Imagine a public school where students walk around, and in and out of classrooms at will without explanation or permission; where teachers enforce no discipline, but instead let the students discipline themselves. A critic might say “the inmates are running the asylum.”
But in the 1910s — under innovative, think-out-of-the-box principal Fredrick J. Regan — such was the culture of Duryea public schools.
In the 1910s, Duryea’s population was 7,500. The Heidelberg Colliery was the largest employer. Many of the adults were immigrants or first-generation Americans who did not speak English at home.
In 1915, the Duryea school system student population was 1,700. They were taught in four modern, for the time, buildings described in a newspaper story as “attractive and airy.”
Observers at the time believed the honor system of student conduct worked, not only to improve education in the schools, but to better the town itself, by reducing juvenile delinquency and street crime.
From a 1915 newspaper story: “According the records of the county there has not been a capital crime committed in the town within the last year. This, as a record for a town considered an unsafe community, is most remarkable and can be traced directly to the honor system of the public schools.”
The school honor system of student conduct was monitored by class officers who were appointed by teachers. The class officers spoke directly to students who violated the rules — truancy and fighting for example — urging them to behave for the good of the school. When that didn’t work, a teacher was called in. If the bad behavior continued, the class officers conducted a trial of sorts. The last resort punishment was ostracism. The students ignored the offender, leaving him or her to eat lunch and walk to and from school alone. The class officers also met with parents who came to the school.
From a story in the The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1915: “Professor Fred Regan, of Duryea Borough, has created an ‘Honor System’ in the public schools of that place which is the only one of its kind in the country.”
Other Regan innovations included having teachers advance through the elementary grades with the same students; teachers specializing in subjects in middle school; and a night English class, what is called ESL today, for the non-English speaking adults.
In large part because of Regan — and the district’s 48 all-female member faculty — the Duryea system was considered one of the best in the two-county area and many of its students enrolled from other districts.
Regan was born in the United States but was raised in South America, where his father was a teacher. He came back to the United States and studied at LaSalle, St. Thomas (Scranton University), Indiana of Pennsylvania and Kansas Normal School. He was supervising principal at Duryea for 24 years, lured to Plymouth Twp. for a sizable salary increase in 1921. He also supervised Jenkins Twp. schools. He was civic-mined, having served as president of the Luzerne County Taxpayers Association. He also was a popular speaker.
In 1918, Regan’s son, Gerald, was killed in action in World War I in France. The Brennan-Regan American Legion Post in Duryea is named in his honor.
Fredrick J. Regan died in December 1936 from complications of a fall in his country home in Wayne County.
A resolution by the School Masters’ Club of Luzerne County eulogized him, writing: “He was unquestionably one of the most outstanding and influential members of the organization.”