In September 1878, a "magnificent" new high school was dedicated on Pond Street from plans made by prominent Providence architect William H. Walker. The old high school at Benefit and Waterman Streets had been overcrowded for years. The expansion of the school system--both the number of students served and the buildings that served them--was one of Mayor Thomas Doyle's major achievements during his eighteen years as mayor. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th Century, the city had always played catch-up to its exploding student population and the complex needs of its diverse, global youth.
The public school system around 1878 included one high school, eleven grammar schools, thirty-five intermediate schools, and forty primary schools, serving over 12,000 students, both boys and girls as well as Black and white. See Maritcha Lyons' story about the integration of the public school system in 1866. Mayor Doyle's sister, Sarah Doyle, was principal of the girls' department of the high school and an important advocate in the fight for equal education for women.
The battle over public education in Rhode Island had been fought for centuries already. Town leaders in the 17th Century struggled with creating a common school and how to pay for it. Under pressure in 1800 from newly influential groups like the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, the General Assembly created a state-financed public school system, but reversed course in 1803 in a conservative backlash. Providence had to fund its public school system independently until the state passed a new public education law in 1828.
A schoolhouse was first built on Pond Street in 1819. This stretch of the street became a focal point for city schools, with a grammar school first, then the English High School (1878), the Manual Training High School (1892), Classical High School (1897), and Central High School (1921). This concentration led to the redevelopment of the school campuses in the late 1960s. Most of the old schools were demolished, including the English High School, to make way for new, modern school buildings and a more campus-like feel, with playing fields and open space.
Today's Providence school system comprises 41 schools serving over 24,000 students who speak 55 different languages and trace culture and heritages to 91 countries. Providence still struggles to provide the basics of an education for its young people. The challenges of defining what a public education means also remain as complex and controversial as they were over two hundred years ago.