Gary, Indiana and the Complicated History of Education in America

Written by Kerry Ellard on March 2, 2022

Many of the themes I have discussed in earlier pieces convergence in Gary, Indiana, at the turn of the 20th century.

Gary was the site of one of the first well-known experiments in progressive schooling during the 1910s and 1920s. In Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote that his goal for education was to create a society “in which every person shall be occupied in something which makes the lives of others better worth living, and which accordingly makes the ties which bind persons together more perceptible—which breaks down the barriers of distance between them.” He warned, however, “that we are far from such a social state” and added that, “in a literal and qualitative sense, we may never arrive at it.”

William A. Wirt became superintendent of the city’s elementary and middle schools in 1906. Wirt had studied under Dewey at the University of Chicago, and Gary offered him the chance to build a school system from the ground up based on Dewey’s philosophy, “with its emphasis on activity-based learning and the school’s role in the community.” Wirt’s efforts have been considered controversial by other reformers then and now, as while his philosophy was “based in educational theory,” he was an administrator with a “desire for economy and efficiency.” On top of that, he often promoted his program on pro-capitalist economic grounds, and in the 1930s was involved in a major national controversy over the New Deal. He was a reformer, but not a revolutionary:The emphasis on applied learning grew from Dewey’s teachings, but the efficiency of having large groups of students performing or lecturing in the auditorium, cooking in the cafeteria, or learning outside reduced the need for classroom space, and, therefore, the tax burden on the growing city.”[1]

By 1907, Wirt had implemented a system built on his “whole child” philosophy, a response to rapid changes that he perceived as a threat to “the rural values necessary for the total development of a child, those values being family, work, and productivity.”[2] In other words, Wirt shared Dewey’s goal of trying to create an ideal community in both the school and the city itself, one in which social change and diverse demographics could be worked out through everyone coming together to in a variety of community activities and learning how to get along and make themselves useful.

This ideal community reconstructed the norms of pre-industrial rural villages, particularly in New England, like the one in Vermont where Dewey’s grandfather had lived. There, children (and adults) learned purposeful activities, values, and mutually respectful, tolerant, meaningful social interaction from direct experience with village life, mostly outside of school.[3]This is best exemplified in the career of Francis Wayland Parker, who Dewey had called the father of progressive education and worked with closely in his early years in Chicago. Parker grew up in 19th-century Massachusetts, part of a religious and cultural tradition that had aimed to produce Biblically literate farmers and craftsman. By the middle of the 19th century, it encouraged poor men in rural areas to self-educate through books alongside learning from nature and everyday life. This experience-based approach, which emphasized lifelong learning, creativity, inclusion, and community leadership, was one that Parker saw as traditional and timeless even while becoming known as a leading progressive educator in the 1890s.

These influences can be gleaned from the fact that Gary’s first high school was called the “Emerson School,” after “transcendentalist writer, lecturer, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.” It was built in 1909, the year the United States celebrated the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and would go on to be “at the forefront of racial integration.” For several decades, many students who attended felt they were at the heart of progress and ambition in America.[4] The school was “very avant-garde, even incorporating a student-run bank and a zoo.”[5] There were “streams of visitors from throughout the United States and even foreign countries” during the 1910s and 1920s.[6]

However, the next few decades also saw the school and its approach embroiled in controversies with parents, especially over Wirt‘s attempts to racially integrate the schools as more African-American families moved to Gary from southern states, seeking better lives.[7] While he admitted six black students to the Emerson school in 1926, further efforts caused such backlash from local white parents that Wirt made the decision to establish a new school for black students, the Theodore Roosevelt High School.[8] Segregation was banned in Indiana schools in 1949,[9] and a 1959 graduate of Theodore Roosevelt recalled, “It was unbelievable living there…We had everything we could ever want…We were winners…We won everything."[10]

Wirt “expanded the school curriculum by adding music classes, physical activities, science labs, art classes, and recreation.” He also lengthened the school day, initiated teacher hiring standards, and personally arranged for the design and construction of the Emerson school. His design included “thirty classrooms, seven laboratories, separate band and orchestra rooms, art studios, and rooms for industrial and household arts.”[11] It was the first school to have an indoor swimming pool, which, like Emerson’s double-deck gym, complete with an upstairs running track, was among “the most advanced of their kind in the world.”[12]

Wirt’s “Work-Study-Play” system “called for students to be separated into two platoons, the first utilizing academic facilities while the second used the non-academic facilities (gym, workshop, auditorium, and track).” This reflected the industrial education craze but also other trends in Progressive-era education reform, like the Deweyan-Parker-Wirt one in Chicago Laboratory School years: “The constant movement would be efficient in keeping all facilities in use at all times, thus reducing cost – and it was thought the continuous change would stimulate student creativity.”[13]

Since the mid-20th century, there has been a lot of ahistorical criticism of Wirt’s ”capitalist” tendencies, but his platoon/Work-Study-Play system was essentially the high school equivalent of the elective system that had recently been adopted by American universities. The vision guiding this elective system was exposing students to a maximum number of potential “vocations,” in the hope that one would catch their interest, in line with the craftsman ideal, while also providing a well-rounded educational and social experience, in line with Dewey’s democratic ideal.

