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Settlement Schools of Appalachia

The Appalachian
Settlement Schools

They began almost a century ago, born of a convergence of influences including national social reform, growing ranks of idealistic young college-educated women who wanted to teach others, civic-minded women’s organizations, and an expressed desire from mountain people for an education for their children.

They were Appalachia’s settlement schools, progressive both in their approach to curriculum and in the way they chose to interact with the communities they served. Many had their beginnings in the very early 1900s, their founders modeling them on the urban social settlements in America’s larger cities, like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, and to a lesser degree on the industrial schools more prevalent in the South. They de-emphasized grades, putting much more importance on character development, like many other progressive institutions of the time. Their curricula evolved over time; and as enrollment grew, they developed programs for primary grades through high school.

Among the excellent examples of the settlement schools are two still operating in Eastern Kentucky: Hindman Settlement School, established in 1902 in Knott County, and Pine Mountain Settlement School, founded in 1913 in Harlan County. Other well-known settlement schools in Kentucky included two in Knott County—Caney Creek School (now Alice Lloyd College), which started in 1916 and operated under the masterful hand of Alice Lloyd until late 1960, and Lotts Creek Community School, which opened in 1933. In Bell County, the Henderson Settlement School and Redbird Mission School opened in the 1920s. And in Letcher County, Stuart Robinson School began at Blackey in 1913 and was followed by Kingdom Come School in 1924.

The schools were started, staffed, and managed almost entirely by “fotched-on” young women who came from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky and from New England. “Fotched-on” was the term local people used to describe these women who had been “fetched” from outside the area to come and teach.

Under the leadership and influence of women like Katherine Pettit, May Stone, Ethel de Long Zande, and Elizabeth Watts, these schools not only provided an education for students, which was their basic purpose, but also became community centers for geographically isolated settlements. They built extensive campuses, including dormitories for boarding many of their students, grew much of their own food, and made practically all of their own furniture. Within a few decades after opening, settlement schools were involved in growing crops; establishing and running health clinics; making, promoting, and selling local arts and crafts; running cooperative stores; and collecting local music and stories.

One of the guiding concepts behind the schools was a belief in the importance of educating the whole child. Class schedules and work programs reflected the schools’ dual emphasis on a core academic curriculum and on extending learning well beyond the classroom walls. Time was set aside for teaching such skills as sewing, cooking, weaving, agriculture, furniture making, and forestry.

The pursuit of Christian ideals also figured prominently in the operation of the schools. Although Hindman Settlement School and Pine Mountain Settlement School were nondenominational—unlike the scores of mission schools that appeared throughout Appalachia at the same time—they did hold Sunday School classes, teach religious and temperance songs, sing grace at mealtime, and set aside devotional time for students. Discipline usually took the form of encouraging proper behavior and responsibility, with every effort made to keep the students in school.

Historians and scholars agree that the settlement schools and the services they provided were strong influences on the people and culture of their communities, though some disagree on whether that influence was entirely for the best. But among alumni, there seems to be no debate. Loyal and vocal supporters, they speak of their times at the settlement schools as some of the best and most important of their lives.

—Harry Hinkle


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