The first official schoolhouse — in District I — was the Fitch-Snook house on Calhoun Street. Rent was $14 per month. Class-work began August 1, 1854.
  • The first official schoolhouse — in District I — was the Fitch-Snook house on Calhoun Street. Rent was $14 per month. Class-work began August 1, 1854.
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“San Diego is behind the age," wrote John Judson Ames, editor of the San Diego Herald, in 1854. “She has neither public nor private school — nay worse, her most wealthy citizens (with but very few exceptions) do not avail themselves of the excellent seminaries, which in the north are established.... It is true that all our citizens cannot afford to indulge in these expensive academies. Then why do they not aid us in forming our own common schools? We see daily running in our streets, ragged little urchins who have neither the modesty of youth, nor the decency of shame. And these are the offspring of the rich as well as the poor — alike they ramble in a state of semi-barbarism."

San Diego's first Chamber of Commerce convened March 18, 1854. At that meeting, and in his April 15 editorial. Ames demanded public education for San Diego. There had been attempts at classrooms before, but it was clear that “the settlers did not put a high priority on the education of children." In fact, between 1851 and 1854, San Diego had no public schools.

The first official schoolhouse — in District I — was the Fitch-Snook house on Calhoun Street. Rent was S14 per month. Class-work began August 1, 1854, “and there has been no break in instruction since that lime."

Between 1854 and 1865, rented rooms and parlors of homes became temporary sites of education. Then, in 1865, the city erected its first building: the Little Green School on Mason Street. In 1872, the school moved to the center of the block and became the Mason Street School.

State funds paid for education “at the expense of the county schoolchildren," since there was only one district and San Diego “county" included San Bernardino, Imperial. Riverside, and part of Inyo Counties.

“The public uproar of this selfish action finally forced the County Superintendent to authorize preparation of a new school map, which divided the county into 14 school districts.... The new map would insure fairness to all children, not just those living in San Diego City."

There were 18 schools by 1892. Ten had only one room, while Sherman Heights had nine. “By the turn of the century, schooling was offered to over 3100 children in all grades from kindergarten through high school.

Students learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, geography, orthography (spelling), phonics, distinct articulation, and moral law. First-grade pupils learned "correct ideas respecting school duties, care of property, punctuality.” Second grade: “politeness, truthfulness, chaste language, kindness to animals.” Third grade: "obedience to parents, habits of industry, behavior in public places.” Fourth: “conscience, self-denial, moral courage." Fifth: "hatred,envy, profanity, slander and other vices, proper amusements”: Sixth and Seventh: "duties to man, rights of property, duties of citizenship.”

The Manual for Public Schools in 1890 urged that “good actions, repeated until they become habits, is the only secure way of establishing good morals; and good manners are the outcome of successful acts of civility."

Parents expected teachers to be more than model citizens. Teachers had to be exemplary, “with no hint of scandal,” living “rigid personal lives with the loss of much privacy." They didn't have contracts, or tenure, and the slightest deviation prompted abrupt dismissal. In 1856, Joshua Sloane was tired FINED?after six weeks for using "questionable methods" (unspecified) for punishing children. Sloane's case was rare. Lack of discipline expelled more teachers than too much.

Male teachers earned, on the average, up to $100 a month, women around S40. And the males could be married, “but it was expected that females would remain single or resign when they married. In San Diego, as in all developing areas, marriage was the greatest problem in keeping teachers."

From 1850 to 1900, incompetence was a constant problem. Novice teachers received the same salary as trained ones. And novices rarely had in-class experience. The state, eager to put educators in schools, declared applicants “proficient” as a matter of course.

Admitting students was tougher than admitting teachers. “In the early days, with limited space, children were not enrolled automatically. There had to be room for them." A student with unexcused absences for three consecutive days was out. There were exceptions: prior to one of San Diego's many fiestas, young boys played hooky to watch preparations for the bullfight, such as “fencing up the streets leading to the plaza."

“Much was expected of the pupils. In high school, 75% was the passing grade. In order to be promoted, a student also had to attain 85% in scholarship and 90% in deportment."


  1. The first teacher noted in the records is William P. Toler [here signed June 5, 1851]. He subsequently moved south to New Town, where he became proprietor of that area's new Hotel, Pantoja House. He also became the first official greeter for this city...the forerunner of Don Diego.

  2. In 1850-'51, Mr. Toler taught a bilingual curricula (English and Spanish).... Even though the majority of the population was bilingual, it was not thought proper to teach in Spanish, although the teaching of Spanish was approved.

  3. Well into the middle of the 20th Century, the fallacy was held that one had to be smarter to teach grammar school than primary school.

  4. Some rules and regulations of the Board: (a) Pupils who fall below their grade level are to be transferred to a lower grade [even during the term], (b) Pupils who deface, injure or destroy school property are required to repair or pay for such damages. They can be expended or expelled, (c) Pupils can be expelled for any graffiti on school property, (d) No tobacco on school grounds by pupils, (e) No promotion if absence is to avoid an examination, (f) No presents to be given to principal or teachers.

  5. In 1884, the School Board found it prudent to pass this motion: "...that the Trustees shall take such measures as they may deem proper and efficient to advertise the present advanced state of our schools and to assure parents and guardians that the students can now be fitted and prepared to enter the scientific department of the University of California."

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