Open-Air Schools

The concept of open-air schools was somewhat foreign to the United States by the turn of the 20th-century. It wasn’t until January 1, 1907, when the country’s first open-air school opened in Providence, Rhode Island; later that same year another open-air school opened in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Following those early years, open-air schools became recognized as a valuable agency in the fight against tuberculosis. According to the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, in 1911 there were a total of sixty-five open-air schools scattered throughout the United States in twenty-eight municipalities. At the time, six additional cities had made provisions for opening an additional twenty-seven open-air schools. By most accounts, the efficacy of open-air schools was lauded as an advancement in the approach of treating tuberculosis, particularly in child and adolescent populations. As such, open-air schools would begin seeing significantly rapid growth throughout the country. Though Kentucky was behind in terms of the availability of tuberculosis beds and hospitals, the cities of Louisville and Lexington were quick to embrace open-air schools. It was not uncommon for open-air schools to pop up on the top/roof of buildings or other areas not typically thought of us as a traditional school environment.

The first outdoor school was started at Charlottenburg in Berlin, Germany in 1904. It was an all-day school held in the pine woods with an alternation of meals, schoolwork, play, and rest, all in the open air. After three months of operations, it was found that of the 107 children affected by various diseases, seventy-four were totally cured or greatly improved. As such, the outdoor school system took root in Germany and spread to England.

What Were Open-Air Schools?

Open-air schools were simply that; open areas in which children at risk for communicable diseases could be taught in an environment that would encourage healthy recovery. Children who were predisposed to tubercular disease and those who were anemic or otherwise lacking in physical stamina were ideal candidates for open-air schools. The open-air school, however, was not a hospital or sanatorium for tubercular children; it was a “common-sense” arrangement whereby physically weak children were given the chance to get strong. Physicians and advocates noted that to children at risk for tuberculosis, open-air schools obviated the necessity of getting an education at the expense of health and strength. They believed that it gave those who were “physically defective,” a more equal chance in the important work of equipping themselves for the struggles of life. It was a part of the “new educational program” in Louisville to establish one or more open-air schools at as early a date as was practical. The departure was to be fully justified by the success of the experiments that had been made in other cities. And so, by 1912, Kentucky would start seeing its own growth of open-air school that attended to the needs of at-risk children.

In Louisville, desks were placed in converted schoolrooms with three walls only, the fourth being made up entirely of windows. In a similar room, there were cots lined on the floor for the rest period. The children’s days began with a shower bath, a cup of hot milk or cocoa, and a cracker. That was followed by two hours of schoolwork, a heavy lunch, a recess; two hours of sleep, more schoolwork, milk and crackers, and home at 4 o’clock. In addition to the teacher, a nurse helped with taking weights, temperatures, baths, toothbrush drills, etc.  During the colder months students had to wear parkas and winter clothing and the outfits were often colloquially referred to as “Eskimo suits.”

In 1912, the opening of Louisville’s Open-Air School was celebrated as taking a step forward in line with the most progressive of cities in the country. Superintendent Holland and the Jefferson County Board of Education were lauded for their efforts to bring an open-air school into the city of Louisville and for their constant development and improvements of the local school system. At the time, it had been demonstrated that open-air schools were of inestimable benefit to anemic students. As such, the open-air school was assigned a permanent and prominent place on the modern educational program. The focus was concentrated on hygienic principles; many realized that the home life of many students was not favorable to the development of mind and body. It was believed then to be essential that the environments of schoolrooms should be sanitary and of a character calculated to facilitate both mental and physical growth. In 1912, the New York State Board of Health made an estimate that approximately 40 percent of deaths were due “directly or indirectly to bad air.”

By 1913 an open-air school had been proposed in Lexington–to the confusion of some people who didn’t understand what an open-air school was. The list of children for the proposed school, taken from the Dudley, Harrison, and Lincoln Schools, were children whose families had tuberculosis or whose anemic condition rendered them at risk for tuberculosis or other communicable diseases of childhood. The Lexington Herald reported that “Investigations recently made show the per cent of tuberculosis so high among school children, that it is more to be dreaded and guarded against than any other contagious disease of childhood.” In Kentucky, during 1912 the death rate from tuberculosis exceeded that of all other contagious and preventable diseases combined, with the exception only of pneumonia and bronchial pneumonia, diseases also of the respiratory system. Additionally, the death rate from tuberculosis in Lexington and Fayette County was considerably higher than for the state-at-large.

Open-air schools had similar goals in mind, but they varied from state to state. Even in Kentucky, open-air schools would have variations; some would allow children with active tuberculosis while most would not. For many open-air schools, the goal was to help better the health of children who were most vulnerable to communicable diseases like tuberculosis. Physicians understood that children in poor physical health were at a significantly increased risk of becoming an ideal host to pathogens such as the bacterium that caused tuberculosis. Though some will argue that the open-air approach was misguided, the rigors of the programs likely helped boost immune health in children by increasing the amount of sleep they received, balancing play with schoolwork, eating healthy meals at regular intervals, teaching them healthy and hygienic skills, and keeping their physical health in check by having access to a physician and nurse.

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. Bulletin of the Department of Health. Commonwealth of Kentucky, v. 7 (1916).
  2. The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 19 May 1911.
  3. The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 11 September 1912.
  4. The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 7 September 1915.
  5. The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 26 April 1912.
  6. The Lexington Herald, Lexington, Kentucky, 12 March 1913.
  7. The Lexington Herald, Lexington, Kentucky, 18 April 1916.
  8. The Lexington Herald, Lexington, Kentucky, 14 August 1923.
  9. The Franklin Favorite, Frankfort, Kentucky, 4 November 1915.
  10. The Big Sandy News, Louisa, Kentucky, 19 November 1915.

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