Monday, August 8, 2016

Who Put the ‘Free’ in Elmira Free Academy?

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Why is there a ‘free’ in Elmira Free Academy? The short answer is because students could attend for free, but the longer answer is much more interesting. Settle in for the exciting history of education in early America!

The earliest schools in America were not public schools; they were private ‘dame’ schools. These dame schools were run by educated women (often widowed or unmarried) and hosted within their homes. The curriculum focused on the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even after public schools began appearing in the late 1790s, dame schools remained popular. As late as the 1840s, there were dozens of dame schools in Elmira alone.  Several even lasted until the turn of the century. Some of the more famous area teachers from this period include Eliza Hills, Miss Chalmers, Clarissa Thurston, and the Cleves sisters.
In 1795, New York State established a fund to support a system of common schools. By 1814, every county in the state was home to dozens of tiny school districts with a one-room school house funded by a mix of state aid and local property taxes. The problem was that, like today, no one actually liked paying those property taxes and so voters kept them really, really low.  In order to make up the difference between income and expenses, students were charged tuition. This meant that poorer children could simply not afford to attend school.

Old Time-y school house, ca. 1800
Both the dame schools and the common schools taught only the basics. If you wanted to learn more, you attended a private ‘academy’ or ‘seminary’.  By the 1850s, there were 165 private academies throughout the state.  Elmira was home to the Elmira Academy.  The Academy was a boarding and day school which accepted both male and female students from throughout the Twin Tiers.  Courses included English, French, German, Greek, Latin, advanced mathematics, astronomy, botany, history, geography, logic, rhetoric, surveying, book keeping, philosophy, chemistry, agricultural chemistry, science of government, art, and music.  Tuition ranged from $200 to $400 per term (depending on course of study) with an additional $200 or so dollars for boarding. Elmira’s best families educated their children there, but most couldn’t afford it.
Elmira Academy student literary magazine, 1848
In 1859, voters in the city of Elmira established the Elmira School District.  It was a consolidation of 5 existing common school districts and was the first in the county to offer a truly free public education.  At the time, there were 700 students enrolled in Elmira’s public schools, while 1,000 attended private schools. The vast majority of school-age children didn’t attend school at all. In addition to operating 5 grammar schools, the city also established Elmira Free Academy as a cheaper (free!) alternative to the Elmira Academy.  For the first time, Elmira’s working class families could actually afford to give their kids a decent education! 

Original EFA building, 1861


  1. Wow, its incredible to know that we had so many different types of schools back in the day compared to what we know of today, I remember way back when I was in grade school visiting a one room school house in Montour Falls NY which still stands today, and how it was run

  2. How wonderful it must have been to find out that you could send your children to school for free. Teaching them to read would open the world up for them. Something we should reflect on today that this wasn't always available to us.

  3. Great history. Nice to know how thing like schools got started

  4. I was told by my Father that when Elmira Academy became free, an aunt moved from the countryside to an area near the school, so related children, could move in with her and attend the school.