On June 25, 1909, Olympia High School's domestic science class opens a dining room in an annex to the Education Building at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition. The exposition, which ran from June 1 to October 16, 1909, on the University of Washington campus showcased the accomplishments and resources of Washington state, alongside resources and manufactured goods from a number of other states and countries. Exhibits in the Education Building, including a classroom that held sessions while visitors observed them, demonstrated the latest in educational theory and the accomplishments of particular school districts. The movement to develop vocational education programs in schools began in the late nineteenth century and by 1909 had gained credibility but not widespread support from school boards. In 1908 Frank Kraeger, superintendent of the Olympia School District, introduced a vocational education program at William Winlock Miller High School (also known as Olympia High School) that taught practical skills to students while dramatically increasing graduation rates and reducing discipline problems at the school. Wanting to advertise the program's success, Kraeger arranged for the students to display their skills at the A-Y-P by serving lunch to guests of the state A-Y-P commission and by providing demonstrations of their woodworking, mechanical drawing, and sewing skills. The students' efforts earned them rave reviews and a gold medal for domestic science exhibits at the exposition.
At the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes about the role of education in society and the socialization of children changed in response to increasing industrialization and immigration. The traditional education that focused on reading, writing, literature, history, and mathematics did not produce graduates ready to go to work in the changing economy. Additionally, the curriculum did not keep students in school. Many stopped attending once they reached the end of compulsory education, which in Washington state in 1908 was 15.
But leaving school so early left the children in an in-between stage -- too young for apprenticeship programs and not capable of taking on meaningful, lucrative work, but no longer in school developing their skills and knowledge. Educators and employers called the time spent in jobs as errand boys, shop assistants, and similar occupations "the wasted years." Having so many students dropping out also created the problem of workers not prepared to learn the skills they needed once they did obtain a job. Manufacturers spent a great deal of time and resources finding qualified employees and then training them on the job.
Advocates of vocational education saw it as a solution to the problem. By incorporating training in industrial and domestic skills, students could be persuaded to stay in school through high school and also gain some practical skills and knowledge. When they graduated, they would be prepared to enter an apprenticeship program or seek meaningful employment.
Olympia High School
By 1909, a number of Washington school districts in larger cities had developed vocational education programs in their high schools, but not many smaller districts offered it. In Olympia, superintendent, Frank D. Kraeger, who had recently graduated from college, sought to build a vocational program, starting at the newly built William Winlock Miller High School (also known as Olympia High School). The high school, located across from the state capitol building on land donated by the Miller family, had a high dropout rate. Kraeger thought that a vocational program could increase the graduation rate, thereby better preparing students for the workplace.
Kraeger went before the school board seeking funding for the program, but it voted against the project. Kraeger then enlisted the support of the Women's Club of Olympia, an influential organization that had worked for women's rights, children's issues, and conservation efforts and that had tremendous influence in public life in Olympia. The Women's Club pressured the school board to reconsider funding the vocational education program, which they did, giving the program just enough to get started.
The students in the boys' program built their wood shop in the high school's basement and then proceeded to outfit classroom space for the girls' domestic science program. The boys' teacher, Charles Buffett, supervised their installation of the heating system and gas lines for the kitchen stoves, but otherwise the boys built the classrooms for the program by themselves.
Additionally, in that first year, the boys built furniture for the district's schools. They saved the district $1,500 by building chairs and desks. They also built furniture that they sold to the public, keeping the profit for themselves.
More importantly, graduation rates increased by 100 percent and the ratio of boys to girls in the graduating class evened out, when just the year before it had been three girls to every boy. Not only did more boys stay in school, but behavioral problems declined precipitously.
At the end of the school year, in May 1909, Kraeger invited Governor Marion Hay (1865-1933) and local business owners to a lunch prepared by the girls in the domestic-science program. He hoped to secure a space for them at the fair to demonstrate the program's goals and methodology.
The girls, under the direction of their teacher, Elmira White, developed a menu for a six-course meal for 20 that cost only $8.40 to prepare. The attendees, many of whom had dutifully, but not enthusiastically, attended the lunch, found themselves amazed at the lunch's quality and presentation. Governor Hay agreed to write to the state's A-Y-P commission to invite them to lunch at the school. W. A. Halteman, the chair of the commission, agreed to find a space at the A-Y-P where the students could demonstrate their skills and promote vocational education.
At the A-Y-P
Since the fair opened in just a matter of weeks, most of the space had been allocated. In order to include the program in the Education Building, they added an annex to the building and quickly furnished it with kitchen facilities and space for woodworking, mechanical drawing, and sewing demonstrations. The school board and local businesses provided $1,000. The senior-class play cast donated the proceeds of their spring production, $200, to the project, and the state A-Y-P commission budgeted $4,000 for building and outfitting the annex to the Education Building.
The eight girls from the domestic science program lived with the Coe family near the University. The 11 boys from the manual training program pitched a tent on a vacant lot at 47th Street and 17th Avenue, just a few blocks from the exposition.
With their kitchen installed in the annex, the domestic science program girls began serving a six-course meal that cost 28 cents to prepare. Elmira White supervised their activities, but the eight girls did all the preparation and serving. They served the meal to guests of the state's A-Y-P commission. The patrons complimented the students on the quality of the meal, and the low cost amazed them.
Accomplishments and Careers
One of the girls from the domestic sciences program, Blanche Mahlberg (1890-1980), wrote about the group's experience in a 1962 article for The Seattle Times. She marveled at what they accomplished that summer and reported on what became of some of the students. Only one of the girls went on to pursue a career in domestic science. Martha Bustrack (later Martha Jones) earned her master's degree in home economics from Washington State University (then Washington State College) and taught in Olympia public schools.
The boys, according to Mahlberg, did not continue on to be carpenters. Several went on to prominent careers. Muir S. Fairchild (for whom Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane is named) joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of general. Ernest Mallory served as mayor of Olympia from 1947 to 1949. Other graduates became a doctor, a dentist, a state highway official, and business owners.
Vocational education is an integral part of the public school system today. Olympia High School offers classes in Industrial Technology and Family and Consumer Science. Students can learn about automotive, power, or industrial technology; woodworking; materials science; early childhood education; textile design; or nutrition. The early-childhood-education students help operate Oly Bear Preschool, established in 1979.