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Back to School in 1962

1962 Local News & History

As 1962 opened I was 9 years old and in third grade. By the end of the year I was 10 and in fourth grade. What do I remember of school that year? Reading, writing and arithmetic, surely, but I also recall recess, walking to school, and my first crush on a girl. Don Milne here, with a Roadtrip-'62 ™ look back at school in 1962. Let’s take a look at it from a child’s point of view and also some of the politics I never knew was going on behind the scenes.

 
3rd grade class photo, Fuerbringer Elementary School, Saginaw, Michigan
Author’s 3rd grade class photo, Fuerbringer Elementary School, Saginaw, Michigan

The first thing that happened every year was of course buying new clothes and school supplies. Stores had back-to-school sales so I got some new clothes at this time of year. Don’t we all look so shiny and new in that class photo above? We soon got down to the business of learning though. I never rode a bus to school, as ours was a neighborhood school and everyone could walk no more than about 8 city blocks to get there. In October, 1962, Congress designated the second week of each October as “National School Lunch Week”. But we came home for lunch, as the school had no cafeteria and no school lunch program. For at least kindergarten and first grade, we did get milk and graham crackers as a snack. We brought our own nickels for the milk vending machine, but I really don’t remember who supplied the crackers. In those grades, we said a short prayer of thanks for the food each day.

Though I was years beyond the milk and crackers, I suspect the prayer was ended in 1962 as that was the year when the Supreme Court banned school prayer. The case was raised by local opposition to the New Hyde Park, New York school district’s adoption of a non-denominational prayer that students were recommended to recite each day. New York courts found nothing objectionable with the prayer and even noted that students were not required to recite it. But on June 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court found by a vote of 6 to 1 that the prayer violated the First Amendment to the Constitution by establishing an official religion and banned prayers in public schools. The problem, of course, was that saying any state-sponsored prayer in a country with over 250 religious practices did indeed establish a state-sponsored religion. The political controversy created by this decision has never been resolved.

 
Milk vending machine, early 1960s
Milk vending machine of the early 1960s (photo from an online auction)

We baby boomers continued to pack the nation’s schools, with over 45.5 million children aged 5-17 for the 1962 year. This was about a 2.8 percent rise from the previous year, and enrollment had been rising for many years. I saw the results of this, as a new school was built in my city that affected my class. Kempton Elementary School opened for the fall of 1961 and took a lot of pressure off of Fuerbringer Elementary School. I lost some friends when it opened, as Fuerbringer was one of the two schools affected by the change and those friends lived across the new boundary. It was a modern-styled building with a front loading area for cars to drop-off and pick-up students, large windows, a central courtyard, and built on only one story. All of Saginaw’s older elementary schools were two-story structures. Kempton was designed by F. Wigen and Associates and was the winner of the 1964 AIA Merit Award for its innovative design. Greenwich, Connecticut opened a new school in 1962 designed for the new concept of “team teaching”, and you can read more at my page on highway US-1.

Even while cities and suburbs constructed new schools to handle the high numbers of students, rural areas built new schools to consolidate operations. There were still 15,000 single-teacher schools, the old one-room schoolhouse, in 1962! Nearly half of these were in the midwestern states. As they only enrolled 9 percent of the nation’s students, school consolidation was being pursued as a method of both cost savings and raising education quality. High schools were also changing; they were usually midtown, often only a few blocks from downtown. But new high schools were being built out beyond city and village limits and we would soon see a lot more school busses on the roads. The Sutton Historical Society, in Sutton, Nebraska, operates a rural school museum we stopped at on Day 27 of my US-6 roadtrip.

 
Kempton Elementary School, Saginaw, Michigan
Kempton Elementary School, Saginaw, Michigan

I remember a couple of things we learned in third grade were multiplication and cursive writing. I don’t remember whether division was taught with multiplication, but I would assume so. As you can see from the sample below, by the later part of the school year my cursive had assumed a blocky, vertical style. Later in life it would evolve to the typical hard-to-read, slanted adult style. We also had instruction in science, social studies, and music. I think every room in the school had a piano! Some of the social studies was fun as it involved foods. I think that year was the first time I tried pineapple and a taco. And the teacher gave us her date nut bread recipe, which has remained a Christmas treat in my family ever since! I’m sure different schools operated differently, but I don’t believe I had any regular homework in third or fourth grade. Special projects were done at home, such as science fair projects and book reports, but regular work was always done in the classroom. We didn’t even take the schoolbooks home.

 
school writing assignment from third grade
Author’s school writing assignment from third grade

Learning to read became controversial in 1962, as some in the education profession were trying to push a new method of teaching reading. The “look-say” method they were pushing, also known as the whole word method, taught reading by having children learn and recognize whole words instead of the phonetic sounds made by each of the 26 letters. This was more like the Chinese and Japanese written languages, where each symbol means something different and there is no phonetic alphabet. In modern Chinese, there are about 7,000 characters used, though most Chinese are taught about 3,500 and you can read about 98% of the daily written language with just 2,000. It is estimated that the human memory cannot memorize more than around 2,000 abstract symbols. A group named The Reading Reform Foundation was formed around 1962 to retain and restore the teaching of phonetics. I was taught with phonetics and found it so easy that I was soon reading at a 2nd grade level while still in 1st grade. The ability to pick apart and sound out any new word I found made reading fun. Studies have shown that this is a major advantage of phonetics, and that while children taught with the look-say method show higher reading levels at first, they perform more poorly as they encounter longer and more complex words. The number of words in everyday use is about 50,000. Therefore memorizing whole words as abstract symbols will eventually fail.

 
Weekly Reader,December 10-14, 1962
Weekly Reader, December 10-14, 1962 issue (photo from an online auction)

Weekly Reader was a teaching aide that came, as its name suggests, every week during the school year. It was a mini-newspaper designed for kids. I remember that it featured some real news articles about both national and foreign news, along with some activities and a gag cartoon featuring Peanut and Jocko. The activities always fostered learning, such as learning new words, geography, etc. And we were always quizzed on the news articles, to show our reading comprehension. Weekly Reader came in seven editions at this time, one for each elementary grade plus kindergarten. There was also a teachers’ version for each grade that outlined the learning activities to be used for the week. The newspaper began in 1928 as My Weekly Reader. The publishing company also created workbooks, literacy centers, and picture books for younger grades. In 2012, Weekly Reader ceased publication and merged with Scholastic News, which is still published. Scholastic News and the similar publication The Week currently come in both print and digital versions.

Besides prayer, reading, and school construction, another important nationwide issue affecting schools was desegregation. Federal troops were called to the University of Mississippi to assist James Meredith to enroll and attend classes. But the problem of segregated schools was not only a southern states problem. While those states had laws separating the races, historical population patterns often had the same effect in the north. When you have neighborhood schools and the neighborhood is predominately of one race, then of course the school ends up segregated. Saginaw schools were neighborhood schools and while many were nearly all white students, many others were mixed. There were not enough minority students in the system to effectively desegregate all the schools. It would be at least another decade before enough whites had left the city to create schools with a of majority black students, and by then all the schools would be naturally integrated.

   
abandoned Fuerbringer Elementary School, Saginaw, Michigan
The now abandoned Fuerbringer Elementary School, Saginaw, Michigan

Eventually, Saginaw would lose enough population that my old school would be closed. It’s been vacant for many years and is for sale a second time. Many others in Saginaw have been demolished already. So I’ll end my look at schools on that sad note and see you next time down the road at Roadtrip-'62 ™ .

 

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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