For the youth of America that came of age at the dawn of the 20th century, education was an iffy proposition. Only half of those aged 5 to 19 years old in 1900 even attended school, and only 62,000-6.4 percent of 17-year-olds-graduated from high school.
Most students walked to a school that typically consisted of one room. On cold days, students might have had to help load the school's wood stove to provide warmth.
A lone teacher instructed children of varying ages in courses such as reading, writing, arithmetic and history. Students sat in uncomfortable wooden benches and screeched out writing onto slate boards.
One hundred years later, that school experience is unrecognizable to the millions of students who fill U.S. classrooms. From the buses and cars that bring them to schools, to the better trained teachers that greet them in their classrooms, to the sophisticated technology that gives them instantaneous access to an unending gusher of information, today's students have tools and resources available to them that the student of 100 years ago couldn't begin to imagine.
As the 20th century draws to a close, it's clear that the dizzying changes of the last 100 years have left a mark on education and the school buildings that have welcomed billions of students.
Public education in 1900 was, by modern standards, lacking. In Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark opinion that outlawed racially segregated schools, U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren described the inadequacies of public education at the turn of the century.
"In the South, the movement toward free common schools, supported by general taxation, had not yet taken hold," Warren wrote. "Education of white children was largely in the hands of private groups. Education of Negroes was almost nonexistent....(I)n the North...the curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states; and compulsory education was virtually unknown."
In the early years of the 20th century, children began to stay in school longer. High school enrollment climbed from 519,000 in 1900 to 6.6 million by 1940. The Great Depression, which left millions of adults unemployed, also dried up the job market for teenagers. More of them stayed in high school.
Many states enacted compulsory attendance laws. Society began to take for granted that free public education would be available for its children.
Baby Boom explodes
After World War II ended, millions of Americans married, bought houses and started having children.
The creation of the Interstate highway system helped people flee cities and spurred the sprawl of metropolitan areas with newly formed suburbs.
Enrollment in public schools climbed from 25.1 million in 1950 to 46.1 million in 1971. That meant districts had to build a lot of schools quickly. Forty-six percent of the nation's public schools were built between 1950 and 1969.
The need for fast construction often put the focus on quantity, not quality. That would become an issue years later for school officials trying to maintain and repair the buildings.
Colleges also saw a post-war enrollment burst. War veterans used new military education benefits to attend school, and society began to see college as a goal that everyone, not just a privileged few, could attain and afford.
In 1940, college enrollment was 1.5 million. Ten years later, it was 2.6 million, and by 1970 it had reached 8.5 million.
Separate is not equal
In 1900 and continuing for more than half a century, much of America had two school systems-one for white children and one for black children. Students were often sent past a school closer to their home to attend classes with others of their race.
The legal doctrine of "separate but equal," established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, allowed school systems to segregate students by race.
That system began to unravel with Brown v. Board of Education.
"Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?" Chief Justice Warren wrote. "We believe that it does....We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."
The ruling slowly opened the doors of whites-only schoolhouses to African-Americans. But in many cases it accelerated the flight of whites from central cities. Growing suburban districts built schools to accommodate their burgeoning ranks, while many urban schools, without the resources to renovate or rebuild facilities, fell into disrepair.
Efforts to integrate schools also led to the widespread use of busing to overcome segregated housing patterns.
In other cases, judges mandated new schools in an effort to recruit white students into black-majority school systems. In Kansas City, Mo., for example, a federal judge, beginning in 1985, authorized spending more than $1.4 billion over 10 years to establish a system of magnet schools. The new schools attracted few white students from adjacent suburban districts, and the Supreme Court eventually cut off the funding of the magnet schools.
Neglect and decay
In 1971, the number of elementary and secondary school students peaked as the last of the Baby Boomers reached school age. For the next 14 years, most districts across the country saw enrollments plunge.
The decline, together with the consolidation of schools and districts, led to many school closings. The number of U.S. public schools dropped from 89,372 in 1971 to 81,147 in 1985.
Meanwhile, many of the schools that remained open, especially those built quickly and cheaply in the 1950s and 1960s, began to show signs of age. In a climate of school closings and opposition to taxes, districts found it difficult to pay for repair and maintenance of facilities.
Policymakers and the public at large began to turn their attention to the deplorable conditions of the nation's schools after the General Accounting Office reported in 1995 that it would take $112 billion to bring America's schools to "good overall condition." The report found that a third of the nation's schools were in bad shape.
"About 14 million students attend...schools that reported needing extensive repair of one or more buildings," the GAO report said.
Since then, schools have continued to age, and many districts face the added strain of growing enrollment. Since 1985, the number of elementary- and secondary-school students has begun to climb again.
The focus on building conditions and the strong economy in the 1990s has resulted in many districts successfully winning approval for funds to build or renovate schools. AS&U reported earlier this year in its 25th Annual Official Education Construction Report that school districts spent $17.1 billion in 1998 on adding and modernizing facilities.
Into the mainstream
For many years, children with disabilities generally were denied the right to a public education. Beginning in the 1950s, as blacks and other minorities had successes asserting their civil rights, those with disabilities began to pursue their rights to public education.
