MOUNT VERNON STREET SCHOOL
555 Mount Vernon Street
In March of 1871 a large part of the what was Newton Township became part of Camden. Two existing schools, the Liberty School at 8th and Spruce Street and the Centerville School came under the administration of the Camden Board of Education. The need to built new schools, and build quickly was duly noted. A new school for colored children opened in 1871 on Ferry Avenue near Philip Street, and the Mount Vernon Street School, also for colored children, opened on Mount Vernon Street near Broadway in January of 1872. William Armstead was the first principal. Lack of funds caused the school to be outfitted with used furniture at first, this was remedied after two years.
At the end of the 1881-1882 school year, the hours of school operation were changed to 9:00 A.M. to noon and 2:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. Thus, a teacher's day was five hours long when much of the rest of the country was struggling to achieve an eight or ten hour day. In June 1882, the board approved new salaries for its male principals. The raise generally increased their salaries to where they were before the board's enactment of its salary reduction plan, which occurred during the 1870s. The salaries of the male principals at Cooper, Stevens, Mount Vernon Street, and Fetters Schools became $1,000. The Liberty School principal received $1,500, the Mickle School's principal received $1,400, and $900 for Ferry Road School's principal. In October 1883, several female teachers presented the board with a petition relating to an increase in salary, but they summarily referred their petition to the committee on teachers; taking no action for three years.
In mid-August 1882, William Armstead, Principal of the Mount Vernon Street School since 1870, admitted to forgery. The committee on teachers through its chairman, Charles N. Robinson, demanded his resignation, which they received.
Said resignation has his request to take effect one month from date; but in view of the very serious rumors in circulation in regard to said Principal, would recommend the acceptance of his resignation to take effect immediately and your Committee would also report that they have suspended said principal pending the action of the Board in this case.
The board concurred with the committee's recommendation. Armstead died in December 1883, of consumption.
Rumors spread that the school's new principal was William F. Powell, an employee in one of the federal departments in Washington. However, since he did not hold the appropriate certificate, the superintendent made provisional arrangements, and then held an examination for a principal of the colored schools. Powell obtained his certification in April 1883, and the board officially appointed him the Principal of the Mount Vernon Street School. Not long after, the board created the new position of district principal, and the principals of the boys' grammar departments in each of the white school districts "shall be the principals of all the schools in their respective districts." The board gave Principal Powell control of the colored schools, with a pay increase to $1,400, starting with the 1884-1885 school year.
Mount Vernon Street School students sent an exhibit of their schoolwork to the 1884 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, in New Orleans. There, a review committee commended their work, and they received third prize "for superiority in the colored department. This speaks well for the care Principal Powell and his assistants have bestowed on the scholars of the school." However, even glowing remarks about the African-American community did not spur integration. Henrietta Castor, an African-American, and wife of Constable Castor, bought 629 Walnut Street as her future home. "This has occasioned unpleasantness on the part of the white neighboring property owners, who contend that the value of their property has been depreciated thereby. Castor is not pleased at the situation, which he called a war of races." No one knew that the new homeowner was colored.
William F. Powell remained principal of the Mount Vernon School for 14 years before leaving in 1897 to become the United States Ambassador to Haiti. Camden's Senator William Joyce Sewell encouraged President McKinley to make the appointment to the position, which Mr. Powell filled with distinction through 1905. He died in 1920.
During the summer of 1890 the school board authorized John Corbett to build an extension to the Mount Vernon School. The Mount Vernon School closed in September 1890, and remained closed until he completed the work on December 12, 1890.
The census of 1894, found between 18,000 and 19,000 school-aged children living in Camden "for whom the Commission, by law, are bound to make provisions for." Bergen insisted that the district needed more schoolhouses and facilities, and he wanted them to "build additional wings to our large schoolhouses where we have room," because there is an economy of scale, and bigger schools allowed siblings to attend the same school as an older brother or sister. The commission constructed additional rooms in the rear of the Starr School, four-room additions each to Central and Mickle Schools, and purchased land adjoining the Starr and Lincoln Schools. Yet, the need for more classroom space became apparent when the committee on teachers reported that in the Mount Vernon School,
The Principal has only enrolled the number he could admit and informs the committee that he could conveniently fill another division. Many of the pupils here have had to depend entirely upon your night school for what education they have obtained, and their efforts are praiseworthy and the advance in the requirements of knowledge reflect credit upon Principal Powell and his associates.
