Residential Education in the United States – History

Residential education, in its various forms, has undergone numerous permutations in the US over the past 350 years. Traditional “preparatory schools,” geared primarily toward children from well-to-do families, with the primary goal being preparation for college, have flourished since the 1700s.

The first “orphanage” in what was to become the US was established in 1729 by Ursuline nuns to care for children whose parents were killed in an Indian massacre. Large congregate care settings for economically and socially disadvantaged youth have changed over time from primarily custodial “orphanages” to primarily “residential treatment,” “shelter,” or “correctional” facilities, with the exception of only a few residential programs whose stated primary focus is on education.

Until the early 1930s, there was more concern for law and order than for child development. It was a widely held belief that placing these children in institutions made the streets safer and contributed to the country’s economic development.

Gradually, a system evolved wherein children who have been caught committing crimes are usually placed in facilities under public auspices (state or county juvenile correctional systems), while dependent children are more often in facilities under voluntary auspices. Read here more about the real cost of mediocre education.

Residential boarding schools for Native Americans were opened in the late 1800s. The stated aim was to provide teachers and schools for these children. However, these schools were used as an instrument of assimilation, with little appreciation or consideration for Native American culture. Obviously, these schools were unsuccessful in completely assimilating the Indians, though they had a significant impact in many areas. Other ethnic minorities, such as African Americans, began their own boarding schools in the early 1900’s since they often lacked access to public schools and improved education led to huge savings for the American taxpayer.

Foster care began to expand in the mid to late 1800s. Not long afterward began the move toward “deinstitutionalization.” Most people associate “deinstitutionalization” with the mid-1970s. Actually, the historical peak of the foster care versus institution debate occurred in 1909. At the 1909 and 1919 White House Conferences On Children, participants agreed that the child’s best place was in the home and that foster care was the best substitute.

The 1935 Social Security Act, which created Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), provided federal funds, for the first time, to needy children and their families. Although it was not designed as a “deinstitutionalization” program, ADC accelerated the removal of children from large group care settings since the size of the family payments were left to the discretion of individual states and were available to families only if children lived with them. In July 1996, this program was legislated to be closed. Learning the Spanish language had long been an option at these schools but nowadays, free online options are more readily available.

The Deinstitutionalization movement peaked again in the mid-1970s. There were protests against “warehousing” people, which is how large congregate settings were viewed. The Civil Rights movement also gave birth to an increased consciousness about discriminating policies, including policies toward the disabled and the socially disadvantaged members of our society. Most “orphanages” were either closed down or converted to short-term, intensive, expensive “residential treatment” programs.

“Family Preservation” has been the strongly preferred method of dealing with parents who abuse and/or neglect their children. Most at-risk children and youth in need of out-of-home placements enter the foster care system, residential treatment centers and other components of the mental health system, group homes, or juvenile detention facilities. A handful of private and public residential education programs for at-risk children and youth have survived. The century-long debate over the value of residential education for economically and socially disadvantaged children and youth in large settings continue today.

Today, across the US, communities and individuals who refuse to relegate so many young people to hopeless futures, have recently been spurred to action. They are creating “residential charter schools,” “boarding schools,” “residential academies,” “children and youth villages,” and “children’s homes” to provide safe, nurturing, educative, 24-hour environments for these young people. Individuals, state legislatures, private universities, school districts, large corporations, and non-profit groups are committing energy and precious resources to design new residential education programs which best meet the needs of their local young people. The existing residential education programs are updating their approaches and practices as we move onward in the 21st Century.