Back to School in Old Florida



The first documented school in America existed at St. Augustine, Florida before 1606 (according to an article entitled “The First School in the United States”, published in the Fortnightly Review at St. Louis in January, 1931).  Schools in Florida during the Spanish colonial periods were operated under the supervision of the local priests, were paid for by the Spanish Crown and were open to students of all races.  The first school in St. Augustine would have been supervised by Padre Ricardo Artur (a native of Ireland named Richard Arthur), who was the parish priest for St. Augustine from 1598 until his death in 1606.  


Beginning in the mid 1500’s, the Spanish established an extensive network of missions across northern Florida, from St. Augustine to Pensacola.  By 1700, this extensive mission network consisted of seventeen major settlements and dozens of smaller villages, providing spiritual, educational and economic support to the thousands of native "Indians" inhabiting northern Florida.  In 1702, James Moore, the British Governor of South Carolina, considered this network of Spanish Catholic missions to be a "threat to American interests"; so he assembled and dispatched a large militia to invade Florida.  During Moore’s 50-day siege of St. Augustine in 1702, he sacked the town but was unable to breach the walls of the Castillo, or to harm the townspeople and garrison sequestered inside.  Moore then systematically attacked and destroyed Spain’s vulnerable Florida mission settlements.  Between 1702 and 1706 nearly all of the Florida missions were burned to the ground, and most of the remaining native population of Spanish Florida was slaughtered, enslaved, or driven into exile.


Several states claim to have the "first" or "oldest" school in America.  Maryland claims that the King William’s School, opened in 1696, was the first school in America.  Massachusetts claims that the Boston Latin School, founded in Boston in 1635, was the first public school in America, and that the Mather School, founded in Dorchester in 1639, was the first public elementary school in America.  Virginia claims that Syms-Eaton Academy, founded in Hampton in 1634, was the first public school in America.  New York claims that Collegiate School, founded on Manhattan in 1628, is the oldest school in America.  Officially, Florida makes no such claims, but it certainly could…and should.  The City of St. Augustine "officially" claims to have the oldest surviving wooden school house in America, built some 100 years after the first school in St. Augustine.  Located near the old city gates in St. Augustine, the “Oldest Wood School House” was built approximately three hundred years ago.  No one knows for certain if the “Oldest Wood School House” is actually the oldest surviving wooden school house in the United States, but it is widely recognized as being so. 




At first glance, this ramshackle building looks like a prop from a movie set.   One might think that no authentic building could be that weather-beaten and still stand, but records indicate that this tiny school house has been there for three hundred years.  The house was listed on St. Augustine’s tax rolls in 1716, and was probably constructed well before then.  By 1788, the aging building was listed as being only "in fair condition," according to a Spanish map of the time.  The building has seen very few changes during the past three hundred years.  Originally, the “Oldest Wood School House” was a small one-story homestead belonging to Juan Genoply.  Juan Genoply later married, the house became a school, and so he added an extra room upstairs.  The schoolmaster lived upstairs with his family, and used the first floor as the classroom.  Boys and girls shared the same classroom, making the St. Augustine school the first known "co-ed" school in America.  



The school house was constructed of pest-resistant red cedar and cypress timbers secured with wooden pegs.  To protect the house from heat and fire dangers, the kitchen was located in separate structure, detached from the main building.  Several of the cooking utensils used in those days are still displayed there.  In the schoolhouse itself, artifacts and copies of the books that the pupils studied from are exhibited.  Drinking water was drawn from a well and a privy was located away from the main building.  A garden with hibiscus, bird-of-paradise, and other tropical plants offer fragrant aromas and soothing shade.  An enormous anchor is secured to the house with a long chain. These are not a part of the original construction.  Worried that a hurricane might blow the little school house away, townspeople added the anchor in 1937.


Today, the school house somewhat resembles a theme park attraction.  Mechanized figures dressed in 18th century attire greet visitors and describe a typical school day.  Children can receive make-believe diplomas.  But America’s oldest wooden school house was not all "fun and games" back in the 1700’s.   Students and teachers may complain about all of the rules and regulations in Florida schools today, but the rules and regulations in the 1700’s were far more strict. 



