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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

First Day of School - The Norton Sisters’ Kindergarten

First Day of School - The Norton Sisters' Kindergarten
by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian


The concept of an “infant school” as a separate learning environment for pre-school children goes back to 1779 in Strasbourg, Austria. The idea was refined, and by 1820 there were several infant schools in Europe. German scholars experimented and renamed the concept “Kindergarten” which is German for “children’s garden” in 1840. Women were trained under this model and opened kindergartens throughout Europe. The first Kindergarten in the United States opened in Watertown, Wisconsin in 1856.

Young educator Miss Mary Emily Norton taught at Elmira’s Diven School around 1880. She was a forward thinker and knew what was happening in the German education system.

Mary Emily quit her position at Diven School and went to New York City to study this “kindergarten” idea and how she could implement it in Elmira.

She came back to Elmira in September 1885 armed with ideas of blocks, paints and crayons, scissors and paper, and the knowledge that she learned while in New York City.

She figured out which local parents had children of the right age and sent them letters that read, “Miss Mary Emily Norton begs to announce that her Kindergarten School will open Jan. 4, 1886 at the residence of Mr. H. S. Redfield, corner of Park Place and Fifth St.” The Norton Kindergarten took students as far as the second grade if parents desired.

Twenty mothers quickly signed up their children. On the first day of school there were three teachers – Miss Mary Emily, her sister Miss Frances Norton, and Fräulein Theodor.

The curriculum included music, reading, writing, art, and lessons in the German language by Fräulein Theodor. Outdoor excursions were frequent to Grove Park and Rorick’s Glen to study nature.

And, of course, children with birthdays were a wonderful excuse to eat ice cream and cake. According to the June 27, 1939 Star-Gazette, “Misses Nortons’ pupils had fun while they learned amicable group cooperation with a minimum of disciplinary coercion.” The Norton philosophy was “Let the children express themselves as they will. Children are individuals and should not be regimented.”

In 1889, the school moved to its permanent location of 226 West Second Street (now in the parking lot of today’s Weis Market). Miss Mary Emily kept a diary of the happenings at her school. She recorded the names of new students including some as young as three years old. She had several mute students, and eventually had a Chinese student named Hugh King Lee who started at age 13. Hugh was privately tutored by Miss Mary Emily, and he went on to graduate from Yale University.

In 1894, Miss Frances Norton followed in her sister’s footsteps, and enrolled at the Buffalo Kindergarten Training Center’s two year program. She returned to Elmira in 1896 and took over the kindergarten activities, while Miss Mary Emily concentrated on the first grade. In 1907, Miss Frances was persuaded by Mrs. J. Sloat Fassett to start a kindergarten program for Elmira’s city school system. She stayed for nine years, but then returned to her sister’s school. Faculty at the Norton school varied from year to year, and included Miss Eleanor Magee, Miss Mildred Ellis, Miss Ruth Hardy, Miss Wood, Miss Ernestine French, Fritz Duhl, and Professor John Bostleman.

Miss Mary Emily died in 1924, and Miss Frances continued until ill health forced her to quit in 1929. The house reverted to being a residence for the Nortons’ niece Mary Price.

More than 500 Elmira scholars graduated from this little school.

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