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The Ideals And Methods Of Organizing Social Centers

There is great interest in the social-center movement all over the country just now, and a very rapid development is going on. In 1909 the University of Wisconsin employed Mr. Edward J. Ward of Rochester, N.Y., who had previously had charge of the social centers in that city, to organize social centers about the state of Wisconsin a task to which he has since devoted himself. In October, 1911, there was organized at Madison the Social-Center Association of America, of which Josiah Strong was elected president and Professor Ward secretary. State laws have been passed in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and a number of other states requiring school boards to open schoolhouses for social purposes whenever the public so desires. In the last presidential campaign the three candidates each indorsed the idea of this wider use of school buildings, and in Chicago, Rochester, and several other cities the schools were used for campaign speeches and in some for polling places as well. One of the most able addresses that were given at the formation of the association was made by Governor Wilson, so it would look as though the movement should receive all due official encouragement during the years that are upon us. It has the indorsement of the National Education Association and all prominent educators everywhere. The spread of the idea has been so quiet, and the recent developments have been so little re-ported, that it is almost impossible at the present time to tell how general it has become, but forty-seven cities with two hundred eighteen centers are reported in the Playground for January, 1913, and it is safe to say that a beginning has been made in nearly every city and county of the country. This beginning is often very feeble and inadequate, but it is a seed out of which may well grow a great movement. While perhaps it is possible to do the work best in connection with the church, wherever an adequate church which has the sup-port of the whole community can be found, there are few adequate churches with resident ministers in the country, and it is well-nigh impossible to have this development without this condition.

DIFFERENT AIMS IN SOCIAL-CENTER DEVELOPMENT

The term " social center" is used to describe three different types of activities, which are educational, social, and civic. The movement is developing along different lines in different localities. It lacks suitable equipment everywhere, and nowhere has a real community center yet appeared. In some places the activities are largely educational, with public lectures, classes in domestic economy, manual training, and gymnastics ; in others it is largely recreational, with singing, dramatics, games, and dancing ; while in yet others it is be-coming the civic forum for the meeting of various clubs and the discussion of public questions. New York took the lead in the beginning in developing the social center of the first two types. Rochester has been largely responsible for developing the social center of the civic type. This was similar to what parents' associations and School Improvement Associations had been doing in many places, but the movement took a new start with a new spirit of social equality at Rochester, and to Professor Forbes, the president of the school board, and to Professor Ward, the superintendent of the social centers, is due great credit for the developments both at Rochester and elsewhere. The Rochester type of social center comes the nearest to creating a real community center of all the social centers thus far attempted, and it has also within itself the machinery that is necessary to reform politics and improve the community, which the other forms of social centers have <> not. Under the New York ideals the social centers are carried on by the Board of Education ; under the Rochester ideal the social center becomes an expression of the people themselves.

METHODS OF ORGANIZATION THROUGH THE BOARD OF EDUCATION

As the social center is in most cases using the public schools and is often a real extension of the work of the schools to the community, it might seem that this is a work that belongs naturally to the school board, and it certainly should have their cooperation if the school board finds itself in the position to give it. The educational phases of the social center the classes, the lectures, the school exhibitions, and the library work should naturally be under the school authorities, and it is well for them to take the initiative in these matters whenever possible. But so far as possible the social and civic interests of the center should be democratic and managed by the people themselves. School boards often will not have the authority to initiate this work unless a special ordinance is passed conferring this right upon them, and they will seldom have the necessary money in the beginning. Hence, however properly this work might belong to the school board, in very many cases at least the first steps will have to be taken by private individuals who are interested.

THE SOCIAL-CENTER ASSOCIATION

It is highly important that the people should feel from the beginning that the social center belongs to them, as this will make it more popular and secure in its financial support. It is better to have the work initiated by the people of the community than to have it started by the school board or any less general agency. It is not at all difficult to begin the movement in this way. A public meeting should be called, and some one should be invited to give a talk on the social-center idea ; after that there should be discussion, and a social-center association or civic league should be formed, with a temporary constitution and officers, to hold over until a later meeting, when permanent officers can be elected and a permanent constitution adopted. It is best, as a rule, to have some small dues at first. It is through organizations such as this that most of the great social progress of the last two decades has been effected. In union, organization, there is strength. Twenty-five people who are in earnest and will work together can carry almost any movement against the indifference of twenty- . five thousand. If there are half a dozen people who are interested enough to call such a meeting, and a few more who are interested enough to attend, this is an effective and admirable way to make a beginning. It is wise to have the discussion somewhat arranged for beforehand, to have a provisional constitution ready, and to have looked over the field carefully for the provisional officers, who are likely to be the permanent officers. The writer recently organized such a social-center movement in a Michigan town of some seven hundred inhabitants. A public meeting was called with a popular lecture, and a civic league was formed with about forty members, who signed the slips that evening. The league maintains a class for civic discussions, which meets at noon on Sundays, a Sunday evening lecture course with civic lectures from the State University, the Agricultural College, the various state departments, and several local sources. It has a social evening once in two weeks. It has been organized only about three months, but it has already secured dental and medical inspection for the school children, a better set of films for the moving-picture show, a closer cooperation between the grange and the town and an organization of the Camp Fire Girls, and has started a movement for domestic economy and agriculture in the local high school.

