Immigrants created a crisis for the school system of every American city where they settled. Immigration increased the absolute number of schoolchildren. Schools were changing as institutions themselves; they were just beginning the long and controversial process of taking on the responsibilities formerly allocated to families or to the master craftsmen who taught young apprentices. Added to these burdens was the problem of absorbing a large number of new students who spoke a foreign language and who had customs which appeared strange to the Yankees and to the Irish.
From the start, the New Haven Board of Education was hostile to the immigrants. One of their annual reports referred to New Haven’s “increasing and promiscuous population—a population containing a large foreign element.” The Board embraced the widely held contemporary belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon “race,” which was supposed to have made America what it was. At the same time, the Board was eager to “Americanize” the newcomers. It felt a strong duty to teach patriotism to the foreign children and to absorb conflicts that would arise between children of different nationalities. Board dictates were in accordance with its policy of patriotism: the American flag was displayed on all national and state holidays and on all anniversaries of memorable historical events. “Patriotic instruction” was an appropriate subject for teachers to impart to their classes.
The Board’s idea of the proper way to run a school system conflicted with the ideas of some immigrants. The Board complained that the immigrant parents were negligent about their children’s attendance. Even in 1873, Connecticut’s schools required three months of regular attendance. The State Board of Education had received complaints regarding Italian boys on Oak Street. Local complaints centered around truancy and the “evils” of the padrone system which locals felt created a class of would be delinquents and vagabond boys.
There is little doubt that the absentee rate among immigrant children exceeded the Board’s view of desirable attendance. What the Board did not take into consideration was that some parents did not want their children to attend school: public schools were not closed for the many and various holy days celebrated by the Italian Catholics, and some school-age children had to work to help support their families.
The Board did start evening classes in citizenship, and kindergartens were opened to care for “neglected children from squalid homes.” However, the Board’s aims were often contradictory at best. By 1894 New Haven saw the high figure of 30% of its pupils finishing grammar school (sixth through eighth grades). This “success” led the Board to
the requirement for admission to high school in 1895 in order to limit enrollment.