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Night School in Exeter

In 1907, the Exeter school board reported that of the 1028 children registered for classes, 194 were born in another country.  As with most immigrant children, they assimilated quickly, learning English in school and absorbing their new culture with ease.  Their parents, like most immigrant parents, found the transition much more difficult and there was little in Exeter to help them along.

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The great surge in immigration to the United States began in the late 1800s.  Exeter had already seen a rise in immigration from Ireland and Quebec earlier in the century, but by 1890 immigrants began to arrive in larger numbers from Poland, Lithuania and Germany,  attracted by factory jobs at the Exeter Manufacturing Company, Gale Shoe Shop and Exeter Machine Works.

Then, as now, a sizeable immigrant population brought mixed feelings to the local townspeople.  Their labor was welcome, but their native customs seemed odd and their ability to speak a different language was somehow threatening.  Just who were these new people and what where they talking about?  In a small town society where everyone knew everyone else's business, a culturally different subgroup seemed almost secretive.  The obvious solution was to make sure everyone spoke the same language.

First generation immigrants frequently have a hard time learning a new language - as most of us English speakers would if we were suddenly dropped into downtown Tokyo.  The linguistic pattern of immigration hasn't changed over the course of US history - parents speak their native language well and English poorly, their children are comfortably bi-lingual and the grandchildren speak only English.

The 1890s was also the height of the Gilded Age in America - the age when powerful wealthy industrialists ruled through corruption and machine politics.  The Progressive movement grew out of discontent with this system and the primary solution to the evils of the machine was education.  Literate educated voters would not easily fall prey to corrupt voting schemes.  But providing education for adults was difficult.  Local school boards refused to pay for adult education and the average factory laborer found it hard to find the money and time to attend.

In large cities, the Progressives created Settlement Houses: community centers where laborers could drop in for information regarding citizenship, hygiene, and American culture in general.  These were financed entirely by private donations.  Exeter was too small for any such institution, but the idea of educating working people through philanthropy was very much alive.

The influx of non-English speakers inspired Rosa Akerman of Exeter to open an evening school targeted toward this new population.  Akerman, a widowed former teacher, volunteered her time and sought donations from the community.  She opened her school in the fall of 1892 in the Red Men's lodge hall in the Merrill Block on Water Street.  Her first class consisted of 16 men and boys - all eager to improve their English.  They paid five cents per class, which was a considerable expense to people earning only a few dollars a week.  Mrs. Akerman quickly sought out donations from the public.

Her classes were a great success, but after a few terms public support waned and there were no longer enough donations to pay for a place to meet.  By 1900, Akerman's school had disbanded.

The idea revived in 1917.  This time, the town was willing to oversee the project.  The School Report of 1917 read, "The Evening School, formerly managed and taught by public-spirited citizens, was revived this winter by a joint committee of the Woman's Club and the Civic Club."  The local school district oversaw the school, but no local appropriations were made to support it. Over 85 people signed up to take classes in basic English ("English for Foreigners" as Helen Tufts, one of the instructors, called it), arithmetic, algebra, book-keeping, stenography, fancy needle work, woodworking, mechanical drawing, and sewing.  The most popular classes, by far, were those for improving English language skills.

Spurred on by the patriotism of the First World War, the school flourished for a few years. School Superintendent, Maro Brooks, served on the New Hampshire Committee on Americanization and he convinced the School Board to extend the committee's goals to the town.  Immigrant organizations, particularly the Polish Citizens Club, encouraged its members to work toward citizenship.  But the unfunded nature of the school and the early arrival of the economic depression in the 1920s ended the school's existence.  A frustrated Superintendent Brooks sadly noted in his 1920 report, "The State Board of Education charges superintendents and School Boards with the welfare of Americanization.  For us in Exeter a community spirit is growing, and it is hoped that by a pooling of all local efforts along this line, we may do our full share."

Immigration fell off in the following decade. Exeter's Evening School dissolved for nearly ten years before transforming into the adult education system we still have today.