Education has been a cornerstone of American culture and society since the early 20th century. Between 1929 and 1935, rapid changes in the school system were fuelled first by the Great Depression and then by the advent of World War II, the end of which brought new prosperity to the country. Middle schools were first created around 1930 to bridge the gap between elementary and high school and were called junior high schools until the 1960s when the concept of "middle school" took hold.
American schools in the 1930s were unregulated and differed from state to state. Attending school was not compulsory, and only about one half of all school-age children received a formal education. Most schools were overpopulated and underfunded, and rural schools received lower funding than schools in urban areas. Teachers were scarce, and many schools were taught by nuns. Children attended school when and if they were able to. Many left early to work and help support their families. Those who were able to attend often did so without shoes to wear and without food to eat. Schools were often racially segregated, and class and racial barriers increased the difficulty in getting an education. When economic difficulties resulted in the closure of schools countrywide during the Great Depression, education was viewed as unnecessary and a luxury.
Uniforms were not yet the norm in the 1930s. School photos from the Cliffside School in Elliot County, Kentucky, show many children wearing overalls (see Resources). Several are seen to be barefoot, although this trend was beginning to be phased out by then. At the Berwind School in McDowell County, West Virginia, photos show girls wearing Mary Jane strap shoes. In urban schools, girls usually wore dresses or skirts and blouses, boys wore shorts in warm weather and jeans -- then called dungarees -- in winter.
In 1931, rural schools usually consisted of one room in which children from several different grades were taught. These schools relied on a fireplace for warmth in winter and drew water for the students' use from a local well. Urban schools were often housed in buildings built for other purposes, such as former residences and courthouses. However, a school built in the 1930s in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, supported 745 students and had a "large, theater-style auditorium, a building-wide intercom system, spacious classrooms and classroom audio systems."
Lessons at middle school level included "useful" subjects such as home economics and cooking for the girls, while boys learnt woodwork and metalwork. The main subjects learnt were English grammar, spelling and literature along with history, mathematics and Latin. The latter was still considered necessary preparation for college until the late 1930s. Most city schools had music and physical education classes, and after-school activities were limited to sport and in some schools drama, for those students who wanted to attend.
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- Pittsburgh University School of Education: Response of Selected Middle Schools to the Accountability Demands of No Child Left Behind Within Mathematics Curriculum and Instruction; R.A. lutz; 2004.p. 120
- Wessels Living History Farm --- Farming in the 1930s
- The Novel Guide: The 1930s Education Overview