An ever-increasing population and the need for more modern facilities led to the construction of the John Greenlief Whittier School at South 8th and Chestnut Street. The Whittier School opened in September of 1911, and the Mount Vernon Street School was shut down. After a year's time, however, continued over-crowding gave the Board of Education cause to refurbish the Mount Vernon School, which re-opened for the start of the 1913-1914 school year.
Between 1920 and 1933 space within the Mount Vernon School was allocated to the Continuation School. In January of that year, Superintendent of Schools Dr. James E. Bryan went to Boston to visit Continuation Schools because they were operating there, in old factories, with separate boys' and girls' classes, for about the last four to five years. In Massachusetts, students who worked were required to attend school at least four hours per week. In New Jersey, the Legislature enacted a law requiring at least six hours per week, and whenever a student was unemployed, the state expected the student to attend school every day. This special school, called a Continuation School, had to open by September 1, 1920. According to the New Jersey law, the child attended school in the city in which he worked, and not where he lived, unless the two happen to be the same. (In essence, the state took the financial burden of continuation schools out of the suburbs, and into the cities where the jobs were located.)
Bryan reasoned that the district needed to provide instruction for a maximum of 600 students, and believed that in this type of school, efficiency required 15 pupils per class, covering the sixth through tenth grades. Bryan also recognized that these classes would be in a constant state of flux, and he would have to arrange the classes by ability and personal advancement. The teacher's problem was one of individualized instruction. Bryan assigned four male and four female teachers to shops and domestic-science rooms, with academic classrooms, a principal and an office assistant, and attendance clerk. The Mount Vernon School building and the old church (Wynn Memorial Chapel) next to the Liberty School, became the sites for the district's Continuation School. Bryan also wanted a print shop established in the school, when funds were available, as this was one of the developments of modern industrial education not represented in the curriculum at the time.
The Continuation School salary schedule was the same as the junior high school schedule, and Mr. Ralph H. Parker, Principal of Sewell School, became the Supervisor of the Attendance Department and Principal of the Continuation School, with an 11-month contract during the 1920-21 school year. Parker resigned about eight years later, and the board appointed Mr. C. Paul Ney as Principal of the Continuation School, Supervisor of Exemption Certificates, and Chief Attendance Officer starting July 1929. This was still an 11-month position that paid $3,200. At the same time, they promoted Harold C. Many to the newly created position of Vice-Principal of the Continuation School, with a salary of $3,000.
The Continuation School in its entirety in February of 1933 due to the financial crisis brought on by the Depression. The Mount Vernon School building remained in use, however, as correction classes were shifted there.
Camden then as now had to deal with the problems caused by student troublemakers. These students were segregated from the general student body in what were called correction classes. Until September 1932, the only schools that participated in correction classes were the colored schools, Whittier, Powell, Catto, Bergen, and Sumner. After September of 1932 the board established a special adjustment, or correction class, in Cramer Junior High School. Superintendent of Schools Leon N. Neulen assigned boys with behavior problems between the fifth and eighth grades to the correction class. The purposes of the class were to segregate the troublemakers who took a disproportionate share of the instructor's time and energy from the rest of the school, scientifically study the individual case in order to solve the problem, and reinstate the child in his regular school as a worthy and acceptable school citizen.
Before assigning a boy to this class, Neulen made certain that all other methods failed. The school gave the boy warnings, and if this did not work, they called in the parents and informed them of the consequences of his continued misbehavior or truancy. When assigned to the correction class, it was for at least 10 weeks, and during that time, a thorough study was made of his schoolwork and home environment. If his attendance, conduct, and general attitude did not measure up to standards, he received demerits instead of merits, and could remain in the class indefinitely. Once deemed worthy, the principal of the correction school sent the boy to his regular school on probation; however, he returned to the correction school after earning 100 demerit points during the 10-week probationary period. Every Friday, the child reported to the Mount Vernon School with the card signed by his principal, which provided evidence of the child's behavior during the week. An unsigned card meant that there was a hearing, and as a result, reassignment to the correction class was a possibility. During the 1935-1936 school year, there were four correction classes in the Mount Vernon School; three for boys and one for girls, aged 14 and 15, and the superintendent proclaimed how remarkable it was that out of 90 of the most troublesome boys in one school system, only three failed to adjust through these classes.
The third, fourth, fifth, and eighth wards continued to have the highest record for juvenile arrests. The County Park Commission just completed a recreation center in the eighth ward, and the superintendent was hopeful that this might help decrease the arrest of colored boys and girls of the ward. The Polish people in the seventh and thirteenth wards showed considerable spirit by developing programs for their children, with the result that the arrests of Polish youngsters dropped from 245 to 163, by 1935, but there were few changes in the third, fourth, and fifth wards to alter conditions under which the children were growing up.
