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Records Relating to Department of Education | State Archives Catalog

Though state founder Roger Williams was a teacher to many, the colony of Rhode Island never established a system of common schools. Newport was the first town to try having a public school. But schools there came in fits and starts. As early as 1640, there was some mention of schooling. And as early as 1685, there was talk of a school building. But this building had fallen down by 1700, and it took until 1739 to finish erecting a new school — which was then destroyed by fire in 1774. For 50 years after the fire, no physical school existed in Newport.

Providence was even slower to take to the idea of public education. In 1663, the State General Assembly authorized a grant of land for a school. But as of 1725, there was simply a classroom held at the State House, while no free schooling throughout Providence existed. In 1768, the city held a vote on instituting free public schools, but the proposal was defeated. Over 120 years after Massachusetts had compelled towns to provide free taxpayer-funded public schooling; such a school system was voted down in Providence. Meanwhile, in Barrington — which was then part of Swansea, Mass. — a free school was established in 1673.

In the end, it was not until 1828 that a free system of public education came to Providence.  Providence civic leader John Howland established a system of free public education by means of the School Act in 1828. During the 1830s and 1840s, that system grew and prospered, especially in Providence, owing to the exertions of Samuel Bridgham, Nathan Bishop, and Thomas Wilson Dorr. Education specialist Henry Barnard was recruited as the first state commissioner of education until 1849, with the aim of bringing the other towns to the high educational level which had been achieved by Providence. Barnard observed that "the city of Providence has already gained to itself an extended reputation and made itself a bright example to many other cities."  In 1883 Rhode Island instituted a statewide free and compulsory education.

Portions excerpted from:

History matters for Rhode Island education by Daniel Carrigg published in the Brown Daily Herald

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