Huh? The Platoon School?
My hunch is that very few readers have ever heard of this widespread Progressive reform that began in Gary (IN) in 1907. Praised by John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey in 1915, the innovative way of schooling native, migrant, and immigrant children (and their parents) established by Superintendent William Wirt (who served as superintendent between 1906 and 1938) gained traction in school districts across the country. Platoon schools appeared in big cities like New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh as well as small towns throughout the second and third decades of the 20th century. By the 1940s, however, many districts had dumped the innovation although it lasted until 1960 in Gary.*
What Problems Did the Platoon School Organization Intend To Solve?
In cities where immigrant families settled to find work, schools soon became overcrowded. Many districts had to have double-sessions, that is shorter school hours, so that all students could be accommodated during the day. In some districts, superintendents turned away children because there were no more seats for them. Progressive educator William Wirt, a former student of John Dewey at the University of Chicago wanted to solve two problems: how to use a school building to its capacity and how to give children access to a full education with the arts, special subjects like music, woodworking, and physical exercise. Wirt added auditoriums, gymnasiums, music and drawing rooms to existing buildings and constructed new ones with expanded facilities beyond classrooms. Unheard of at the time.
By dividing the enrollment into two “platoons,” one group of children would take the traditional academic subjects in the morning while the other platoon would take special subjects, use the auditorium for large-group meetings of students, and exercise in the gyms. Then in the afternoons the two platoons would switch. During evenings, adults in the community would take English classes and other offering. Thus, the school was in use day and night.
What Does a Platoon School Look Like in Practice?
An enthusiast for the reform, a professor at the University of Akron (OH), wrote the following description of a “model platoon school” in 1923:
This school has an enrollment of about one thousand pupils besides the kindergarten and open-air schools which are not included in the platoon organization. The building is equipped with an excellent auditorium, a divided gymnasium, domestic science and shop rooms, and classrooms sufficient to care for the special room and home room activities. The day begins for the pupil at 8.30 and closes at 3.20 with one hour and a half for lunch time. The forenoon has six half- hour periods and the afternoon four thirty-five minute periods. The school is organized into thirty groups, making it necessary to have fifteen home rooms. Each home room takes care of two groups in the formal subjects. One group is doing special platoon work while the other group is in the home room. Ail the pupils change at the middle of half-day sessions. The rooms are so assigned that the primary pupils do not come in contact with the large pupils. Besides the fifteen home rooms there are three science rooms, three literature rooms, one music room, one art room, one music and art for primary platoon, one play room for ‘primary platoon, one auditorium, a divided gymnasium, a library, a manual training shop, and domestic science rooms for cooking and sewing….
In the home rooms the formal subjects are taught, viz., reading, writing, arithmetic, formal language, hygiene and history. Half the pupil’s day is devoted to these subjects. The seventh and eighth grades are departmentalized further by dividing the work so that four teachers by interchange of pupils among four rooms teach the various home room subjects under the following groups: (1) Arithmetic, (2) Language, (3) History, (4) Hygiene, Spelling and Writing. The science rooms are devoted to nature study in the first three grades, geography and community history in the next four grades, and everyday science in the eighth grade. In the literature rooms the supplementary reading as a basis for literary interpretation, study of poems, and appreciation of the finest literary productions and authors suitable to the grades are taught. Regular periods are assigned for library work. All special rooms are arranged to give the proper setting. The art room is arranged as an art room and the music room as a music room. In the gymnasium, girls and boys work together in formal exercises the first ten minutes of the period. Then they are separated for the rest of the period for free play and games. The auditorium is in constant us with two teachers, a man and a woman, in charge. The auditorium serves as a clearing house for the whole school in that it coordinates with all other work. The following outline of work is done in the auditorium:
Dramatization. – Stories learned in the literature and reading classes are used. Pupils are permitted to dramatize without having stories memorized. Not finished work, but opportunity for individual expression is the principal aim.
Literary Societies. – The auditorium takes charge of literary society work. All upper grade pupils take part in parliamentary practice, entertainment, debating, etc.
Visual Education. – One day per week is given to motion pictures and stereopticon views. These are correlated with geography, history, science, art and citizenship.
Music Appreciation. – This work is done with Victrola and occasional musical performances by adults who are invited in to render some of the great musical productions. There is no music teaching. Appreciation of music is the aim.
Vocational Guidance. – Upper grade boys and girls discuss various vocational activities. Talks by business and professional men introduce dif-ferent phases of professions and vocations….
This description of a “model platoon school” existed in Gary (IN) at the Froebel and Emerson Elementary Schools, places that educators from across the country came to visit. As anyone familiar the history of school reform knows, as innovations spread, conflicts and variation in the design and practice pile up. And that is what occurred with the design of the platoon school when adopted by other districts.
In New York City, for example, Alice Barrows, admirer of Superintendent William Wirt, advocated for the Platoon Plan. She convinced newly elected and reform-minded Mayor John Mitchell in 1913 who was worried about the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and overcrowded schools, to adopt the Gary Plan and transform traditional schools into work-study-play school organization. Mitchell brought Superintendent William Wirt to NYC as a consultant to help shepherd city schools implement platoon schools.
Much rancor occurred, however, as city teachers, administrators, and parents wanted more, not less traditional schooling. In 1917, parents and students who opposed the reform rioted in the streets, stopping the Gary Plan from spreading throughout the district. New York City was an exception, however.
As one historian pointed out by the 1920s, platoon schools had spread to Detroit with 110 such schools, Pittsburgh with 75 and by the end of that decade over 200 cities in 41 states had versions of the platoon school in operation. Much variation in design of platoons occurred. Many of the features of platoon schools, particularly the number of and kind of rooms in a building, became part of the what a later generation called the “modern elementary school” (see below).
Did the Platoon School Work?
Yes, this Progressive invention did insofar as becoming an efficient model for how elementary and secondary schools should be organized and built to accommodate the interests of the “whole child.” Beginning during the Great Depression and extending into the decades following World War II, the “modern” elementary and secondary school combined a full array of academic course with in-school experiences in the arts with vocational classes where students learned to work with both their heads and hands and with opportunities for physical exercise in outdoor playgrounds and spacious indoor gyms. Today’s school buildings and curricula (including extracurricular offerings) are silent monuments to the work-study-play ideas embedded in the Platoon Plan of the early 20th century.
But some readers may be asking themselves: what about teachers, the curriculum, and test scores? Abraham Flexner and Frank Bachman conducted a study of the Gary Plan in 1917. Funded by the Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the study critiqued severely the district administration and supervision of the platoon system, the tremendous variation in what teachers did daily in their lessons, and achievement test scores in spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic. Their conclusion was that platoon schools in many instances under-performed “traditional” schools elsewhere.
Superintendent Wirt, reeling from the defeat of the Gary Plan in New York City, found the General Education Board study (1918) both inaccurate and bothersome. He need not have worried too much since the Flexner and Bachman study failed to slow down the national spread of the platoon school in the 1920s and 1930s.
What Happened to the Platoon Schools?
In Gary (IN) as Ronald Cohen documented, platoon schools grew under William Wirt and became the way that Gary schooled it children and youth. Enthusiasm for it peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with a slow demise after Wirt left office in 1938. Throughout the 1940s the once Progressive innovation faltered and by the 1950s was being dismantled in favor of what had become the modern elementary and secondary school that most readers of this post have experienced. Born in the Progressive era, the phrase, “platoon school,” may be anachronistic but it lives on in the nation’s school buildings and curriculum.
*As an elementary school child in the 1940s, I attended a Pittsburgh elementary school organized into platoons.