Here are the actual rules and regulations for the operation of schools in St. Augustine, issued in 1786 by Don Tomas Hassett (a/k/a Father Thomas Hassett, a native of Longford, Ireland), the Parish Priest, Vicar, and Ecclesiastical Judge of St. Augustine.  These rules and regulations remained in effect until Florida became part of the United States of America in 1821:


1. In accordance with the devout intentions of His Majesty, no one shall be qualified to teach except upon examination and upon the approval of the ecclesiastical and civil superiors of the Province and every teacher shall be bound to observe these rules and such other orders and resolutions, or any part of them, as the said superiors may see fit to communicate from time to time in the interest of the fullest advancement of the pupils.


2. The schools shall be designated as first (primera) and second (segunda).  Children who are beginners and others who are more advanced but are not ready to begin Writing shall alone be admitted to the first school. When they are ready to begin Writing they shall pass from the first to the second school where they shall be taught Writing and Arithmetic, while being perfected in Reading, etc. Only children of this higher grade shall be admitted to the second school unless the superior authority determines otherwise.


3. His Majesty having assigned to the teachers an income sufficient for their decent maintenance, no one of them shall demand of the parents any recompense whatever for the instruction of their children.


4. Every year at Easter the teachers shall prepare a list of the children based on the Parish Register, and, informed of the place of residence, ages, etc., shall request the parents to send their children to school. If this request does not have the desired effect, whether by reason of the culpable negligence of the parents or the indolence and indifference of the children themselves, the teachers shall report to the Parish Priest, who will determine the just and proper procedure in the matter. The teachers shall make like reports in the case of pupils kept away from school as a result of idle complaints made to their parents.


5. Throughout the year the schools shall be opened at seven o’clock in the morning and at two in the afternoon. At no time shall the pupils be dismissed in the morning before twelve o’clock, nor in the afternoon, in winter, before sunset. In the rest of the year the dismissal in the afternoon may be a half hour before sunset.


6. As each pupil enters school in the morning and in the afternoon he shall greet with proper courtesy first his teacher and then his fellow pupils. He shall then hang up his hat in its place and seat himself in all modesty. After crossing himself in the name of the Holy Trinity, he shall take up the book or paper with which his study is to begin.


7. Each teacher shall keep in the school a list of the pupils under his instruction from which, every day at eight o’clock in the morning and a quarter past two in the afternoon, he shall call the roll, designating each pupil by both his Christian and his family name. In case anyone fails to answer, the teacher shall immediately send one or two of the boys to the home of the parents to learn the cause of his absence and if necessary bring him to school. If the information obtained warrants it, the teacher shall apply appropriate punishment to the delinquent.


8. In reproving and punishing the pupils, the teachers shall endeavor to be moderate; and, as for some moral suasion is better than corporal punishment, the teacher shall take special care to learn the character and disposition of each child. In the case of such children, the teacher should not break out in imprecations or epithets, much less throw in their faces the faults of their parents or relatives, nor permit them under any circumstances to talk to one another in this manner in the school or out of it. Each and all should be treated impartially as faithful Christians worthy of love and charity.


9. The children shall present themselves in their respective schools morning and afternoons with all possible cleanliness, with their hair combed and with their faces, hands, and feet (if they come barefoot), clean. The teachers shall not permit in the schools children with contagious diseases, such as itch and other diseases of like nature, the parents being first informed in order that they may not be offended at having their children kept out of school while they are being cured.


10. The schoolrooms shall be swept at least once a week by the pupils themselves, and the teachers shall appoint a sufficient number of pupils for this purpose, treating all alike and beginning with the highest class and continuing to the lowest so that each class in turn shall fulfill this obligation.


11. No pupil shall leave the schoolroom, even when necessity demands, without the express permission of the teacher; and in order that not more than one shall go out at a time, the teacher shall deliver a ruler which he shall have on his desk for the purpose, to the one being excused, and a second permission shall not be given until the said ruler is returned. The length of the pupil’s absence shall be measured by the movement of a pendulum hung from the ceiling of the schoolroom, which pendulum the pupil himself will put in motion at the time of his going out, the teacher taking note whether the pendulum is still in motion when the ruler is returned.


12. The schools shall be divided, according to the capacity and advancement of the pupils, by numbers and separate seats into distinct classes, and to the first or most capable of each class shall be given some title, reserving for the first of the highest class the title of Emperor of the whole school, and these titles shall prevail until others more striking can be found.


