street building, the home of the pioneer high school in California. Miss Laura T. Fowler was made principal, and Mrs. M. E. Fitzgerald, one of the early graduates of the Girls’ High School and normal class, was made assistant.

This school continued to flourish until, in 1898, when a hostile city board of education suddenly abolished it on the ground that it was no longer needed, and was an unnecessary expense to the city. But a committee of indignant citizens went to the state legislature in 1899 and secured the passage of a bill to reëstablish it, as a state normal school. The board of state normal school trustees appointed as president Frederic Burke, under whose energetic management the school has become noted for its attention to the art of teaching, rather than to academic scholarship or metaphysical psychology.

At a recent meeting of the California Teachers’ Association, July, 1905, I shook glad hands with scores of the earlier graduates of the normal class who are now occupying honorable positions as teachers in many parts of California. One is vice-principal of the John Swett Grammar School in San Francisco; another is principal of a large grammar school in San Francisco, another is principal of a large primary school; and still another, vice-principal of the Mission High School in the same city. Large numbers of those graduates became pioneers in remote rural schools in different parts of the state, and very few of them have made a failure. Several hundred of them are doing good service as successful grade teachers in the elementary schools of San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda.1

1 As I was standing on the platform at Hearst Hall in Berkeley, receiving the congratulations of my friends after the presentation, by the teachers, to the State University of a portrait of myself, and its acceptance by President Wheeler in behalf of the Board of Regents of the University of California, an incident occurred which deeply move my feelings. A pleasant-faced teacher approached me and said: “Mr. Swett, I came down to this meeting from a remote county in the hope that I might meet you here. Perhaps you will recall me when I tell you that I am the young woman from Canada that called at your office in the Girls’ High School in 1886, and asked you if it would be possible for me to be admitted into the Normal School. After questioning me about where I had been educated, you told me that under the rules of the board you could not admit me; but you added, that if I was in earnest about becoming a teacher, perhaps you could help me. Though not enrolled as a regular member of the class, I was given a seat and a set of books and all the privileges of the class. You advised me to remain until the end of the term and then you thought that I could probably pass a county examination and secure a country school. I secured both, and have been teaching ever since. I have won a reputation as a successful teacher. And I want to say to you that there has never been a day since I began to teach, that, as I entered my schoolroom, I did not think of you and your kindness in lending me a hand when I needed help.”

My own heart was swelling with gratitude to my fellow teachers for the honor they had done me that day, and with this story of one of my former pupils, I felt my eyes “cloud up for rain.”

Source: Sweet, John. Public Education In California, Its Origin and Development, With Personal Reminiscences of Half a Century. American Book Company: 1911. Excerpts, Chapter XIII, pages 220-242.

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