Breed Street School in Boyle Heights might just be the oldest continuously operating elementary school in the city of Los Angeles. The school began sometime in the 1870s as simply Boyle Heights School, though there isn’t much information out there about those early days.
An 1880 history of Los Angeles County, for example, merely noted that “Boyle Heights has but one school and one department,” this latter meaning there were no divisons and all grade levels were located in a single classroom with one teacher.
In June 1883, the fledgling Los Angeles Times devoted significant space to the end of school year activities among the city’s public schools, but noted that none of the reporting staff attended the festivities at the Boyle Heights School.
Then again, Boyle Heights was something of a struggling community in its first decade, from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, as the Los Angeles region was mired in a long-term economic downturn. It was not until a direct transcontinental railroad route was built to Los Angeles in 1885 that a massive growth and development boom, usually called The Boom of the Eighties, ensued and transformed the fortunes of the region and the Boyle Heights community.
One sign of the dramatic change was that, in the 1880 history, the census of school children in the town’s public school numbered 1,299. An 1889 history of the county, written just as the boom was becoming a bust, indicated that the number of students was 10,970, a staggering level of growth in under ten years.
As for the Boyle Heights School, it was during the growth boom that a name change was decided upon. The Times of 2 March 1888 reported that city schools superintendent William M. Friesner recommended a name change for five schools, including that of “Boyle Heights school to Breed-street school.” There was no explanation exactly for why, though it can be assumed that the burgeoning population would soon require more than one elementary school in the neighborhood, so having one of them be designated as “Boyle Heights School” might have been seen as misleading or confusing.
In any case, Breed Street School took its new name, but soon was embroiled in a substantial controversy, some of which might ring true today. Specifically in 1890, the city school board decided to divert money intended for Breed Street School and a proposed school at Euclid Heights (a recently-laid out subdivision south of 4th Street, north of Whittier Boulevard, east of Mott Street and west of Lorena Street) to other purposes.
A circular was distributed within Boyle Heights calling for a meeting on 9 July at a hall at the corner of First and Chicago streets to protest the school board’s decision and crying out, “Come out, citizens, and demand our rights!” The meeting, held in the half-full venue, included a lengthy explanation by one of the school board members, E. E. Powers, who claimed that he implored his fellow members to resist diverting the funds and went to Los Angeles city council member Robert Wirsching, whose Boyle Heights residence has been profiled here previously, for his assistance. Wirsching tried to get the council to review the matter, but it refused as not being within its purview.
The issue was that the $6,000 that was appropriated for Breed Street School was for its expansion to an eight-room, from four rooms, building because of the tremendous growth of the student population in Boyle Heights due to the land boom.
Judge R.H.F. Variel, a leading citizen of the neighborhood and the president of the meeting, lambasted the city’s schools as being poorly funded and managed and noted that Breed Street School actually had to have two separate blocs of children during the day because of overcrowding. He went on to lament that, “In Boyle Heights, there are nothing but country schools” composed of four small, inadequate school buildings not suitable for the rapidly-growing city.
Nothing that citizens in Boyle Heights voted for a citywide school bond issue to pay for improvements, including that for Breed Street, Judge Variel opined that it was illegal for the school board to take funds appropriated by an election and use them elsewhere and that he would donate his legal services to fight the decision.
William H. Workman, founder of Boyle Heights in the mid-1870s and who recently completed a two-year term as mayor of Los Angeles during its boom years of 1886-1888, expressed “that a gross outrage had been committed” and that the board could not take money and “put it in a portion of the city where there are no children,” though the board likely would claim it was planning for future expansion in doing so.
Moreover, when Powers tried again to explain that he’d done his best to advocate for Breed Street School, Workman responded, “then you should have voted no with Brother Whaling,” which rejoinder engendered “great applause and laughter.” Whaling and Powers then had a spat about who was advocating for the school before a committee was elected to draft a resolution for presentation to the school board.
The six-member committee, headed by Workman and including Variel, met immediately after the conclusion of the confab and issued its resolutions, stating that the school board had actually received a proposal, when bids were opened publicly, to erect the four-room addition for $4700, 25% less than the appropriated sum. It also echoed Variel’s complaint that students had been attending half-day sessions for two years because of insufficient space and growing numbers. Additionally, the resolutions reiterated support for $3,000 for the Euclid Heights school.
Calling the diversion “unjust, illegal and exasperating,” the committee, “resolved that we do most earnestly protest against the wrong about to be perpetrated upon us, and that we will resist these official acts of injustice until the bitter end.” The committee then ordered its resolutions sent to the Board of Education, the City Council and Workman’s successor as mayor, Henry T. Hazard.
In September 1890, the Times printed a letter from “A Boyle Heights Mother,” who expressed her concern about a rumored alternative plan to deal with overcrowding at Breed Street School. Namely, this was to be a division of grades with a single room, rather than adding rooms to allow for a grading of the student population by room.. In other words, for each four-room school, there would be four teachers and in each room would be two grades, to account for the first through eighth grades.
“A Boyle Heights Mother” protested that “it would be a libel on the poorest of the country schools of northern California to say that they are so poor and inadequate as this proposed system will be.” Shrewdly, the writer pointed out that, ” when the Chamber of Commerce advertises the resources and advantages of southern California, let it be well guarded in its utterances, and say nothing about the public school facilities of Los Angeles.”
Further, she continued, if the rumored plan was substantially true, “let our schools rather remain as they have been, that we may reap the greater benefit of half-day sessions, with one grade of two divisons for each teacher.”
All the lobbying, protesting and resolutions appear to have had the desired effect. For the 1891-92 school year, the Times noted in its 4 October edition, “at the Breed-street school the recent addition of four rooms and a kindergarten, will provide for at least 250 more students than formerly.” It was fortunate that this work was completed then, because, in 1893, a major national economic depression erupted and, meanwhile, southern California was ensnared in six years of drought during the decade, further worsening the financial picture. There may not have been money available to do the enlargement of Breed Street School two, four or eight years later.
Meanwhile, the photograph is a cabinet card, with the image pasted-down onto a yellow board. In ink at the top margin is an inscription identifying the school, year and the photographer as Oscar Shaw. There was a house carpenter and builder of that name who lived on City View Avenue west of Soto during the 1890s and then at addresses above what is now the 10 Freeway near USC-County Medical Center, including on North Soto until the 1920s.
Shaw had a few children old enough to attend Breed Street School in 1891, so it may be that he was an amateur photographer documenting the first day of school in the newly-enlarged building that came about as a result of the battles described above–though there is no way to verify this guess.