However, the country is noted for its conservatism and lack of initiative in social affairs, and if all communities had to wait for the movement to start up in their midst, there are some that would have to wait a long time.

In the cities a large part of the social centers are operated by the various playground associations. The most expensive social-center buildings that have ever been constructed are the field houses in the Chicago playgrounds. The centers at Rochester were a part of the movement for general recreation and under the Superintendent of Playgrounds and Social Centers. In New York also the evening recreation centers are under the same superintendent as the school play-grounds. In most cities the social-center work is the winter work of the playgrounds. This enables them to hire their directors by the year and to maintain a continuous policy. However, there are no playground associations in the country, and it looks as though the social center would have to start the organized play, instead of the recreation movement organizing the social centers.

A PARENTS' ASSOCIATION

Wherever there is already a parents' association or a homeand-school league in the neighborhood, this offers one of the best means of getting started, as the league may take up the social-center work as one of its regular activities. They may be able to get the school board to make an appropriation for the sake of starting the movement, and they should always attempt to do this, even though it seems certain that the request will not be granted, as it helps to familiarize the board with the idea. If they are not able to secure an appropriation, it is best to raise a small amount by private subscription, and start the movement in a small way. Most people have great reluctance in asking others to contribute money to t public purposes, but it is not nearly so difficult to raise money as most people imagine. About all that is needed is the expectation of receiving what you ask for. There is a new spirit of giving in this country at the present time, and there are many people who are genuinely glad to give to a worthy cause.

A SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION

In nine of the Southern states the Southern Education Board is paying an organizer of school improvement associations. This work was begun in Maine some thirty years ago and was later taken up by the state of North Carolina. Professor Claxton, now Commissioner of Education, became interested in it, and through him it became one of the policies of the Southern Board to put such an organizer into the office of each Southern state superintendent of schools. This organizer goes about the state, usually with a stereopticon, and meets groups of parents who are called together by the county superintendents. She shows pictures of what other schools are doing, and suggests that they form a school improvement association which will meet at the school and work for the welfare of the school and neighborhood. These associations have been very effective in improving conditions at the schools and incidentally have organized the neighborhood to work for a public purpose. In Mississippi they usually meet once a month on Saturdays. The people bring a picnic lunch and spend the day or at least a half day. The work of the children is exhibited, and the deficiencies in the school equipment become evident. In the afternoon athletic contests are a feature. The Southern Board has done many good things that might well be copied by the North, and such an organizer might well be an assistant to every state superintendent in the country and paid from public funds. Superintendent Cook of Arkansas says that for every dollar that has gone into the salary of this person in his state there has come back to the state four hundred dollars in improved buildings and grounds alone. t is impossible to tell how much has come back in the way of a quickened social life and civic spirit. Investments that yield forty thousand per cent profit are worth trying. I believe this organizer of school improvements is an excellent agency for the initiation of this movement when outside assistance is necessary. Of course the social center will come in time without any systematic promotion from anybody, for the consciousness of the need is already upon us ; but it ought not to be necessary to wait for this idea to percolate down to each isolated board of education throughout the country, and those who take up new movements without expert assistance are apt to do the work badly and wastefully in the beginning. The social center is essential to the welfare of country life, and it redounds to the welfare of the school directly in bringing the parents and the teachers together. As the social centers are organized in most cases in connection with the public schools, and are, in part at least, an extension of public-school work, their promotion belongs naturally to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

THE STATE UNIVERSITY

It was stated at the organization of the Social-Center Association of America that six state universities had already employed social-center organizers. There is great interest in this subject in a number of states, and the rather general extension of this idea seems likely. State universities are coming to conceive of their function in terms of service such as was scarcely dreamed of a decade ago. The University of Wisconsin has led in this new conception of the university as the home of a body of specialists who would each endeavor not merely to serve the student body but to carry their message to the whole state. t has been rewarded by a phenomenal growth in numbers, in the loyalty of the citizens, and in large appropriations. It is a noble conception of the purpose and aim of the uni versity, and is one case where it has not been merely the home of " abandoned ideals." There are advantages in such organizing of this work, because these men can give courses at the university at the same time. Still there can be little doubt that the university is here usurping the function of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Practically, however, it may be quite possible for the university to get the money for such an expert, and it may not be at all possible for the State Superintendent to secure such an assistant; and the important thing is to have the work done.

