A Progressive Education

Steel production boomed during World War I, and as the United States entered the war in 1917, the school bell was moved to a new five-room brick building erected next to the frame building. The brick building had classrooms, a home economics department, and a cafeteria, combined with an auditorium. “We were so thrilled because we were going to get to go into the new building,” Thelma Thornquist remembered. When it opened, the school was already overcrowded, and portables were erected during the war. The teaching staff grew to eleven, including a kindergarten teacher.

Youngstown’s classrooms reflected the immigration of Europeans to the U.S. in the early 20th century and the movement of immigrant families from the Midwest. Croatians, Yugoslavians, Greek, Irish, Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians settled into Riverside. Scandinavians like the Thornquists settled on Pigeon Hill. Thornquist began school speaking better Swedish than English. John Hendron, who lived two blocks up the hill from the school, remembers nine different Olson families within three blocks.

Italians like the Lucchesini’s and Valentinetti’s settled in the valley. There were also Greek, French, Austrian, Sicilian, and Russian families. Ariadne Morris came to Youngstown with her family in 1923 after the Russian Revolution: “We lived near the steel mill in a very small home, part of which had been built from old wooden crates. There were other Russian families around, like the Dubecks. Because we didn’t have a car, we often socialized with them in our home… I guess you could say we maintained a Russian lifestyle, spoke only Russian and often ate Russian soups…” (1)

Assimilating children of immigrants to the American culture was a mission of the Seattle School District under the leadership of Superintendent Frank B. Cooper. Cooper adopted a progressive approach to education which became known as The Seattle Way. It emphasized character development and the values of democracy, patriotism, obedience, hard work, and civic responsibility as well as use of the English language. (2) Elementary schools were laboratories for democracy, and moral instruction was integral to teaching.

Youngstown School took those values to heart. Holiday programs and assemblies reflected the dominant American culture and the Christian religion. Christmas and Easter were both observed in school. For the Christmas pageant, the school kids would put on their clothing from different countries; “we would have a parade, everybody in their own country’s clothes with a gift for the child to take onto the stage” explained Georgia Baxter. The minister of University Christian Church gave the address during the Book Week assembly in the 1920’s, a celebration that featured Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Robinson Crusoe, Little Bo Peep, Little Black Sambo, and Little Boy Blue.

The school gave equal time to pagan holidays, too, like Halloween and May Day. Many alumni remember Maypole dances and the crowning of May Day kings and queens. Mary Alice Fort Willi and Gino Lucchesini were king and queen in the 1920’s; the dance was in the playfield across 24th from the school.

Patriotism was taught through holidays, like Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays and Memorial Day. In 1915, during World War I, the school board instituted flag saluting, and thereafter the school day always began with a flag salute. For more than 20 years after the war ended, Armistice Day was celebrated with a moment of silence. “Patriotism permeated life in Seattle schools during the first four decades of the twentieth century,” writes historian Doris Pieroth, “even more so in schools with large immigrant populations. Making good, loyal citizens of all children remained a primary goal.” (3)

The school educated the whole child with a learning-by-doing approach. Domestic science, manual training, and gardening were part of the curriculum. The wooden school had a 15-foot square vegetable garden protected by netting. Students worked in the garden “to teach us about home gardening” (Schwartz).

Many of the students already knew these practical arts. Baxter’s father kept a vegetable garden, had fruit trees in the backyard, and got fish from the Sound. “That’s how we survived.”

Mary Alice Fort Willi recalls that her widowed grandmother grew and sold raspberries to supplement her income running a boarding house for mill workers. “She had a big field of raspberries. And she would pick the raspberriesand take them down to the local grocery store…. They would allow her so much money for her berries toward her food. That was her way of making a living.” She also remembered an elderly couple who owned a cow, a daily source of milk. “Every once in awhile he [Grandpa Taif, she called him] would let me come in the barn and watch him milk the cow. He’d plant me there and tell me to open my mouth. And he’d squirt the milk right in my mouth.”

Parts of the hands-on curriculum were separated by gender. When they got to the sixth or seventh grades, the boys did manual training, and the girls took a half semester of cooking or sewing. As part of their schoolwork, girls made the dresses they wore for the eighth-grade graduation photos. But Aurora Valentinetti remembers that Cooper was quite innovative because the boys took cooking and sewing, too. “We cooked for each other. And they had to sew, too. They learned how to set the table… and the girls took shop.” Baxter says the school experimented with letting the girls take wood construction but dropped it after a year.

“We learned to work hard, to be responsible for our actions,” recalls Valentinetti. “I think a lot of it had to do because we were such a mixed ethnic group there. These were all people who had come from dire poverty. They came here to get a better life. They really were patriotic…. They wanted to succeed.”

1. Gail Dubrow and Alexa Berlow. Delridge Community History. (Seattle Dept. of Parks and Recreation, 1994) 13.
2. Pieroth, Doris Hinson. Seattle’s Women Teachers of the Interwar Years. (Seattle and London: U. of Wa. Pr., 2004) 5, 22.
3. Pieroth, 136, 139.