Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Eliza Blaker and the Free Kindergarten Movement

When he took over as minister for the Plymouth Church in Indianapolis in 1877, Reverend Oscar Carleton McCulloch noticed that churchgoers in the capital city “had not much hand in relieving the poor.” He soon set out to change that, rejuvenating the Indianapolis Benevolent Society and creating the Charity Organization Society to aid those he called the “worthy” distressed. In the summer of 1881, after investigating the condition of children whose families were being helped by the Benevolent Society, McCulloch called on five influential women in the community to attempt to help underprivileged children improve their lives. That summer a trial free kindergarten program was started to assist underprivileged youngsters in the corridor of School Number 12 at West and McCarty Streets. Pleased with its success, the women organized the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Society.

Indianapolis’s free kindergarten movement, which began in that school corridor, grew by leaps and bounds until, by the mid 1910s, it included as many as sixty schools. These schools were dedicated to providing “education and moral training of the children of the poor between the ages of three and eight years.” The accomplishments of the Indianapolis free kindergartens, which became a model for the rest of the country, were achieved through the untiring efforts of the daughter of a Philadelphia seamstress and Quaker Civil War veteran, Eliza A. Blaker. She watched over the education of thousands of Indianapolis youngsters as superintendent for the free kindergartens and trained numerous teachers by starting the Kindergarten Normal Training School, known to those in the community as “Mrs. Blaker’s College.”

The woman who inspired such devotion that following her death alumnae and faculty of the Kindergarten Normal Training School formed the Eliza A. Blaker Club was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1854, the eldest of three children raised by Jacob and Mary Jane (Core) Cooper. In 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Cooper became familiar with a system of education that became her life’s work: kindergartens. One of the Exposition’s most popular features was a demonstration kindergarten taught by Ruth Burritt of Boston. “There I found what I had been groping for,” said Cooper.  The idea for kindergartens originated in Germany in the 1830s through the work of Friedrich Froebel. Using a child’s love of play as its base, Froebel’s system attempted to “give the children employment in agreement with their whole nature, to strengthen their bodies, to exercise their senses, to engage their wakening mind, and through their senses to make them acquainted with nature and their fellow creatures.”  

For it to succeed, Froebel believed that his kindergarten idea needed to have the support of what he described as “intellectually active women”: a definition that fit the young Eliza Cooper. Fascinated by what she saw at the exposition, Cooper enrolled in the new Centennial Training School for Kindergartners, operated by Burritt’s through the auspices of the Friends’ Society of Philadelphia. After graduating from the school, Cooper found a job at Philadelphia’s Vine Street Kindergarten. Before assuming her new responsibilities, however, she took time out to become the wife of a former childhood playmate of hers, Louis J. Blaker.

In 1882, officials from the Hadley Roberts Academy, a private school in Indianapolis located on Meridian and Vermont Streets, hired Blaker to start a kindergarten class for children of the community’s well-to-do families. Shortly after moving to Indianapolis, however, Blaker left the academy and accepted an offer from the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten Society to direct the group’s efforts to aid underprivileged children. She helped to open a new kindergarten adjacent to the Friendly Inn, a charitable home established by Reverend McCulloch on West Market Street.

Seeing the “sad and old faces” and “vacant, far away expressions” of the countless underprivileged youths who flocked to the free kindergartens inspired Blaker to provide for them a “miniature world in which the little one is happy, is harmoniously developed and learns to think and act as a reasonable being endowed with a high destiny.”

This high purpose, however, had to be achieved with limited financial resources. The benches the children sat on at the first free kindergarten on Market Street consisted of bundles of kindling chopped by indigent men to earn their room and board at the Friendly Inn. When teachers could not find enough paper for students, Blaker sent them out to seek donations of materials from Washington Street merchants. Even before they could start attending the schools, many children had to be given shoes and clothes by the Children’s Aid Society. Some kindergartens served breakfast to their charges and all offered free lunches.

Blaker outlined her philosophy of teaching in numerous speeches over the years to local clubs and organizations, and in yearly reports from her superintendent’s office. She described the role of the kindergarten as providing a wholesome environment in which students were free to form the proper habits needed for their future schooling and life.  Such an institution, said Blaker, also gave poorer students the “opportunity to get a fair start in life; in fact, to feed the soul and, where necessary, to feed and clothe the physical body. To sum the divisions of this aim—it [the kindergarten] is character-forming.” Students spent three hours each morning in the classroom engaged in activities under the guidance of trained teachers.
To further the work of the free kindergarten, Blaker realized from the beginning that it was crucial to have available trained kindergarten teachers. Preschool students, she maintained, had to be under the guidance of a well-trained teacher, one who combined the talents of “a gardener, a mother, a nurse, an elder sister, [and] a wise play-fellow. She must be a psychologist, a woman of good education, [and] of definite training for her work.”  In 1882 Blaker opened in her own home a training school for kindergarten teachers called the Kindergarten Normal Training School, which became the Teachers College of Indianapolis in 1905.
Despite early hardships, Blaker had faith in the school. “There have been times when I knew not where the money was to come from, but it came, because by the middle of the month I began to ‘dig in’ and work to get it,” she said. Through hard work and “the guidance of a Higher Power than I,” Blaker soon had students flocking to her side.  From an enrollment of twelve students in 1883, the school’s population grew over the next decade to three hundred and forty-four pupils. Graduates of the program had gone on to start kindergarten programs in other Hoosier cities, including Evansville, Lafayette, Bloomington, as well as establishing programs in such states as Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  

Shortly before her death on December 4, 1926, Blaker worked out an arrangement between the Teacher’s College and Butler University whereby students at each institution who wished training in a particular field—elementary education at the Teacher's College and secondary education at Butler—had the opportunity to do so and receive course credit. “Mrs. Blaker’s School” continued to produce teachers until 1930, when control passed to Butler. The free kindergartens had a longer life, continuing to ease the way for Indianapolis youngsters until 1952, when they were incorporated into the Indianapolis school system.

During her forty-four years in the capital city, Blaker oversaw the education of thousands of youngsters and provided training for thousands of preschool teachers. Her devotion to education resulted in her receiving an honorary doctorate from Hanover College in 1917. Even after her death, Blaker continued to be honored for her work, with the Eliza Blaker Club, members of whom were all graduates of her school, establishing a room in her honor at Butler University in 1943 (today located in the Rare Books and Special Collections room at Butler’s Irwin Library) and the Indianapolis school system naming a school for Blaker (Number 55) in 1958. Blaker, however, always refused to let such tributes go to her head. “The cause,” she said, “is greater than the individual.”

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