13. At the beginning of every month there shall be a general examination before the Parish Priest and the teachers to determine the advancement the pupils may have made during the previous month in Writing, Reading, Arithmetic, Christian Doctrine, etc., and, as a reward of merit for the advancement shown in this examination, each pupil shall be assigned to a seat or place of preference corresponding to his progress. He shall occupy this place until the next examination when he shall be awarded it again provided no one excels him in merit. In this latter case he shall descend to occupy the place corresponding to his merit.


14. From pupils studying the alphabet, the syllabary, and Reading, the teacher shall hear four lessons a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The teacher shall instruct these pupils at the same time, morning and afternoon, in Christian Doctrine and in prayers and litanies. He shall endeavor (by his own efforts and not those of some other person) with consummate care and attention to inculcate a clear and distinct pronunciation and understanding in their reading, requiring the commas, semicolons, etc., to be observed. The teacher of the second school shall proceed by this same method in the teaching of Writing with the sole difference that the pupils in this school shall write only two exercises a day. The teacher shall instruct the pupil in the correct position of the hand and how to hold the pen; and, after the exercises are finished, he shall point out the faults and reprove the pupils for making them.


15. Pupils in Arithmetic, or Counting, shall solve two problems a day, write one or two exercises, read two lessons and receive instruction in Christian Doctrine once, in the afternoon; and the teacher shall never allow his pupils to pass on to new matter until the old is thoroughly learned. It shall be the duty of the teacher to correct and reprove, as provided in the rule immediately preceding.


16. The teacher of the second school shall require his pupils, as they advance, to memorize the tables of Arithmetic; in order that this may not interfere with other tasks in the school, the pupils may take the tables home and learn them at night, reciting them to the teacher the next morning; and, provided the pupils of Reading are not occupied with matters of this sort, the teachers may assign in the afternoon to each one according to his capacity, a portion of the Historical Catechism of Father Flaure, or of some other author, to be memorized at night, thus preventing the pupils from being idle at home.


17. The teachers shall instruct their pupils how to assist at Mass, and every Saturday and on the eve of all the other feast days of the year when there is to be a congregation in the Parish Church, they shall name by turns two of their pupils to assist the Sacristan in the conduct of divine services.


18. On nights when the Procession of the Rosary leaves the Parish Church and passes through the streets, the teachers shall attend with their pupils, no exception being allowed and no excuse being valid. The teachers shall take great care that their pupils comport themselves with the proper modesty and devotion.


19. The teachers shall attend with their pupils the salve on Saturdays, the vespers of Sundays and other principal days, and at all services of the Church when there is preaching of the Gospel.


20. Whenever God may be pleased to call to judgment any one of the boys, the teachers shall go with their pupils in procession to the funeral, and if necessary the remains shall be borne by four of the boys to the burial place.


21. On each of the four Ember Days of the year, all pupils of seven years of age and above shall make confession in the presence of their teachers, to which end the teachers shall notify their, pupils a day or two beforehand in order that they may examine their consciences. The teacher shall instruct the pupils in a manner appropriate to their age how they should prepare themselves, the method they should observe to avoid by negligence or other culpable reason, omitting sins that ought to be confessed, and the teachers should inform the pupils also of the necessity of repentance to make this sacrament valid, etc. The teachers shall give these same instructions to the pupils who are of an age to receive the holy sacrament of the Eucharist; and, in order that everything may be done with system, the pupils shall be divided into three equal divisions, and each teacher shall assign one division of his school for each of the Ember Days, in order that by this means the pupils may be attended to with dispatch in the church and sent promptly back to school.


22. The teachers shall endeavor to obtain the most instructive books to be read by their pupils. They shall not permit any other language than Spanish to be spoken in the school.


23. The pupils should ask with profound humility that the blessings of their parents accompany them on their way to and from school, and whenever they meet any of their elders in the street they should salute them with proper courtesy.


24. On leaving school, the pupils shall go directly home without loitering, or shouting, or committing mischievous pranks in the streets.


25. If any Negroes or Mulattoes should attend the schools, they shall be placed near the door in seats apart; but in matter of instruction, spiritual and temporal, the teachers shall do to them the same justice as to all the rest.


26. The teachers shall have in their respective schools a copy of these regulations in order that everyone may be promptly informed of their provisions and in order that they may be invariably and duly observed as His Majesty desires.


Translated from the Spanish by Joseph B. Lockey.  The original document is in the East Florida Papers. Box, 41, B4, Library of Congress.  Another copy, which the translator has not seen, is in the Archivo General de Indias, Papeles de Cuba, Legajo 150.



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