“In Gary, the pupils had the opportunity to learn the specific skills for different professions: ‘[F]rom the first day he [the pupil] went to school he has been doing work that teaches the motives and principles of the uses to which the material world is put by his social environment, so that whatever work he goes into will really be a vocation, a calling in life, and not a mere routine engaged in only for the sake of pay.’ It is the kind of ‘vocational’ education Dewey distinguished from ‘trade’ education, which he considered ‘an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society.’ The place of industry in education was ‘not to hurry the preparation of the individual pupil for his individual trade.’ Learning was not the work of ‘something ready-made called mind.’ According to Dewey, mind itself was an ‘organization of original capacities into activities having significance.’ Vocational training, then, became a means of transforming the existing industrial order of society. The democracy which proclaimed ‘equality of opportunity’ as its ideal required an education in which learning and social application, ideas and practice, work and recognition of the meaning of what is done are united from the beginning and for all. Dewey praised the Gary schools, for they were ‘showing how the ideal of equal opportunity for all is to be transmuted into reality.’”

In Gary's heyday, this approach inspired many, such as a local teacher who published a book in 1927 describing how, under the Gary Plan, the whole school revolved around the auditorium. Elementary and middle school students spent at least one hour a day there, engaging in lectures, presentations, oratory, and theatrical or musical performances with their classmates. High school students had the option to continue this routine by signing up for an elective class in communication skills. YJean Chambers, who graduated from the Roosevelt High School in the 1930s, and then taught in its auditorium for 26 years, said that it functioned as “a speaking and listening chamber and laboratory,” and that it was “one of the outstanding features of the platoon system.”[14]

The way Wirt executed this vision reflected his preference for a relatively decentralized and free-market approach to education reform, which had always been the American norm, but it also reflected the era’s very real constraints and uncertainty when it came to school space and funding.[15] While Wirt did become involved in controversies related to the New Deal, it is a mistake to interpret his earlier career in light of the national political divides that arose in the 1930s. Being concerned about “efficiency” was a requirement for anyone who intended to launch an ambitious, innovative public education system in the early 20th century--especially when the school system was being designed from scratch in a brand-new city! There were no reliable resources or institutions to call upon, and Wirt’s highly-publicized, high-tech approach left no room for winging it--he needed to have a creative plan for keeping the Gary school system's facilities in line with its cutting-edge reputation.[16]

As a result, the school’s layout can be seen as “reflect[ing] Dewey’s ideas of what a school had to look like in order to avoid waste and to secure an organic connection with social life,” with the facilities “fit[ting] into one another according to a very comprehensive plan.” This plan was designed to foster “embryonic community life,” while also making the best possible use of resources to make sure that the community would be sustained in the long term. It aimed to double the capacity of the schools “by taking advantage of the fact that when one group of pupils was using the auditoriums, shops, laboratories, and playgrounds, another group could make use of the classrooms.” It represented an attempt to implement “a curriculum that is truly representative of the needs and conditions of a democratic society,” as described in 1915’s Schools of Tomorrow, co-authored by Dewey and his daughter Evelyn.[17]

Naturally, there was more of a market for the economical and adaptable designs used in Gary than there was for the ambitious vision those designs had been intended to bolster.[18] In fact, Wirt’s preoccupation with making the best use of space seems to have been prescient—after “a post-WWII population explosion” in Gary, severe overcrowding “meant that for almost 20 years, Gary Roosevelt students attended classes in rented portable classrooms or attended half-day sessions.”[19] While such scenes have fortunately become rare since then, we can still see aspects of Wirt’s original vision in many public high schools today: the multi-period high-school schedule, vocational-career education programs, and arts curriculum offerings.[20]

Despite Wirt’s planning and long-term influence, his efforts to implement that vision were starting to founder even before the Great Depression hit. Part of this was due to the divisive effect of World War I: in 1923, Dewey warned against “the growth in the last ten years of social intolerance,” urging teachers to become “leaders in social work” in order to curb “these causes of division, of separation, and of mutual distrust...among us.” Amid this tense atmosphere, Gary’s population experienced rapid growth in the 1910s and 1920s, driven by a wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. The result was a “vibrant” but chaotic and often rough city culture, one that “combined the tough atmosphere of a ‘frontier boomtown’ with the virtues and vices of the ‘instant city,’ as well as the “’typical municipal evils of graft, franchise fights, saloon dominance, insufficient housing and health regulation, election frauds, and lack of social cohesion.’”[21]

