The American School - History

CHAPTER III: 1920 - 1925
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The American School, Inc.

  In March 1920, when two private schools for American children closed, there was an educational vacuum in Manila. British and American parents had to consider sending their children to boarding school, either to Baguio School (later Brent) or farther way, to their home countries. The one possibility in Manila was Central.  Philippines
This school had experienced constant growth since its opening in 1914; it was crowded, its building needed some repairs, and neighboring buildings were in even less desirable condition. An editorial in the Manila Times (the newspaper most frequently read by Americans) deplored the state of affairs at Central, pointing out that the school was inadequate to accommodate all the American children in Manila. 

It was this situation which had always ensured a market for the private "American" schools in Manila, but none had lasted for long. British and American parents now tried to devise a school which they hoped would be more permanent and which would supply the type of educational environment desired by the parents and the business community as a whole. Any institution, like the YMCA or a hospital or the Elk’s Club, was a sign of a thriving, stable community; newcomers would be attracted to Manila, would invest in a home and a business, and would remain to raise their children. A suitable school would be an attraction to future families, proof of the permanence of Manila’s expatriate business community. 

As parents and other civic leaders discussed the possibility of a school, it was clear from the beginning that they must avoid the path taken by previous schools – private enterprise. The school should have a board of trustees, chosen from the community; there should not be an attempt to make money from the school, but it should quickly become self-supporting; and the initial capital to begin the school should come from the local business community itself. On March 4, there was an article in the Manila Times announcing the coming incorporation of the American School, Inc. 

Between the time of this announcement and the school’s projected opening date of June 21, anyone connected with the school must have been extremely busy. Ten trustees volunteered their services; they and other members of the community (including German and Spanish businessmen) made individual pledges of up to P10,000 each. The resulting sum, P393,700, was intended to cover the costs of equipping the school for its opening, and to provide a small guaranty fund in case of financial difficulties. The head of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bishop Mosher, allowed the school free use of one of the church buildings for the duration of the first academic year. Letters were sent to leading American schools asking for copies of their curriculum. The delicate balance of tuition fees, estimated operating costs and salaries had to be reached. Obviously, it would be to the school’s financial benefit to have a large enrollment; thus tuition fees were kept as low as possible, to attract more students. Equally obvious was the fact that they could not afford to pay their teachers high wages. The first principal, Miss Lelah Brown, was hired away from Central where she had been teaching. Of the other first teachers, all were women and nearly all were married, but they were well qualified: normal school was the basic requirement, many were university graduates, and most had experience teaching in the Philippines with the Bureau of Education. The community listened to the grapevine and watched the newspapers for further information. 

Manila Times, May 22, 1920:  


Teachers selected and plans outlined for institution 

Miss Lelah Craig Brown will be principal of the American School, which has been incorporated and will open its classes in June. The school will be supported by fees, payable in advance by the term. Fees in the grades from I to IV are P90 a term, from V to VIII, P110, and P130 in the high school years. The school year is divided into two terms of 19 weeks each. 

A discount of five percent will be made for two children, and ten percent will be allowed for three children. Textbooks, stationery, and similar supplies will not be furnished by the school. The regular work includes Latin, French, and Spanish, and classroom music. Private lessons in music are not provided by the school, but the principal will assist out-of-town pupils who desire such instruction in making satisfactory arrangements. 

A building suitable for boarding pupils has been procured through Bishop Mosher, who gave the Episcopal dormitory for this purpose. The charge will be P500 a term payable in advance and will cover room, board, lights and laundry. Arrangements should be made in advance. 


Manila Times, May 30, 1920:  


Hand in hand with the American-European hospital movement to provide adequate hospital facilities in the city for Americans and Europeans, comes the definite formation of a corporation, the American School, Inc., which is a non-stock entity, by C.c. Wrentmore, T.D. Aitken, C.R. Zeilninger, R. Fairnie, and D.C. Johnson. The aforementioned as well as the following, are trustees of the school: W.R. Smith, William Yost, J.W. Ferrier and W.H. Taylor. 

Its purposes are "to acquire, operate and maintain a school for the education of American and British children residing in the Orient, and not for profit, said school to be resident in Manila." 

On June 3, the Board of Trustees reported that a full corps of teachers had been recruited and that all was ready for the opening day. Eighteen days later, the American School opened its doors for the first time. A week later there was a sudden boost in enrollment; the Bureau of Education asked the American School to take in all American 3rd and 4th year students from the Manila High School, in return for which the Bureau would provide an extra teacher for the year. 

The school felt its way for the first year, and ended with academic success, but the Board realized that they were facing the same problems all over again. A meeting was announced in the Manila Times on April 3, 1921, asking all interested parties to attend and discuss the school’s future. Bishop Mosher had sent a letter to the Board, reminding them that their rent-free building was church property, intended for missionary work; and a study of the school’s accounts showed a deficit of between P2,000 – P3,000, on ten months’ operations. The meeting quickly produced a temporary solution: Bishop Mosher agreed to allow the school to remain where it was for another year, and it was decided that all parents, not just the Trustees, would become co-guarantors, in small amounts, thus adding to the existing guaranty fund. On May 6, the Board announced that they had hired a new principal, Mrs. Frances Henley, who had been a teacher for many years at the Manila High School. School was scheduled to re-open June 6, secure for the time being. 

At that meeting in April, many parents expressed a commonly held sentiment in Manila at that time: why was the American community forced to pay for its own school? Couldn’t the Governor, or the Head of the Bureau of Education, help out in some way? The newly founded Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce took a zealous interest in this cause, and for the next eight months their editorial page and the letters to the editor featured the "educational problem".  

