By Kathy Kullberg
Children's education has always been one of the top priorities of Minneapolis beginning with the early founders of the new community of St. Anthony in 1848. As the population rapidly increased, so did the urgency to provide more schools and a standard curriculum for its next generation. However, it was not until 1896 that education for the very young — under 5 years old — found a champion in Stella Louise Wood. Young children stayed at home and did not begin their formal schooling until the first grade.
As the city expanded across the Mississippi into Minneapolis, there was no provision for educating the very young until a small group of "public spirited" citizens organized the Minneapolis Kindergarten Association in 1892. The main objective was to promote and make the European concept of "kindergartens," developed by German Fredrick Froebel, part of the public school system. Although the general public embraced the idea and donated large contributions, the first kindergarten was actually opened at the Gethsemane Episcopal Church in downtown Minneapolis. No formalized training for teachers, however, was in place.
In 1896, a turn of events selected Stella Louise Wood to replace Jean MacArthur, who had begun the basic teacher training school in Gethsemane a few years earlier. Chicagoan Stella Wood had championed the cause of the youngster and devoted her lifetime to ensuring that specialized teachers were available. Her first school had 15 student teachers in all as entrance requirements were stringent. Young lady applicants had to be at least 18 years old, graduated high school, possess considerable musical proficiency and "carry a tune correctly" as well as play the piano. Woods was especially devoted to serving the underprivileged poor and immigrant populations of the city.
Stella Louise Wood was born in Chicago on Sept. 2, 1865. Looking for a career choice that matched her spirit, in 1893, Stella graduated from Alice Putnam's training school in the slums of Chicago which shaped her ideals for the rest of her life. After further education in Muskegon College and a year in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1896, she was called to become the superintendent of the fledgling Minneapolis Kindergarten Association by Mrs. Clara Ueland, a board member and later president of the Minnesota Suffrage association.
Uniquely, her own school was one where Stella felt free to welcome qualified women students from all minority races. From the beginning, she impressed upon her students the "necessity of ridding themselves of race prejudice." Her grandfather had been an ardent abolitionist, spiriting many a brave soul from his Chicago "underground station" to boats in Detroit and Canada.
Stella, though loving her Chicago job had come to the conclusion that she would rather "teach in a charity kindergarten than in a private school" for the wealthy. Grubby dirty hands would be washed once the tenement children got to school. They would be fed and allowed the freedom to be children and not become street urchins. What the children learned and did away from home was taken back home and shared with their families, inducing improvements in the conditions at home.
She felt that "good morals, good citizenship and democratic ideals could be taught most effectively in the kindergarten, along with the ability to speak English. Best of all, the genuine friendliness of the kindergarten teacher was able to win the confidence of the mothers and open the way for her to help the family adapt to American ways of life."
The Wood’s school was so successful that by 1919, the increase in enrollment necessitated a move to Lowry Hill East. The home housing Miss Sterrett's kindergarten and nursery school located at 2017 Bryant Avenue South offered a shared compatible space for both schools. Although the house itself had no formal large auditorium space, the basement and gymnasium of St. Paul's Episcopal Church next door were used daily. For young ladies coming from out of state to attend the school accommodations were found in the houses and mansions located near the school. Many a family in Lowry Hill and Lowry Hill East enjoyed the opportunity to share space with a prestigious Miss Wood’s student.
Miss Wood's School motto and logo was based on a six-pointed star intertwining the words heart, God, hand, nature, head and man. The intense two-year curriculum was designed to offer the student teacher theoretical and practical training in all the sciences and arts for teaching young children. Most often, it was not just the young who were being educated but in a round-about way, also their parents and siblings.
Over the course of the first year, there were classes in psychology, childhood education, English composition, penmanship, nature study, infant and maternal hygiene, physical training and folk dances, games, music, vocal training, art appreciation and drawing. Students visited welfare clinics, juvenile court sessions, children's home societies as well as cultural events. The second year was devoted to student teaching in a demonstration kindergarten as well as expanded site visits to various industries and cultural activities.
One of the early demonstration schools for student teachers was the North East Neighborhood Kindergarten School established in 1914 as a Settlement House in Northeast Minneapolis.
After World War I, the introduction of kindergartens into public school systems increased the number of positions for paid assistant teachers. Student enrollment dramatically increased in Miss Wood's School. A local magazine article in 1928 noted students came to Minneapolis from Maine to Montana, Canada to Mississippi "attracted by the prestige with which a graduate of Miss Wood's School enjoy." To be a "Miss Wood Girl" was an enviable designation and highly sought after. Faculty at this time consisted of 19 men and women, and students numbered 180.
By 1948, two major events precipitated the closing of the Wood’s school on Bryant. The little school on Bryant could not keep up with the demand for quality teachers, and Stella’s health was failing. Miss Wood's School became affiliated with Macalester College in St. Paul that year and eventually became part of the department of education. The curriculum then was expanded into a full four-year course qualifying graduates to teach kindergarten through the third grade.
Miss Stella Woods retired in September of 1948 and moved to Chicago to be near her brother. By then, her legendary school had graduated over 3,000 pupils, many teaching in 32 states, South Africa and Panama.
Stella Wood died on Feb. 12, 1949, in River Forest, Illinois at the age of 83, ending a career
of more than 50 years of outstanding dedication and teaching but leaving a high-water mark for the future of education.
Kathy Kullberg is a Wedge resident and historian.