Gary also became increasingly segregated by class and race/ethnicity[22], something Wirt seems to have tried to respond to by using the schools to model the values he shared with the Deweyan progressive education tradition, derived from the pragmatist and democratic New England tradition.[23]

“It was in this context that Wirt decided to counter what he called the ‘education that the child gets on the streets and alleys’...by removing the opportunity for wasted ‘street and alley time’ and by placing the working-class immigrant child under ‘the helpful, constructive influence of the school throughout the day,’ Wirt hoped to develop ‘a full rounded character, as well as an efficient school product.’...What was needed...was ‘a reorganization of the ordinary schoolwork to meet the needs of this class of pupils [working-class children], so that they will wish to stay in school [instead of hanging around on the streets and alleys] for the value of what they are learning.’ The ideal was not ‘to use the schools as tools of existing industrial systems’ but ‘to use industry for the reorganization of the schools.’”[24]

A 1926 graduate of the Froebel School, who went on to teach in Gary auditoriums from 1928-1955, later described this era: “Little ones even would learn how to run a meeting,” she said, referring to student committee meetings in the auditorium, guided by a teacher, in which they practiced “Robert’s Rules of Order,” discussing current events, and extemporaneous speaking. Gary Plan graduates “knew how to speak clearly, organize their thoughts, and entertain an audience...because they spent an hour a day in the auditorium.”[25]

However, this approach was culturally out of sync with the dominant academic and reformist trends of the 1930s and 1940s. After segregation was banned at the national level in 1954, and amid post-war prosperity and federal investment, the standardization and bureaucratization of public schools accelerated.[26] The auditorium program, along with most of what remained of Gary’s unique approach, was dismantled in 1955, when new leadership took over the school system, which had been drifting since Wirt’s death in 1938. Long-time teachers said that those who graduated after that point struggled to communicate effectively at school board meetings when their own children entered the school system.[27]

Today, “Gary’s schools face the problems encountered by many urban school systems [28]. In 2008, after the discovery of a mold infestation in the building, the Emerson School, which had operated for some time as a magnet school, closed for the last time. Due to its historical significance, the building has not been demolished, but it could not survive the decreased enrollment and shrinking tax base of Gary after the decline of the steel industry.[29] The Roosevelt School seems to be suffering a similar fate. Additionally, public school administrators were generally “determined to provide ‘a seat for every child’ in a self-contained classroom—a goal counter to Wirt’s belief in the need for an economical and efficient platoon,” and therefore also to his system of maximal electives and activities.[30] 

1. Ronald D. Cohen and Raymond A. Mohl, The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling, 1979, quoted in David J. Hoff, “A Blueprint for Change,” Education Week, April 21, 1999, https://www.edweek.org/education/a-blueprint-for-change/1999/04.

2. “Bullet,” “Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture (blog), May 28, 2020, https://autopsyofarchitecture.com/emerson-high-school/.

3. See Matthew Stanley Fliss, "The pilgrim's progress: The progressivism of Francis Wayland Parker (1837-1902)," Dissertations available from ProQuest, 1988,https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8816128.

4. See “Bullet,” “Emerson High School”; Jerry Davich, “Is writing on wall for Gary's Emerson school?,” Chicago Tribune, July 9, 2015, https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/opinion/ct-ptb-davich-dead-body-emerson-st-0710-20150709-story.html; “Emerson School of Gary, Indiana,” Sometimes Interesting (blog), June 12, 2013, https://sometimes-interesting.com/2013/06/12/emerson-school-of-gary-indiana/.

5. “Emerson School of Gary, Indiana,” Sometimes Interesting.

6. See Hoff, “A Blueprint for Change.”

7. See “Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture (“At the time, the system was revolutionary but it wasn’t without opposition. In 1914, a group of students and parents ignited a rebellion against the implementation of the Gary Plan into the New York City public school system. For the next three years, the Gary school system faced resistance from parents, students, and labor leaders concerned that the plan simply trained children to work in factories... Emerson was originally an all-white school, but due to overcrowding in the 1920s, black students attended white schools for the first time. To alleviate overcrowding, Wirt approved the transfer of black students to Emerson; six black students attended Emerson in 1926 and another eighteen followed in 1927. The white community did not stand for it with the white student body staging a walk-out which eventually culminated into a strike. Over 1,300 protestors, students, and parents stood outside Emerson refusing to go back inside or disperse under the black students were transferred out...The issue of desegregation returned in 1945 when hundreds of white students walked out of the newly-integrated Froebel School, prompting a visit by Frank Sinatra to help ease tensions, speaking at the Gary Memorial Auditorium about equality and acceptance.”) See also Angelo Van Gorp, "Requiem for Gary: Cultivating Wasteland in and beyond the ‘Age of Steel,’” in Fabricating Modern Societies, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019), which suggests that tensions were aggravated by the fact that ”the great influx of African Americans to Gary only started with the 1919 steel strike, when they were used as strikebreakers,” and gives more details about the shifting demographics during this time.