There were approximately 3,000 Americans in Manila at that time. They and other expatriates were paying 80% of all the taxes collected, but providing only 8% of the school children. The tax-supported school for Americans (Central) could, at best, accept only half of all the children eligible for enrollment, and there were the often-repeated problems at Central as well. The Chamber of commerce appealed to Commissioner General Wood and former Governor Forbes to intercede with the Bureau of Education on behalf of the American Community. There were several inventive suggestions put forward by the Journal (one was for Central to become a primary-only school, and have high school levels at Baguio School), but none met with any official enthusiasm. The Journal then tried attacking Central School, but the Director of Education, Luther Bewley, provided a detailed rebuttal which reminded the Chamber of Commerce that Central was run as an American School, and already cost considerably more to operate than other schools (for Filipinos). Mr. Bewley tried hard to be polite, but he was still telling the community to be satisfied with what there was; if they wanted another school, they could continue to pay for it themselves. 

By the end of the school’s second year of operations, several long-lasting characteristics of the American School had already made their appearance. A complete staff rarely existed much before the opening day of school; parents understood and agreed that they had a financial and personal obligation to the school, apart from simply paying the tuition fees on time; and many businesses and institutions in the expatriate community looked on the American School as a worthy cause. The interdependence of the school and the community was becoming increasingly strengthened. 

If there was ever one time when the American School came closest to disintegration, it was before its third year of operations. By the end of the second school year in March 1922, there was a total deficit of P6,169.51, and Bishop Mosher informed the Board that the Church had definite plans for the building where the school had been located. Over a period of six weeks, the Manila Times had eight articles referring to the American School. The Board decided that a fund should be started for the permanent endowment of the school; a committee was formed to raise money within the Philippines, and Bishop Mosher, who was going to the U.S. in July, promised to secure support for the school in the homeland. The location difficulty seemed to be solved when the U.S. Army offered the school the use of the medical supply depot, located behind Sternberg Hospital (on the Pasig). Some continuity was assured when Mrs. Henley agreed to stay on as principal. 

Suddenly, on June 7, only five days before the first day of classes, there was a new series of announcements in the papers. The American School would re-open at 115 Padre Faura (corner M.H. del Pilar) with Mrs. Elizabeth Marshall as the principal. There were several contributed articles (rather than news items) extolling the virtues of the American School, praising its American and European staff, and the individual attention given to each child; parents attested to the excellent progress their children were making at the school; and there were references to several unnamed American institutions of higher learning who claimed they had never seen such well-prepared students as those from the American School of Manila. Finally, there was inducement of lower tuition fees if 100 new students were enrolled in the school. 

These few confusing weeks actually ushered in a period of much-needed calm. The American School remained on Padre Faura for six years, and Mrs. Marshall was principal for three years. Central School had to turn away American students because of overcrowding that June, so the American School had no difficulty getting the 100 new students it wanted that year; there was also a modest but regular increase in enrollment in the coming years. 

The new principal, Elizabeth Marshall, was well qualified for her position, and most of her staff were as able as she. In addition to a Normal School Certificate and a university degree, she had taught for nine years at the Philippine Normal School and had written several educational books, including Citizenship and Heath and Philippine Birds for Boys and Girls. When she assumed her job, she brought her own cook with her as handyman, and later reclassified him as "janitor". The school on Padre Faura was an old Spanish house in very poor repair, but in a desirable neighborhood. The new janitor painted while Mrs. Marshall allocated space: kindergarten and grade one classes were on the ground floor because the stairs to the second floor were so steep and dangerous. On the first day of school both teachers and students brought books and plants from home to help furnish the rooms. 

Facilities in the new school were minimal, but there was a huge spreading mango tree in the yard, and space for the students to eat their mid-morning snack and play the time-honored game of boy chase girls and girls chase boys. There is no doubt that students received individual attention: the largest class had nine pupils, and the smallest only three. From the community came volunteers, donations and enthusiastic support of the students’ fund raising activities. High school students were given permission from the Bureau of Science to use their library and laboratories for research. Dr. Eugene Stafford of the Philippine Civil Hospital came to the school to give regular health check-ups, and provided free treatment, if necessary, from his private office at home.  

As Mrs. Marshall commented, with so many people working for nothing, the teachers could hardly complain about low wages! Scrap paper for spelling lists, small notebooks and cutting practice was provided by the Philippine Education Company where Mrs. Marshall’s husband worked. The school’s janitor frequently took a caretela to PECO and filled it with press trimmings for the school. The students quickly became accomplished fundraisers and ticket sellers. Movies where shown, art work exhibited and raffles held. One bake sale at the Elk’s Club was turned into an auction by some enthusiastic Elks, whose individual honor became involved as the bidding rose higher and higher. The sum raised was most gratifying for all concerned, and went towards the purchase of reference books for the school’s meager library. The Elk’s Club assumed the role of benevolent uncle to the American School, and almost every extracurricular activity was held there.  

Occasionally, treats came from outside sources as well. One year, a U.S. navy destroyer allowed the American School students to tour the ship, gave them a snack of ice cream and cake, and volunteered to provide the lighting effects for the school’s Christmas show. This show was a smash hit, with parents seated on the school’s lawn treated to the sight of small angels slowly (and carefully) descending the school’s staircase which was disguised as the lighted heavens. 

The American School was successfully on its way to becoming an established institution in Manila.

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