THE AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE

In about half of the states the agricultural college is one of the professional schools of the state university. Where the schools are separate it may be that the starting of the rural social center falls more naturally to the lot of the agricultural college than to the university. Certainly the teaching of agriculture and domestic economy, and institutes for farmers and farm women, are likely to be among its largest functions. Nearly all the rural-life conferences that have been held in connection with the agricultural colleges have declared for the development of the social center in connection with the rural schools. Wherever the agricultural college has on its staff an instructor in rural sociology who can give some of his time to this work, it is certainly as appropriate for the agricultural college as for the state university to do it. The agricultural secretaries who have recently been appointed in so many counties are doing much in the forming of farmers' clubs with both a social and a business side.

A NORMAL SCHOOL

There are some cases where the students and professors have gone out from the normal schools to organize social centers in rural schools in the territory immediately adjacent to them. This is a piece of school missionary work such as we should naturally expect from the normal schools, and we may hope for a great extension along this line in the future. A number of normals are planning work of this character for the coming year.

It is evident from what has been said thus far that there is no lack of agencies through which social centers may be organized. If all of these agencies will work together, they ought to be able to accomplish much in a short time. From whatever source the social center is organized, it should be mainly self-directed after it is once started.

WHO SHOULD MANAGE THE SOCIAL CENTER

The classes, lectures, and the library will in general have to be paid for by the educational authorities and should be managed by them. The social and civic activities should be an expression of the life of the people and managed by them so far as possible.

There will have to be some person in general charge of the center, and this person should if possible be the principal of the consolidated school, if the school is the social center, or, better, the director of recreation for the township, if such a position can be created. This serves again to emphasize the point of view of Commissioner Claxton, that the rural teacher should be a fixture in the rural community, and that he should be furnished a house with a small farm in the immediate neighborhood of the school, in the same way that a preacher is furnished a parsonage. No social center will run itself, and there must be one or more persons who are always there and who are responsible for the discipline, the readiness of everything that is to be used, and the general program. If the principal does this work, he will have to be paid for it, as will also the teachers of classes, the lecturers, and the janitor. The social center will also increase the heating bill and the lighting bill, and naturally a primary question in regard to the social center is, How are these expenses to be met ?

FINANCING THE SOCIAL CENTER

Like all new movements the social center usually has to be begun by private initiative. This nearly always means three things : that the simplest and least expensive activities must be chosen ; that the workers must contribute their time or serve for very small compensation ; and that there must be some means of raising money. There are four ways of financing the social center : by membership dues in the social-center association by entertainments ; by the contributions of public-spirited people ; by public appropriations. Probably all of these means should be used at times. It is a good thing to have a small membership fee in the social-center association in any case, so that it may not be entirely dependent on public funds. It is more blessed to give than to receive, and giving increases the interest. There are now about fifty cities where the social centers are supported in whole or in part from public appropriations. For the most part, I believe the rural centers have been operated without any funds. The school authorities have contributed the building, and the performers have contributed the talent. However, the sort of social center which will really meet the need of a rural community cannot be so maintained ; it must have a regular appropriation from the school board or from some other public source, or a considerable budget must be raised from private subscriptions. As a public enterprise the social center which becomes the real community center of a township has unusual advantages. Its constituency are the voters of the township, and they can have anything they are willing to pay for unless the law forbids.

How MUCH TERRITORY SHOULD THE RURAL SOCIAL CENTER COVER?

So far as the social center is carried on under the school authorities, there are two possibilities ; either the school district or the township may be taken as the unit. But it is quite impossible for the single school district in most places to sup-port the variety of activities that are needed at a social center. It cannot maintain a library that is worth while, public lectures, a gymnasium, classes in domestic science and agriculture, the moving picture, and many other things that are needed to make the social center really attractive. The social center can be maintained at the one-room school, but its activities will naturally be very much restricted, by the lack of both equipment and numbers. It would appear that the consolidated school is still more necessary to the adults than it is to the children, and that the social needs of the community are the very strongest reasons that we have at present for consolidation, though the other reasons, arising from effectiveness in school work and economy of school administration, are entirely sufficient. Consolidation is already the accepted educational policy, and we may expect that the rapid development in this direction now going on in the most progressive states will soon reach the whole country. A village graded or high school will serve, but the consolidated school for the town-ship, with a township park and athletic ground around it, is the ideal social center for a rural community.

