The Baltimore City Department of Education is headed by a Board of School Commissioners, a group which predates the department and has run the public schools since their beginning in 1828. In 1898 the department was created to assist the board in running the schools, but the records described below are largely those of the board.
In 1825 the state government approved a public school system to be organized by county and the next year authorized Baltimore to create its own separate public school system. The mayor and city council accepted the state's authorization (ord. 3, 1828), but it was not until March 1828 that a school system was started with the creation of a Board of School Commissioners (ord. 19, 1828). The board met and established four schools, the first of which opened in September 1829. The earliest extant records of the board's proceedings are their minutes which begin in 1836 (series 1A), but there are copies of deeds for school property dating from 1830 (series 5A).
Since its inception the duties of the Board of School Commissioners have remained the same while a bureaucracy has developed to carry out these duties. The board has always been empowered to provide for the government and discipline of the schools including the establishment of a curricula and the schools to teach it, as well as the provision of personnel, buildings, and supplies to aid in educating the students.
While the school system was small, the board administered the schools itself, creating various committees of its members for specific duties. The board decided what subjects would be taught, by what methods, and with what textbooks. It examined candidates for teaching positions, annually elected teachers and principals, and disciplined personnel. The board chose school sites, erected or rented school buildings, and approved each expenditure for maintenance of the buildings. The results of the board's actions are contained in their minutes (1836-1979), and published annual reports (1849-1981), and rules (1878-1963). None of the board's correspondence appears to have survived except that which was read into the minutes.
As the number of schools increased, the board had difficulty supervising the daily operations as well as a general school system. In 1866 they hired a superintendent of public instruction whose duties had been performed by the board's treasurer since 1828. Records pertaining to school supertendence before 1866 are included in the board's records, and after 1866 the extant records of school superintendance appear as reports to the board. There are a few records from individual superintendents (series 2), but few such records are in the Baltimore City Archives at present.
One of the most important duties of the Department of Education has been the hiring of personnel. In the early years, the board examined and hired personnel. Later the superintendent administered the examinations and recommended qualified persons for the board to elect. Finally these duties evolved into a division of personnel. The personnel records in the archives are those created by the board and the superintendent. None of the current division of personnel records are included.
A major concern of the Board of School Commissioners was the provision and maintenance of school buildings. In the early years records pertaining to school buildings are in the board's minutes and annual reports. Although the board's minutes and reports continued to contain building data, a division of physical plant also kept building records.
Few of the individual school's records have come to the Baltimore City Archives. It is assumed that these records are either still in the schools or were destroyed when the schools closed or moved. Records of the Baltimore City College and samples of student work in all city schools in 1876 and 1893 are at the Maryland Historical Society in collection MS 1820.
The Department of Education is currently a much more complex agency than these records suggest. The main functions of the department, however, remain the same as those of the first Board of School Commissioners and the department's records currently in the Baltimore City Archives reveal how such functions were carried out in the nineteenth century.
For more information on the Baltimore public school system in the nineteenth century see Bernard Christian Steiner, History of Education in Maryland 1894, volume one of Clayton Colman Hall, Baltimore: Its History and Its People (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1912) and Thaddeus P. Thomas, The City Government of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, series 14 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1896). There is also a brief outline entitled "The History of Public Education in the City of Baltimore, 1829-1959" in series 1M. For other material on education in Baltimore see the bibliographic essay in this volume.