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Out on a limb: A history lesson on the area school system

First Posted: 7:00 am - June 15th, 2015

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Tom Mooney Out on a Limb

Genealogists know well that the changes under consideration by the Wilkes-Barre Area School District are inevitable in some form, though saddening to many people with happy memories of their old high schools.

That’s because the story of public education in Luzerne County since the 1700s has been one of endless change – sometimes growth and sometimes loss.

For genealogists who want to get a handle on their local ancestors’ educations, here is a brief guide.

In the earliest years, individual Luzerne County towns took on the responsibility of educating the young. There were also small private schools, often operated by an individual man or woman. The system, though, was haphazard. Many young people saw little formal education and instead went to work as soon as they were old enough.

By the late 1800s education was taking on a more modern shape. Urban areas had many neighborhood elementary schools. Pennsylvania was setting up requirements for public high schools, one of the earliest local ones in downtown Wilkes-Barre. Communities that could not maintain their own schools sometimes paid neighboring schools to educate their children.

The schools weren’t all public. Private schools like Wyoming Seminary, the Harry Hillman Academy and the Wilkes-Barre Academy provided tuition-based education and focused on preparation for college.

Churches were busy building up a parallel school system throughout the county, generally with smaller churches (mostly Catholic) offering grades 1-6 education and larger ones going 1-12. St. Ann’s Academy, in the Heights section of Wilkes-Barre, pioneered education for girls. St. Michael’s School, in Wyoming County, provided education for troubled boys.

Niche schools operated as well. The charitable BIA (Boys Industrial Association) offered night classes for boys working – sad to say – in the coal mines. The Kingston Coal Co. offered classes for children of employees.

With bigger and better schools being built (some of them architecturally significant), that system remained pretty much in place until just past the mid-20th century. By that time, most of the young people who entered the education system stayed through high school graduation, unlike their grandparents. The Wilkes-Barre School District, responsible for a large population, maintained three high schools.

In the 1960s, Pennsylvania mandated consolidations, a move that led districts to join together, building fewer but larger and more comprehensive schools. The vo-tech concept, though not new, expanded at this time, resulting in schools now known as “career centers.”

For detailed information on education in the individual communities up through the 1950s, see the Edward Phillips notebooks at the Luzerne County Historical Society, South Franklin Street, Wilkes-Barre.

Searching: Does anyone have information on the Elk Brand Nut Co., which operated in Wilkes-Barre in the late 1920s and perhaps longer? If so, please contact this column. Old local news stories indicate that the company opened here in December, 1925 and was still operational at least in 1927. There are references to the company’s presence in Scranton and Allentown as well.

News Notes: The Genealogical Research Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania will celebrate its 20th birthday at noon on June 27 with an open house at its headquarters, 1100 Main St., Peckville. For information about the group, go to www.grsnp.org.

Don’t miss the 137th annual observances next month at the Wyoming Monument. The scheduled speaker is Michael Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College, Massachusetts, according to the Wyoming Monument Association Facebook page. The event, marking the 1778 Battle of Wyoming, begins at 10 a.m. July 4 on the monument grounds along Wyoming Avenue in Wyoming. It’s free.

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