8. See ibid., and Ball State University, ”Gary Roosevelt High School,” Indiana Crossroads: Hoosier Civil Rights,https://www.digitalresearch.bsu.edu/digitalcivilrightsmuseum/items/show/57.

9. See “Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture (“In 1946, the Gary school board adopted a desegregation policy, but discrimination continued as Emerson’s white student body staged a second walkout in protest. It wasn’t until 1949 that Indiana state law desegregated public schools.”)

10. Davich, “Is writing on wall for Gary's Emerson school?”

11. “Emerson School of Gary, Indiana,” Sometimes Interesting.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. See Hoff, “A Blueprint for Change.”

15. “Emerson School of Gary, Indiana,” Sometimes Interesting (”The constant movement and rotating of students would be efficient in keeping all facilities in use at all times, thus reducing cost. Under the new system, school officials could schedule a student twice as large as before into the same space by rotating students between specialized teachers who would teach a specific subject on a precise time schedule…”)_

16. See Van Gorp, "Requiem for Gary: Cultivating Wasteland in and beyond the ‘Age of Steel’” (”Offering the rare opportunity of planning a new city from scratch, backed by the financial and organizational resources of the huge industrial empire of U.S. Steel, Gary obviously represented an urban planner’s dream. Alas, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare.”)

17. See ibid. (Internal citations omitted; emphases added.)

18. Ibid. (”Although the Deweys were most impressed with the ‘social and community idea,’ it was the efficiency of the ways in which the school plant was used that contributed the most to the success and extensive growth of the platoon system.”)

19. Ball State University, ”Gary Roosevelt High School.”

20. See “Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture.

21. Van Gorp, "Requiem for Gary: Cultivating Wasteland in and beyond the ‘Age of Steel.’” (Internal citations omitted; emphases added.)

22. Ibid.

23. See notes 7 and 8, above. See also Fliss, "The pilgrim's progress: The progressivism of Francis Wayland Parker (1837-1902),” and Dewey’s remarks about education in Gary in my earlier piece, “Industrial Revolution & American Education, https://montessorium.com/blog/industrial-revolution-and-american-education,”n13. See also Hoff, “A Blueprint for Change (“In The Auditorium and Its Administration, published by the school system in 1927, Edna Arnold Lockridge outlined [the curriculum she taught]…Lockridge encouraged students to lead all portions of the class. During the chorus, those who played musical instruments accompanied the choir. Lockridge assigned other students to direct the choir. Still others led the brief exercise session. During the final 20 minutes, Lockridge and other auditorium teachers led a potpourri of activities. One day, a local minister spoke about Abraham Lincoln; on another, the school principal talked about effective study habits. On April 7, 1925, at the Beveridge School, the secretary of the local YMCA lectured on the theme: “Be a Capitalist and Be Religious.” Some days, the teacher would show a movie for an hour. The 1927 book suggested a series of travel films, nature films such as “Our Feathered Aviators” or “Why Elephants Leave Home,” or movie versions of “Macbeth,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” or other classic literature.”)

24. Van Gorp, "Requiem for Gary: Cultivating Wasteland in and beyond the ‘Age of Steel.’” (Internal citations omitted; emphases added.)

25. Hoff, ”A Blueprint for Change.”

26. See ”Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture.

27. Hoff, ”A Blueprint for Change” (“Three years after the architect of the Gary Plan died, the school board started to make gradual changes...Some elements of Wirt’s plan—such as auditorium, home economics, and music—remained in place. But by the end of World War II, the work-study-play program was ‘only a shadow of its former self’...The platoon system—and the auditorium program with it—finally ended in 1955. That year, consultants from the Public Administration Service, a Chicago nonprofit group, noted that while portions of Wirt’s plan had been abandoned, nothing had been developed to replace it. The lack of coherence could be seen in the consultants’ finding that eight schools still enrolled children in grades K-12; in the rest, grade-level groupings varied from K-3 to K-8...By [1955],...auditorium and physical education classes were the only vestiges of Wirt’s original vision...The speech and theater lessons YJean Chambers taught in Roosevelt’s auditorium became electives.”) (Emphases added).

28. See ibid., and Van Gorp, "Requiem for Gary: Cultivating Wasteland in and beyond the ‘Age of Steel.’”

29. “Emerson School of Gary, Indiana,” Sometimes Interesting.

30. See Hoff, “A Blueprint for Change.” The “seat for every child” approach is closely related to age-grading, which also tends to undermine the flexibility and synergy at the core of Wirt’s vision. See note xxviii, above, and “Emerson High School,” Autopsy of Architecture.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.