Hartford Avenue School

Hartford Avenue School

By Cynthia Sommer

In our busy lives, it is easy to take for granted the anchors and gems in our neighborhood that still flourish and have served us for a century – our schools.   The early years of Hartford Avenue University School located at the intersection of Hartford and Maryland Avenues is such a jewel.

While Maryland Avenue School was the first elementary school developed on the Upper East Side, Hartford Avenue School soon followed because of the rapid population growth of Milwaukee.   In 1900, Milwaukee was rank as the 14th largest US city with a population of 285,315 and the City had become number 13th by 1920 with a population of 457,147.   Hartford Avenue School was established in 1916 with children being taught in four barracks, while the new school was being built. Barracks and farm field became the foundation of the school.  The nearby buildings of the established Milwaukee Downer College could easily be seen to the north of the 3.03 acre plot.  The school that opened in 1919 was 46,776 square feet at a cost for the grounds and building of $169,160.   The main building that contained 12 classrooms was positioned on an angle facing the intersection of Hartford and Maryland Avenues. A small, separate boiler house and a chimney stack were also added at the back of the property.

Enrollment increased rapidly as people moved into the neighborhood.  Records indicate that there was an enrollment of 614 students in 1927 – comparable to the current enrollment at Hartfort Avenue School of around 660 students.  The need for more space was evident!  In 1932, a 36,683 sq. ft addition was completed behind and parallel to the current structure at a cost of $190,000.  Four classrooms, a gymnasium and auditorium were provided by this addition.  Current residents who have voted in previous elections at Hartford Avenue School may remember this “new” space as they walked on the well-maintained but creaking wood floors of the gym.   The building of the Hartford Avenue School addition was a real commitment by the School District because the depression created hard economic times. Teachers were asked to take a 10% pay cut in their salaries in 1932.  In 1972, a small addition in the back was added for building maintenance. This total building of 85,700 sq. ft still serves the education of Milwaukee children to this date.

At the time of the establishment of Hartford Avenue School, the importance of reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling were evident in the curriculum but education in Milwaukee was making progressive changes.  In writing, the common sense free-hand movement approach to penmanship was adopted.  In arithmetic, teachers would add practical problems relevant to the students’ lives and time into their lessons.  For example, pupils were asked to calculate interest on bonds and war savings and compute the cost of transportation and supplies used in World War I.  Memorization of a selected verse designated for each grade level was considered important to help students learn vocabulary and the flow of language.  Students would commonly recite such a verse when the Superintendent came for a routine visit to a school to evaluate their learning.   In the three upper grades (6-8th), the socialized method of recitation was emphasized to encourage active learning and oral expression by the pupil. The subjects of the upper grades were starting to become specialized such that students would have their “home room” and then have certain subjects taught by advanced teachers in special room such as a geography room or music room.  This approach aided the teachers in the amount of their preparation and an intensive study of a subject lead to greater interest and concentration on the part of the student.

Learning was affected not only by the WWI but also by infectious diseases. Schools were closed at times because of the 1918 Influenza epidemic and by regular outbreaks of measles, whopping cough, and mumps. The Milwaukee School Tuberculosis Committee helped to established in 1917 a Nutrition Clinic to address the concern for the” large number of children suffering from the effects of insufficient nourishment.”  Most students walked home for lunch but those involved in the lunch program could get a “penny lunch” (price of lunch went up to 5 cents by 1940!).  Prior to MPS taking over the school lunch program in 1917, food programs were supported from 1904-1917 by the Women’s School Alliance volunteers and funds collected through fund raisers.

The growth of the city and the economics of the time demanded concessions by all to insure the education of Milwaukee children.  Through all these early years, the citizens of Milwaukee recognized the importance of education. Between the years 1906 and 1967, the voters approved 27 of the 29 requests for tax levying or bonding power to meet the cost of schools and their programs.   Teachers were very dedicated individuals and in 1918 they only received a “flat annual salary with a minimum of $720 and a maximum of $1,500”.  Salary increases were based solely on experience at the rate of $60 per year until the maximum was reach.

While the physical building at Hartford Avenue School has not changed much since those early years, many changes have subsequently occurred in education.  But it is on the shoulders of the many dedicated individuals in those early years that an important foundation was laid for the development of Milwaukee Public Schools.