“No more pencils, no more books” was once part of a schoolyard chant, but as American education entered the 21st century, these words of obsolescence were well on their way to becoming a reality.
Recently, Michael and Jared Blouch, both from Cornwall in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, took a historical look at schools and educational trends in their home region in a webinar series presented by Friends of the Cornwall Iron Furnace. In an earlier presentation in 2021, the father and son team gave an overview of this topic from 1700 to the late 19th century. The second part of her presentation focused on what came next – schooling from the 20th century to the present.
Jared reported that their research helped them identify more than 370 schools that existed in Lebanon county over the years. Many of these structures no longer stand, but a surprising number remain, often converted for other uses. Meanwhile, the designs of the newer structures reflect the changes in the way young people receive education today.
Jared pointed out that by the late 19th century, a growing number of schools built in earlier times were becoming obsolete, in large part due to population growth. In many rural and urban areas, these old schools have been demolished or repurposed and replaced with new, larger buildings. He said that the city of Lebanon typified this trend, with a major school building program undertaken in the 1890s. Not only were these schools built to accommodate increasing numbers of students, but they also exhibited a style that was grander and more spacious than in previous eras. It was not uncommon for these buildings to initially serve as structures for specific grade levels, and later to serve either older or younger students.
A trend in Lebanon, mirroring the times elsewhere, was the gender determination of which school a student was assigned to. High schools were typically restricted to all girls or all boys. In many cases, the training ended with the eighth grade. By the turn of the 20th century, however, junior and senior high schools began to develop as extensions of a student’s educational career.
Founded in 1866, the Lebanon Valley College in Annville experienced significant growth between 1897 and 1904. A fire destroyed the institution’s administration building on Christmas Eve 1904 and led to the rebuilding of a larger administration building with spacious classrooms.
In 1882 the Lebanon Business College was founded. A two-year institution, it moved through several locations in downtown Lebanon, offering coursework focused on the commercial world before its closure in 1958.
A number of public school structures took on other uses after the end of their educational days. Due to their size and equipment, former school buildings were particularly suitable for conversion into apartment buildings. In other cases, the lot sizes of these schools were conducive to the construction of apartment buildings after the old schools were demolished. This was the case in Lebanon County for the former Stevens and Washington Schools in Lebanon City, as well as the former Palmyra Junior High School on the west end of the county.
In other cases, former schools were suitable for conversion into municipal buildings. This applied to schoolhouses in West Lebanon, Cleona Borough and most recently Myerstown. Lebanon County also has several examples of public schools that have been sold for use as private, typically denominational, schools.
In Lebanon, at least two schools have been named after Heinrich Henry Houck, a renowned local educator and school administrator. Houck also had the distinction of building the public education system in Puerto Rico. The Henry Houck Building on East Lehman Street was built as a junior high school but converted to what is now the elementary school.
The pace of educational improvements began in 1918 with the passage of a law requiring all school districts to provide elementary education for children in their geographic areas. In Lebanon, this eventually led to the construction of a new Lebanon High School, the Harding Building, in 1918. It was considered one of the best designed school buildings of its time and continues to serve as the primary school for the Lebanon School District.
Jared said that by 1920 vocational courses were added to the public school. This was particularly welcome due to Lebanon County’s strong agricultural base. Also in the 1920s, school health programs began to take shape, with school nurses and dental hygienists taking on the role of looking after the health and well-being of students in a school setting.
The construction reflects changing educational programs
New schools—particularly high schools—continued to be built throughout the county throughout the 1920s and 1930s as various schools merged on a regional basis. A church educational institution, the Lebanon Catholic School, was also built in Lebanon during this period. By 1937, a county-wide school board was formed.
Although the operation of the education system stabilized over the next few decades, some new trends emerged mid-century, such as B. Kindergarten programs to prepare young children to start their formal education. A number of new high school buildings were constructed in the late 1950s and 1960s. Often the former high schools were used to accommodate the growing number of younger students born in the post-World War II ‘baby boom’.
Typical of other regions, the Lebanon County Vocational-Technical School was built to provide a central point for training in a broader range of occupations than had previously been achieved by individual school districts. Pennsylvania’s system of geographically based intermediate units was created in 1970 to oversee educational services, including those needed by students with special needs.
A trend in the second half of the 20th century was to exchange longer teaching periods for modules with shorter teaching periods. The concept of the open classroom was another new direction. Dating back to the one-room schoolhouse days, Lebanon’s new Northwest Elementary School opened in 1976 with moveable partitions to implement this briefly popular approach.
In the early 1970s, the digital age dawned, radically changing educational methods. It started with students using calculators instead of relying on traditional tools like the slide rule to solve math problems. Technology became an even bigger part of the education scene when computers were introduced into classrooms in the 1980s as new ways for students to access and complete assignments.
Television also made its way into schools, allowing many students to witness the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Tragically, teacher Krista McAuliffe was killed on live television when the mission ended in a tragic explosion.
Microsoft’s introduction of PowerPoint software around 1990 forever changed the way content was presented to students, Jared said. The Internet led to innovations such as whiteboards with smart technology replacing blackboards and overhead projectors. The introduction of the iPad with full touchscreen interaction in 2010 ushered in a new normal for students, eliminating the need for textbooks and making distance learning possible.
New technology and trends toward homeschooling, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March 2020, have caused parents and school districts to rethink the educational needs of young people. It is likely that education will continue to take on a whole new look throughout the 21st century.