Balmy Beach, Toronto
August 19th, 1904
Behold an idea which I desire to plant in the fertile soil of your mind;- and incidentally to get into clear form in the process of stating it to a friendly critic. As you know, the children cannot now leave school in New York until they are both fourteen years of age and also through with the work of class 5b, which a child should be who enters school at the age of six and misses no promotion until the age of twelve. As such children form the trivial minority, so far as I have been able to learn, this seems to be the reasonable requirement for the rank and file.
Now the enforcement of this required amount of school work brings to light the fact that an inordinate number of children do not even accomplish this by the time that they reach fourteen;- they do not make anything like the regular promotions allotted to normal children. It has occurred to me that if it were possible to have a little committee take up half a dozen schools, say those of the nineteenth ward and make a special effort on behalf of the Children Who Fail of Promotion, some things might be brought to light which might make it easier to get a required amount of acquisition before children can leave school in Illinois. It would be beginning at the opposite end from the New York method.
It has only recently dawned upon my dull mind that this sort of volunteer effort would afford one more reasonable reply to the ladies who ask What can we do? and then do not wish to give money for scholarships for children they do not know. I fancy it would transpire that some difficulties are inherent in the school itself—half-time sessions overcrowded classes, incompetent teachers; some in the child itself,- poor eyes, ears, adenoids, insufficient food, inappropriate clothing, cigarette-smoking, idling in the street part of the time but not enough [page 2] to amount to punishable truancy; and some in the family;- quarantine of self or brothers and sisters, being kept at home to mind the baby, work as newsboys or beggars.
If it were shown that a large number of children never get beyond the third or even the second grade, for perfectly preventable causes, this would be good work, and it should pave the way for removal of those causes and for legislation in the general direction of the New York law.
It has cheered me greatly to perceive even at this late day, what I should have perceived years ago, that this is one of those cases in which under the guise of cooperating with the schools and the parents, both could really be brought up pretty well by the scruff of their necks, to say nothing of the light that would be shed upon the work of B'rer Bodine and all his ilk.
Such work would involve a high-grade quality of friendly visiting, improved to the nth power. I mean where children are victims of the things enumerated above, and have failed to make a promotion, it would take work worthy of the best quality of probation officer to hold them up to the scratch and see that they not only did not fall out of school but never missed another promotion to the fourteenth birthday. But just as the probation officers began with Dr. Moore, and Mrs. Stevens, why shouldn't this begin small and work out large? Something of the same idea is embodied in the work of the School-Children's Aid, but only in embryo. I wish I could tackle the job myself! So persuaded am I of the enormous field of new knowledge and help for the children that it opens up. Why, a lot of children that now get as far as the juvenile court need never even get headed towards it if they were caught immediately after their failure to be promoted, and checked, or boosted, according to the needs of the individual case. Fancy the job of getting the childen in the Dante school all regularly through from the first to the second, and the second to the third grade.
It has come to light in New York that a lot of boys cannot go to [page 3] work at the age of fourteen, because they were troublesome when they were little fellows and were suspended or expelled and allowed to be about the streets. Now a principal is subject to strenuous discipline who suspends or expels a boy without appearing in court and preferring charges upon which he can be committed. And I fancy that the class work of a lot of conscienceless teachers would improve vastly, if they knew that every child who failed of promotion would become the object of friendly scrutiny and help on the part of persons outside the school hierarchy. I cannot imagine why I have not been pegging away at this as one important aspect of the child-labor problem. But my mind is so sadly slow! I wonder that with such a slow moving intellect, I have ever learned to speak the English language.
Of course, in the long run, when the idea took hold as the juvenile court idea has taken hold, it would involve a lot of people working at it. But I suspect that, meanwhile, the automatic improvement in reduced classes, improved teachers, improved enforcement of parental responsibility, establishment of more wards for contagious diseases would reduce the present need of volunteer work far below the present extent.
Will you think about this, and let me know what it suggests to your fertile intellect?
John is with the Goldmark's in the Adirondacks; Margaret started today for Simkhovitch's at North Perry, Maine; and I am stranded here keeping my head cool until New York cools off enough for me to venture thither. I came to speak to the General Biennial Conference of Friends, who have just adjourned. I have not felt so buoyantly well in years as I am this summer. I hope the same is true of you after your outing. Did you get my epistle about Stanley and Dr. Sargent?