Who was Cyrus Peirce and why is there a school named for him?

There is only one school on the island that bears a person’s name and that school is Cyrus Peirce Middle School. Who was Cyrus Peirce?

First, he was not a Nantucketer, although he is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery next to his island-born wife Harriet Coffin.  Peirce, born in Waltham, came to the island after graduating from Harvard in 1810. He probably came because his friend, Seth Swift, had become the first minister of the Second Congregational Church.

Peirce took a teaching job only to earn enough money to return to Harvard to study for the ministry; he had no intention of remaining a teacher.

After two years on the island, Peirce returned to Harvard and qualified for the ministry. However, after three years of study, the twenty-six-year-old, he returned to Nantucket and married twenty-two-year-old Harriet Coffin.

The Peirces opened up a private school in 1815. It was no ordinary school and they were not ordinary teachers. For one, the school accepted boys and girls and taught them the same curriculum. For another, the school was nonauthoritarian in a time when school discipline was harsh and physical. The Peirces took a pro-student approach that depended on building trusting relationships with their students. Peirce was a life-long opponent of corporal punishment.

After three years, the Peirces moved to Reading, Massachusetts where Cyrus became a minister. However, the congregation was more conservative than Peirce, who leaned toward the Unitarian branch of the Congregationalists, and he was asked to leave.

They returned to the island in 1831 and opened another school, also noted for its progressive approach. Peirce also offered free night classes, open to sailors, black, white, foreign and native born, who had not had the opportunity of an education. They hired sixteen-year old Maria Mitchell as an assistant. Their school became so well-known that Horace Mann, the first Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, observed the school and recruited Cyrus to serve on a state-wide committee to examine school libraries.

Peirce became an active member of the island community. He and Harriet were among the founders of Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Society and life-long champions of civil rights. They joined the Second Congregational Church which had become Unitarian. Cyrus was the president of the Education Society; its mission was to persuade Nantucket to fund a public high school.

In 1838, the town finally opened its first high school and Peirce became its first principal. He gave up his lucrative private school because he was passionate about the importance of public education in maintaining American democracy.

Shortly after he became the principal, the Massachusetts legislature appropriated funds to create a publicly funded teacher training college, the first in the nation. Horace Mann asked Peirce to head it. Although reluctant to leave his job, Peirce jumped at the opportunity to improve education throughout the state by providing properly-trained teachers.

Peirce’s work in establishing a Normal school was his greatest contribution to American education. He wrote and taught the first curriculum designed to teach teachers to teach. The emphasis was on classroom management as well as the creation of stimulating lesson plans. Peirce “invented” student teaching, insisting that the prospective teachers practice on actual students in a school called the “model school.”  The curriculum that Peirce wrote became the standard for many years as Normal schools spread. They evolved into the main state teacher colleges.

Peirce’s  Lexington Normal School graduates made up the first publicly-supported professional teaching corps in the country. When the student body grew, the school moved to West Newton. And, when that school outgrew itself, it moved to Framingham, eventually becoming part of the University of Massachusetts.

Peirce ended every school day during his long career by telling students to go forth and “live to the truth.” It remains the slogan of the university in Framingham.

When the Normal school moved to Framingham, Cyrus chose to remain in West Newton where he was co-founder and teacher emeritus of the West Newton English and Classical School, a innovative boarding school. He stayed in West Newton until his death in 1860 and there is an elementary school there named in his honor.

Throughout his life, Cyrus Peirce pushed boundaries. He was an active abolitionist his whole life and took a petition bearing 51,000 signatures to the House of Representatives in Washington where he and John Quincy Adams tried to flout the “gag rule” against abolitionist petitions. He pushed for school integration on Nantucket and the West Newton English and Classical School accepted boys and girls, black and white, American and foreign. He consistently supported equal rights for women including equal education and equal pay. His stances often brought him into conflict with the establishment which fought him fiercely over his secular approach to education when he headed the Lexington Normal School.

In 1932, Nantucket built a new elementary school in the south part of town where Nantucket High School’s swimming pool is located and called it Cyrus Peirce Elementary School. In 1967, the school became a junior high for grades 6 – 8 with 187 pupils. Cyrus Peirce Middle School moved to its present site in 1989.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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