The first half of the 19th century was the heyday of the "academy," a type of school that no longer exists. Back then public schooling ended with the 8th grade, and very few people went on to college. College then was largely for the upper classes, and offered an education focused on the classics of Latin, Rhetoric and so on that was becoming less and less relevent to the needs of the growing society. Rapidly expanding technologies and commercial enterprises created new educational needs. The academies offered the classics, but they offered practical and technical coursework too, in areas like surveying, physics and modern languages. They also offered teacher training courses for the expanding public schools. Women and minorities were accepted at many academies in an era when the colleges were largely closed to them. In a very real sense the academy was a sort of "people's college."
In 1841 a group of people in Brockport, which was a vital commercial and manufacturing town then, opened the Brockport Collegiate Institute in a building located where Hartwell Hall now stands. The building had housed another academy in the 1830s which failed for financial reasons. The Collegiate Institute was a thriving success scholastically but like many such schools struggled financially. In 1866, largely through the efforts of Malcolm MacVicar who was the principal and a leader in education circles, the school became one of the four new state "Normal" schools established in New York.
The school circa 1920
One key element of the teacher training philosophy of that era was to maintain a "practice" or "demonstration" school attached to the Normal School. Students for the school came from the local community and were taught by student teachers who worked under experienced teacher "critics."
Charles McLean was the principal for the first several decades of the school and helped to establish one of the major elements of the Normal School's culture, that of the Greek Letter Societies which flourished at the school from 1869-1940.
The last Normal School class graduated in 1942 after which the school officially became a college, meaning it could grant the bachelors degree (Normal School grads had received a certificate of study when they finished which entitled them to teach in the New York schools, but not the bachelors degree.) This enhancement of status was due in good part to the efforts of President Ernest Hartwell, who like Malcolm MacVicar and many other Brockport figures played a leading role in the education movements of the time. Starting as Brockport State Teachers College, the new school was automatically included in the new SUNY system which was established in 1948.
The years after World War II were a time of tremendous growth for higher education, as thousands of veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill. Brockport began a period of expansion in that time that was unprecedented in the school's history. When Donald Tower became president of the school in 1944 the entire campus was what we now call Hartwell Hall. There were a few hundred students and the faculty and staff numbered under fifty people. The sole purpose of the school was to train elementary school teachers. By the time he retired in 1964 there were several thousand students and several hundred faculty and staff members. The campus had expanded greatly, adding dorms, a college union and expanding across Kenyon Street and down Holley Street. The purpose and organization of the school had grown too, as it evolved into a liberal arts college with a number of masters degree programs. In the early years of President Albert Brown (1965-1981) the school's growth rate built to a height of activity, seeing the high rise dorms, library and other buildings rise up to make the campus that one sees today. The school continued to evolve in the last years of the 20th century under the leadership of President John Van De Wetering (1981-1997). As the century finished and turned over, our next president, Paul Yu, lead the school in attracting students with stronger SAT scores and high school averages, garnering more research dollars than at anytime previously, earning first-time national accreditation in three academic programs, and full-time enrollment growing substantially. The school is now under the leadership of Interim President John B. Clark (2004-Present). The faculty, staff and students of Brockport are exploring many opportunites for change and growth, from acquiring the latest information technologies to improving campus communications. Brockport is an innovative leader in welcoming and supporting a diverse student body, whether they be returning adult students, minority group members, or whatever their background. It is still true today what used to be printed on the back of the Normal School's catalogs:
What you do today determines how tomorrow will use you. Prepare for a successful future at Brockport!
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