THE SOCIAL-CENTER BUILDING

The consolidated school should have both an auditorium and a gymnasium or hall ; but if it can have only one, it should always take the gymnasium, because the gymnasium can be seated as an auditorium whenever it is desired, and it can be used for dances, banquets, voting, and public meetings as well. t might well be the regular meeting place of the grange, the woman's club, or any other similar organizations. It would be well if there could be a small room for the care of the babies at the time of entertainments and one or more social rooms or parlors for small neighborhood meetings, gossip, etc. As this room might serve as the teachers' room as well, it would mean no considerable extra expense. As the gymnasium might also be the town hall, the polling place, and the grange hall, it would be a positive economy for a country neighborhood. Certainly the number of changes that are needed to adapt the ordinary consolidated school for a social center are not many or serious. The states of Washington, Minnesota, and North Dakota have recently passed laws giving special state aid to consolidated schools, but their number as compared with the one-room schools is still insignificant.

TAMALPAIS CENTER, CALIFORNIA

Tamalpais Center, a few miles out of San Francisco, was built by Mrs. A. E. Kent, the mother of Congressman Kent of California, as a contribution to the recreation problem for the country and country village. The ground given consists of twenty-nine acres of level land at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. It is a beautiful location, and there is a fine club building and a competent director. There is a playground for the children, with a lady director, several baseball diamonds and football fields, and space for athletic events. A speeding track for horse races surrounds the grounds. The field house is used for dances, social gatherings, literary and debating clubs, and public lectures. The popularity of this center increases continually, and it is expected that the community will soon assume the expense of its maintenance.

A number of other centers have been constructed in the country on a somewhat less ambitious scale than the center at Tamalpais. It is another phase of the Chicago question whether we shall use the schools for social centers or construct special centers in the parks. On the whole, the argument seems to rest with the schools, as the school center requires maintenance alone and has a far larger attendance. As the social center is one of the chief reasons for the consolidated school in most sections, it would be rather a pity to divide the argument by building a separate social center, though it is fine to have such an experiment to observe and study, for history sometimes confounds our fondest theories. All gratitude is due to Mrs. Kent for the demonstration. t is not necessary that the social-center activities should always be carried on in the same building. If there is a social center or civic organization that can stand behind the movement, the meetings may be held in such places as are available now in a village high school, now in a church, again in the grange hall or the opera house or a private home. There are certain kinds of activities that cannot of course be carried on through such a migratory center, but there are a large number that can, and if the movement were begun in this way, it would soon develop better facilities.

THE ONE-ROOM SCHOOL

Wherever it is necessary to carry on the social center at a one-room school, it will be an advantage if movable desks can be provided, so that the room can be seated for adults as well as for children, or cleared altogether for entertainments. If a new building is to be erected, it would be well for those who have the matter in charge to investigate the model country school which has been built by President Kirk of the State Normal School at Kirksville, Missouri, for the practice work of his rural teachers. This has been described in many articles, and President Kirk can furnish a detailed account of it on application. One of the features of this school building that fits it especially to be a social center is that the seats are not fastened to the floor but are on little platforms, so that they can be moved to one side and the room can be seated with folding chairs for adults or the floor cleared for dancing or games. A stereopticon fits into its own cabinet in the back of the room. A gasoline engine in the basement pumps water for the toilets and shower baths and generates the electricity to light the school building and the lantern.

The engine is operated by one of the older boys. In the attic of the school is a large cooking range, which is used for lessons in domestic science by the older girls, and which might be used equally well for afternoon teas by the woman's club.

A PRIVATE HOUSE

In rural communities there are certain very decided ad-vantages in an itinerant social center at the homes of the members. The house will usually have several usable rooms, so that the children, the young people, and the adults can each meet by themselves if it is desirable for them to meet separately. The home suggests visiting and social life, and where the numbers are small they will doubtless be much more comfortable in the homes than they will be in the one-room schoolhouse. This will tend to create a habit of visiting and friendliness at other times. Refreshments and music are also great promoters of sociability and acquaintance, and the home will usually have the facilities for these. The farmers' clubs in North Dakota, which are essentially itinerant social centers, are meeting thus in the homes. They have regular literary programs, debates, lectures, and a good time. Of course this is feasible only when the communities are small and scattered and the people are fairly well acquainted and friendly.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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