Congress passed laws in the 1960s and early 1970s to aid the education of the disabled. But the major change came in 1975 when President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, known to educators by its bill number, 94-142.
It required each state to provide a free and appropriate education to all handicapped people between 3 and 21 years old. The law required districts, to the maximum extent appropriate, place children with disabilities into the "least restrictive environment." That meant most students with disabilities were to be put into classrooms with children without disabilities.
The bill has been amended through the years and is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The number of children with disabilities served by public schools has risen. In 1977, children with disabilities made up 8.3 percent of public school enrollment; in 1996, they constituted 12 percent.
Most schools were not designed to accommodate children with disabilities, so many districts have modernized facilities to embrace the concept of inclusion. Schools have enlarged restrooms, cut curbs, lowered the heights of drinking fountains and installed ramps to improve access. In some cases, schools have installed stair lifts or elevators, or moved classes to floors that are accessible.
Inclusion also involves greater teamwork between classroom and special-education instructors, and many educators say their schools need to provide more space for group consultations.
Turned on to technology
By the end of the 20th century, computer technology had reshaped society and was transforming education, too.
In the 1940s, when computers were lumbering monstrosities that filled entire rooms, few would have predicted how critical technology would be to educating America.
After personal computers became available in the late 1970s, some schools had a few of the machines, sometimes even enough to create a computer lab. But for the most part, computers were viewed as a luxury.
In 1984, only 28 percent of students in grades one through 12 used a computer at school, and 12 percent used one at home. But in a matter of years, as computers became increasingly fast and cheap, and the World Wide Web allowed average users access to information all over the world, educators began to envision the ways technology could enhance learning and provide opportunities not available to the unconnected.
By 1993, 59 percent of those in grades one through 12 used a computer in school; 28 percent used one at home.
As President Clinton pushed the goal of hooking every classroom in the nation to the Internet, the number of school connections to the World Wide Web soared in just a few years.
In 1994, 35 percent of schools had some connection to the Internet. In 1998, the Internet was available in 89 percent of schools. Only 3 percent of classrooms were linked to the Internet in 1994; by 1998, 51 percent were.
For schools, acquiring technology often meant more than just buying computers. Many schools required renovation to upgrade electrical systems and provide wiring for technology. Often, districts needed to air condition schools to offset the heat generated by the machines and ensure the sensitive equipment continued to work.
Once the hardware was in place, schools often didn't have the resources to provide adequate maintenance and proper training. Technology proponents have urged districts to include training and support funds when they create their technology plans.
Establishing a computer lab often meant adding space to a school; placing machines in the classroom meant those rooms would have to be bigger.
In other cases, technology saved space. Libraries or media centers can now have collections and reference materials available electronically and reduce the need for bookshelf space.
Large and small
The trend throughout the 20th century has been for schools and districts to consolidate. Proponents argued that larger schools saved money by taking advantage of economies of scale.
After the Soviets launched the Sputnik space satellite in 1957, a push began to improve science instruction in U.S. schools. Many educators, led by former Harvard University president James B. Conant, called for high schools large enough to offer specialized instruction in math, science and foreign languages. Many schools saw enrollments climb past 3,000.
More recently, educators have begun to embrace the value of small schools. Several studies have indicated that poorer students perform better in smaller schools. Large schools can be perceived as impersonal places that alienate students.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals advocates schools no larger than 600 students. That may not be feasible given the number of larger schools already built, but programs that create academic houses or other forms of "schools within schools" could help students in larger buildings develop a sense of belonging and community.
"We need to find ways to create small, supportive learning environments," says U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley. "That's hard to do when we are building high schools the size of shopping malls."
Several movements that gained momentum in the late part of the century will affect schools well beyond 2000.
Charter schools-public schools operated by individuals or groups that don't have to abide by many of the regulations traditional schools must follow-have grown in popularity.
In 1992, Minnesota became the first state to allow charter schools. By 1999, 36 states allowed them. More than 1,700 charter schools were operating in the United States in 1999, serving more than 350,000 students.
Another alternative to public schools that has gained popularity is home schooling. Many parents dissatisfied with the academic rigor or social climate of schools have opted to teach their children at home.
Others unhappy with public schools have advocated vouchers to give parents more options in deciding where to educate their children. In most proposals, parents would be given a voucher that they could "spend" at the school of their choice-public or private.
Milwaukee and Cleveland have had a voucher system in use for several years, and a number of states have passed legislation establishing some form of a voucher plan.
Backers of the public schools contend that vouchers would undermine the system by diverting money from public to private and parochial schools. Voucher proponents say exposing schools to competition would force public schools to improve.
"Please, build safe schools for our kids." -- Inquest testimony from a mother whose 10-year-old son was one of 95 people who died in the Our Lady of the Angels school fire.
On the afternoon of Dec. 1, 1958, more than 1,000 students were attending classes in the 21/2-story brick-and-wood structure that housed Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School on Chicago's West Side.