Chief Attendance Officer, C. Paul Ney wrote in the district's Ninth Annual Report on Juvenile Delinquency, that the number of arrests in the city was declining, but the majority of the arrests were still coming from the same old wards.
Repeated visits to these wards which have been made both day-time and night, lead us to make the following observations ... We find more boys' gangs, both younger and older boys, more corner hangouts, more cheap candy stores, poolrooms, saloons, etc. ... It is also out impression that in these same wards there are fewer agencies working for the benefit of the children. Playgrounds are lacking, the Boy Scouts are not there, and churches don't seem to have much success .... Many of our children are becoming moral imbeciles at a tender age through their street and corner training and a corresponding lack of supervision and moral training at home.
In early September 1935, the Board officially applied to the Federal Emergency Administration (FEA) of the Public Works Administration to put an addition on the Powell School and for a new school near 32nd and Federal Sts. Other projects for which they applied included:
Converting the basement room at Lincoln School to an auditorium (October 1935);
Removing rust, scale, etc. from fire escapes; as well as removing wooden bins for ashes, and replacing them with brick throughout the school district (November 1935);
Modernizing the Mount Vernon School, and moving outhouses to the interior of the schools (May 1936);
Building an addition to the Davis School (December 1936); and
Cementing certain schoolyards (March 1937).
Board President Fulton reiterated that the board must give Whittier School's condition serious consideration, and emphasized that there were a sufficient number of students for a mentally deficient class there, even though no space was available for one. He believed Sumner School required a class for the problem child, such as the one that existed at the Mount Vernon School, and brought up the need for the board to remodel the Mount Vernon School so that it could accommodate the overcrowding in the Bergen School. In late June 1937, the board changed an application for alterations and additions from the Mount Vernon School to the C. A. Bergen School.
In January of 1947 Board Secretary Albert Austermuhl died. The board passed a resolution expressing the sorrow and regret of the loss of so able a public servant; honoring him with the words that he "served unselfishly and giving unstintingly of himself to every task required. " They ordered school flags to fly at half-staff from January 6 through January 8, 1947, and closed schools at 1 P.M. on the day of his funeral.
At the reorganization meeting, Dr. Lang was reelected president, and Mr. Weldy, vice-president. Lang declared that,
"I think at this meeting in particular it should go down in the records that today marks a new era in which school people are interested, in this city as well as in this state. There will be no committees, and the responsibility, other than policy, will be in the hands of the employees of the Board. I am going to ask that everyone cooperate in these infant months of this new plan, both the Board and the employees, Administrative, and Teachers, etc., to see if we can't do a job for the people of Camden, and the school children of Camden.
In speaking of Acting Board Secretary Ragone, Dr. Lang informed the public that the district was "fortunate in selecting the services of a member of our Camden Schools, who in the struggle just past, risked his life for our country. At present, he is trying to improve his job by post-graduate work at the Wharton School [of the University of Pennsylvania.]" Mr. Joseph Zucchi, Department of Veterans Affairs of Camden County, advised the board that he and the VFW supported Mr. Ragone as a veteran, but not as a member of either party. He affirmed that they would continue to support Mr. Ragone as long as he carried out the wishes of the people of the City of Camden, and not those of any politician. In May, the board extended Ragone's position as acting secretary to the board until August 25, and then again monthly through December, when they finally made him Board Secretary, beginning on January 1, 1948, with a salary of $4,500, payable semi-monthly, and given an auto expense allotment of $500 per year.
Dr. Neulen created a committee to study consolidating students and closing schools in order to reduce maintenance and operating costs. They brought back a proposal for closing the Mulford School, sending its students to Fetters and Kaighn Schools and closing the Central School Annex by transferring its students to the Stevens School. They suggested not building an addition to the Sumner School which was operating at capacity, by send 109 the students to the Mickle School, and transferring Cooper School's eighth grade to Burrough Junior High, Stevens School's seventh and eighth grades to Hatch Junior High, along with the eighth graders from Fetters school. The Mount Vernon School officially closed on July 27, 1948, and the superintendent reassigned its 496 students to Sumner School. He reassigned Principal Josiah C. Conwell as Principal of the Bergen School, and transferred the opportunity school (the new name for the correction school), located in the Mount Vernon Street School, to the Starr School.
The story of the Mount Vernon Street School did not end in 1948. Opportunity school classes continued to be held there. Names change, but the mission remains the same, and in 2008, 136 years after it first accepted students, the old Mount Vernon Street School building is the home of the South Camden Alternative Middle School. .
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