By Alexandra Molnar, Contributing Writer
Grafton – Living in 2015, it can be hard to imagine even the most commonplace aspects of life in the centuries that preceded ours.
In Grafton, one-room schoolhouses had existed since 1731, but by the 1840s, there were 11 districts scattered throughout the town. Schools did not have separate classes divided by age because neither the population nor funding to pay teachers necessitated it. In addition, the schools did not have a specific course of study. Each district maintained its own building, existing on land that was often donated by town citizens. In 1873, common school teachers were paid $8.70 per week while the principal of the high school earned $37.50 each week.
The School Committee set its sights on appropriating proper funds to the schools because they strongly believed in the value of educating their youth. An 1866-1867 school report reads, “Cost what it may, therefore, it is cheaper to educate the people than to allow them to grow up in ignorance; to say nothing of the priceless advantages of education in other respects it is better economy to make generous appropriations to the schools.”
Despite the different methods of funding and the differing coursework, the schools served the same purpose that our education system serves today: the effective function of society depends on appropriating proper funds to educate people. With the 1873 state law requiring students aged 7 to 15 to attend school for one term per year, school attendance increased tremendously. In 1873, before the law was instated, the Grafton School Committee estimated that less than seven-eighths of the children aged 5 to 15 actually attended schools.
Factories, which employed a large quantity of children as the mills were the main source of employment in Grafton starting in the 1800s, also had to comply with the state law. So by 1893, school attendance increased by 91 percent.
Despite progress made by the state to compel the education of youth, the schoolhouses were antiquated. Many schoolhouses in Grafton had poor ventilation and only basic sanitary facilities. Attempts were made in the last three decades of the 19th century to improve ventilation, install flush toilets and develop a curriculum.
The new curriculum included the following required classes at the primary and grammar schools: penmanship, drawing, written arithmetic, elements of geography, English composition and music. Though memorization was the primary method of learning, the value of internalizing information and articulating learned concepts seemed to surface among educational leaders in the late 19th century.
An 1888 School Committee report shows evidence of the belief that learning how to articulate concepts was well-regarded: “[There is] more mental activity on the part of the pupils. It is deemed of less moment to learn the printed words of the book than to grasp the subject itself, and to paint in the pupils own words the thoughts he has acquired about it.”
Students had to be able to prove knowledge of the following in order to gain admission into high school: “knowledge of written arithmetic as far as square root; a general knowledge of the map lessons in geography; an ability to parse in common prose or easy poetry, with the application of the rules of grammar; and an ability to spell the ordinary words found in the ‘Progressive Speller.’”
The Grafton High School was originally established in 1838 in the basement of the Congregational Church and then moved into its own building which was erected in 1850. The school existed in its original building until 1952, when a new school was built.
In addition to academic courses, as a student you could also enjoy a commercial course (learning about business transactions for careers in accounting, as a secretary, etc.), manual training (learning how to use tools in drafting, metal and woodwork, and mechanics), and household arts (learning how to maintain a home with activities such as cooking, sewing, etc.). These classes were introduced between 1911 and 1918.
In 1901, high school enrollment numbered 86 students out of a total town population of 4,869 people. Due to the lack of work opportunities for children aged 14-16 as a result of the Great Depression, by 1938 high school enrollment increased to 323 students. In 1932, the school budget was the largest single item in the town’s costs. The budget experienced a major cut, by $5,000, when Grafton began to feel the effects of the Depression.
Now the Grafton public school system is comprised of four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, newly opened in 2012. South Grafton Elementary, built in 1976, and North Grafton Elementary, built in 1955, offer pre-K through first grade while Millbury Street Elementary, built in 2002, and North Street Elementary, built in 1969, offer grades two through six. The middle school, built in 1963, has grades seven and eight and the high school has grades nine through twelve.