LOCAL HISTORY PUBLIC EDUCATION
During the Revolutionary war (1783), the Presbyterian Academy was established and continued to operate as a church-sponsored school until about 1820. At that time the town committee applied to the church trustees for the erection of a new building to be used during the week as a day school and on Sunday for church purposes. Accordingly some years later the old Academy was taken down and a new one built [1856 for west-side and 1934 for east-side of twin building on High St.]. By a complicated arrangement between the school and church trustees, the Allentown Academy was in operation as a “Public School” for approximately 50 years.
In 1829 the Common School Act was created, New Jersey’s first comprehensive school law. It provided for an annual appropriation from the income of the school fund, established in 1817, to be divided among the counties and townships in proportion to taxes paid. Townships were empowered to choose school committees, which were to establish school districts and examine/license teachers. Each district was to elect three trustees to determine the school year, employ only licensed teachers and make out the school enrollment for township committee. The latter had to divide the school money according to the number of children, examine the schools at least twice a year and make an annual report of the condition for the town meeting.
There is on file in handwritten form, the “Record of the School Committee and Town Superintendent of Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey.” This book commences in 1846 and ends in 1857. Throughout this time, Ezekiel Combs was superintendent. He signed reports “Town Superintendent” but he actually was in charge of all nine districts and gave at least one full accounting a year to the three trustees of the School Committee. The first account gives much space to the exact boundaries of the districts, which were at that time: Allentown, Center, East Branch, Imlaystown, Coward, Cream Ridge, Ellisgrove, Pleasant Ridge and Sharon. Around 1850, according to Mr. Combs, Ellisgrove “being a denomination school and exclusive, would not receive me.” In 1851, Union was added and in 1852 East Windsor became the tenth district [there’s map of early boundaries at Town Library].
Mr. Combs gave very exact accounts and tried to be in full compliance with the Public School Act of 1820. He stated the teachers’ compensation was mostly $2.00 per quarter for each scholar by the day. At the Allentown Academy, however, they received $2.00 to $5.00 per quarter. He lists the number of pupils on the school register, the methods of teaching, the government (discipline) in the schools, the condition of the school houses, the books used, the payment of money, the number of visits he made and if the trustees visited the districts. Besides the usual subjects taught, also listed are astronomy, surveying, botany, bookkeeping, French and drawing. For these, the teachers received a greater rate.
But on the minus side, he said that “the teachers accomplished as much as possible but were hampered by the diversity of school books and differing degrees of attainment in students.” Also, pupils were irregular in their attendance because “parents and guardians still in many instances kept their children home to work.” In one instance, he said that “the children were turbulent and the rod had to be used.” In quaint language also he remarked that the school hours were usually “convenient and comfortable” but some were still too “small, odd and badly arranged.”
In one of his later reports in 1857, Mr. Combs seemed only somewhat pleased when he wrote: “Public appreciation of a good common school education has for several years past been gradually on the increase but there still seems a general reluctance to make any sacrifice in order to obtain the means for its accomplishment.”
Educators and many citizens still saw several defects in the State School Law of 1829. The worst was the division of state funds according to taxes, practically defeating the effort to establish schools in the backwards regions. This setup, weak and inefficient as it was, continued until 1871 when the free-school system was adopted by the state legislature. This new law greatly strengthened the public schools by substituting a reliable state tax for the township tax, which the annual town meetings used to reduce or abolish at will. It definitely forbade public aid to sectarian schools and compelled all townships to have a nine-month school term. It wisely prevented the multiplication of weak districts, a failing, which for years, had lamed the whole school system and enabled communities to offer free public education through the high school. The law was a sweeping triumph over localism, sectarianism and class distinctions in education, and brought New Jersey at least into the full current of the American public-school system.
In 1895 came the Township School Act consolidating all districts of the township into the large township district and then Allentown no longer was District No. 14 of the County of Monmouth, but School No. 1 of the Upper Freehold Township district. At this time the trustee system for the separate units was abolished and a Board of Education of nine members was established to handle the school affairs of Allentown and the Township.
This was a most successful arrangement for several years when new troubles appeared. According to the November 19, 1903 issue of the Allentown Messenger, Allentown because it was a borough (since April 2, 1889) must become a separate school district and have its school system apart from the township. This unhappy state of affairs was brought about because of a decision of the State Supreme Court. This, of course, caused the County Superintendent to appoint seven new members to the Town Board as Allentown only had two members from the town on the previous Board. Since seven made a quorum, the Township did not require any new appointments. However, neither Board was in favor of this new arrangement and knew that each could not possibly make out on its own. They had to become one to save unnecessary expense and to provide better educational facilities.
Fortunately, the law did state that future consolidation was possible and could be in the hands of the people. But having become separate, much discord arose among the inhabitants over the appointment of operating expenses in both districts. At one meeting it was reported in the Messenger that “if the Township desired it, it must then be contrary to the interests of the Borough!” But, after two rather bitter meetings, it was voted in a public election on February 26, 1904 to consolidate the two school districts, namely the Borough of Allentown and the Township of Upper Freehold. [The preceding from F. Dean Storm’s 1965 “History of the Allentown N. J.”]