An hour or so before school let out for the day, a fire ignited in a trash drum in a basement stairwell. Several crucial minutes lapsed before anyone discovered the flames. The fire burned for at least 20 minutes before firefighters were summoned to the scene.
By then, the unchecked flames had spread-Our Lady of the Angels had no sprinkler system, and only the first floor had a fire door. Students on the first floor were able to flee the burning building, but on the second floor, the intense heat and suffocating smoke trapped children and their teachers.
Some children leaped from second-floor classroom windows, while others climbed down fire department ladders to safety. Firefighters rescued 160 students. But others could not escape the inferno.
In the end, the fire claimed 55 girls, 37 boys and three nuns. Dozens of others suffered serious burns and other injuries.
Tragedies lead to action
Earlier school fires and explosions in the United States had claimed more lives. In 1908, more than 170 children were killed in a fire at the Lakewood Grammar School in Collinwood, Ohio. In 1937, a natural gas explosion destroyed a school in New London, Texas, and killed nearly 300.
But word spread more quickly in the 1950s, and the tragedy at Our Lady of the Angels stoked the fears of parents across the nation.
In their book about the fire, To Sleep with the Angels, David Cowan and John Kuenster say that the changes in fire regulations by fire officials from Chicago and across the nation filled the potentially life-threatening gaps in their fire-safety codes.
"The holocaust at Our Lady of the Angels School clearly helped to bring about improved fire-safety measures in schools throughout the country," Cowan and Kuenster write.
Investigators found numerous factors that contributed to the death toll: Our Lady of the Angels had nosprinkler system or smoke detectors, and its fire alarm was not linked to the Chicago Fire Department. The school also had inadequate exits and fire doors, and was constructed with combustible materials.
Chicago revamped its school fire codes to mandate fire doors and fireproof stairwells, add automatic sprinkler systems, connect alarms directly to the fire department, and conduct regular fire drills. Other jurisdictions throughout the United States duplicated many of the tougher regulations.
A year after the fire, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported that more than 16,000 schools had made major safety improvements to avoid a repeat of the Our Lady of the Angels catastrophe.
"Nearly every community had acted on such issues as frequent and improved exit drills, tighter control of waste disposal, inspections and proper storage of combustible supplies," wrote Paul Teague in the NFPA's 1994 Life Safety Code Handbook.
In 1978, 20 years after the fire, the NFPA conducted an informal survey of fire professionals. They believed that schools were safer from fires than they were in 1958, but many expressed concern that as the Our Lady of the Angels tragedy became more of a distant memory, school officials worried about security and vandalism were not paying enough attention to fire safety.
SIDEBAR: If they come, you will build it
As the United States has grown from a country of 76 million in 1900 to one of more than 273 million today, the number of students arriving at the steps of our nation's schoolhouses has more than kept pace.
There are many more children, and unlike 100 years ago, nearly all of them attend school. In the 1990s, more than 93 percent of those aged 5 to 19 years old were enrolled in elementary or secondary school. In 1900, only 50 percent attended.
The increased enrollment in higher education is even more dramatic. In 1900, only 2.3 percent of those aged 18 to 24 years old attended college. By the 1990s, more than half of those 18 to 24 were enrolled in college.
The number of institutions of higher education has multiplied to meet the demand. Only 977 colleges existed in the United States in 1900. Now there are approximately 4,000 institutions of higher education.
The public school facilities that students attend in 1999 are likely to be larger than those 100 years ago, and belong to school districts that are responsible for more territory than the ones that existed in 1900.
The U.S. Department of Education does not have statistics for 1900 on how many school districts existed in the United States, but in 1937, there were 119,000 districts. In 1997-98, there were 14,427. The largest 800 districts accounted for half of the U.S. public school enrollment.
In 1929, there were 238,306 public schools with elementary grades, and 23,930 with secondary grades (some had both). Nearly 150,000 of the elementary schools had only one teacher. By 1997-98, the number of public elementary and secondary schools had declined to 87,631.
More than 37 percent of those schools were in and around cities larger than 250,000. They accounted for more than 47 percent of the nation's enrollment. About one-fourth of the schools were in rural areas. They accounted for 14.3 percent of the nation's students.
SIDEBAR: Violence plagues schools
As the century draws to an end, school officials are devoting renewed attention to protecting their students and staff from violence.
The focus on security, already strong, became even more intense after the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., that left 15 dead and 20 wounded.
More districts began looking at adding police or security officers to their schools, installing metal detectors at entrances, prohibiting backpacks or clothes that could conceal weapons, and establishing violence-prevention programs in their schools.
The Columbine tragedy was the worst of a spate of school shootings that occurred in the late 1990s. Two students were killed and 22 wounded in May 1998 at a high school in Springfield, Ore. Four students and a teacher were shot to death at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school in March 1998. Three students were killed and five wounded in a December 1997 shooting at a West Paducah, Ky., high school. Two students were killed and seven injured in an October 1997 shooting at a high school in Pearl, Miss.
What is believed to be the worst school massacre in U.S. history occurred long before those incidents. In 1927, a disgruntled school board member in Bath, Mich., set off a series of explosions that killed 45 and injured dozens of others.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.