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Gary Schools

The Gary, Indiana, public schools, founded in 1906, were developed by Superintendent William A. Wirt from 1907 to 1938 and quickly expanded into an illustrious example of Progressive education through the 1920s. Born on a farm in eastern Indiana in 1874, Wirt attended nearby Bluffton High School, graduated from DePauw University, and returned to Bluffton as school superintendent in 1899. His school innovations, particularly a more diversified elementary curriculum and flexible schedule, as well as improved facilities, paved the way for his selection as Gary's first professional superintendent. Founded by U.S. Steel Corporation in 1906, Gary grew quickly and attracted a heterogeneous population. Heavily influenced by the ideas of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey, as well as his own rural, Protestant background, Wirt believed that public schools should provide salvation for the children as well as the community.

The Gary Plan, Work-Study-Play, or Platoon School Plan, as it was variously known, focused on establishing two central characteristics in the elementary grades. First, because of a concern for efficiency, Wirt believed in maximizing school facilities by constant use of all classrooms, including nights (for adults), weekends, and summers. Second, he expanded the curriculum to include manual training (numerous shops for the boys and cooking for the girls, for example), recreation, nature study, daily auditorium activities (including public speaking, music lessons, and movies), and other subjects beyond traditional academic concerns. The plan theoretically organized students into two platoons. During the morning, Platoon A students occupied the specialized academic classrooms (mathematics, science, English, history, etc.), while Platoon B students were in the auditorium, shops, gardens, swimming pools, gym, or playground. They switched facilities during the afternoon. The students, busy every day, were supposed to develop their mental, social, cultural, and physical abilities. Gary's large schools, first Emerson, then Froebel, and a few others built in the 1920s and 1930s, were unique because they were unit schools including all grades, K–12, which allowed for a more efficient use of space and building funds. By the late 1920s about half of the system's 22,000 students were attending such schools, with the remainder in the smaller elementary buildings.

The Gary Plan, highly developed by World War I, quickly attracted national publicity because of its apparent efficiency and diversified curriculum. By 1929, now promoted by the National Association for the Study of the Platoon or Work-Study-Play School Organization, 202 cities had over 1,000 platoon schools. It also generated much controversy, with New York City, for example, rejecting it in 1917 after a three-year experiment. While the Gary schools, in many ways, captured the positive spirit of Progressive education, they also incorporated some troubling aspects. There was the perception in New York and elsewhere that the inclusion of manual training classes was designed to channel the working classes (the majority of Gary's students) into vocational trades; while the high school enrollment increased, most students did not graduate. The schools were also racially segregated, closely following the northern urban model. The 2,759 black children in 1930 mostly attended all-black elementary schools or the integrated (but internally segregated) Froebel School. The situation worsened as black enrollment increased to 6,700 by 1949 (34% of the student population), despite the school board's attempt in 1946 to promote building integration. By 1960, 97 percent of the 23,055 black pupils (over half of the 41,000 students) were in eighteen predominantly or exclusively black schools, with primarily black teachers and administrators, and the trend would continue as the black population increased and the white population decreased over the following decades.

The Gary work-study-play schools barely survived the depression years, when budgets were severely cut (and most platoon schools were abandoned throughout the country), and then Wirt's death came in 1938. Following an external study in 1940, which recommended dismantling the system, now considered old-fashioned and academically weak, the Gary schools began the slow process, not completed until the 1960s, of instituting the contained classroom, single-teacher model in the elementary grades (which were separate from the eight high schools by 1960). For the remainder of the century, with the mass exodus of whites, along with much of the business community, Gary's troubled schools managed to survive. They had long since lost their progressive luster, as the 25,000 African-American students (there were few others by 1990) from struggling families, an aging teacher corps, and shrinking federal dollars meant that the schools faced numerous problems into the foreseeable future.


CASE, ROSCOE D. 1931. The Platoon School in America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

COHEN, RONALD D. 1990. Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana, 1906–1960. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

COHEN, RONALD D., and MOHL, RAYMOND A. 1979. The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.


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