Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Appendix 7: The Development of the Chicago Bureau of Employment Supervision

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Attention has been called to the helplessness of many children who take their working papers at fourteen. Most helpless of all, perhaps as a group, are the boys released from the Parental School because they have reached this age and under the law can no longer be held.[1]Very few of these boys return to school. They were sent to the Parental School because they were in need of special training and care which their own homes and the day school could not give, and when they leave the Parental School they are in peculiar need of help. They are without jobs and they have no one at home able to find jobs for them. They are, in fact, in greater need of help than the majority of other children given working papers who have been in their own homes all the time and who are therefore more likely to be put in touch with opportunities for work.

Because of the character of the homes from which these boys came and because of the helplessness of the boys themselves when they left the school, advantage was taken of the opportunity offered by this investigation to advise with them with reference to their choice of work, and to assist them to find work when they were unwilling or unable to return to the regular day school. The attempt was made to understand the problem of employment as they faced it, both because it would add to the results of the investigation and because a genuine service might be rendered to the children. A small employment bureau for these boys was therefore organized in connection with the Department of Social Investigation at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy in order to get directly from and with them the experience of finding and keeping "a job" in Chicago. This seemed relevant to an inquiry into the adequacy of the com-

(456) -pulsory education law, the effectiveness of the court as a device for strengthening the school, and the reasonableness of accepting "lawful employment " as a substitute for schooling during these two important years of the child's life.

To try to assist boys or girls in finding work is a task not to be lightly undertaken. It means not only a thoroughgoing investigation into opportunities of employment open to children under sixteen, but a careful study of the particular child. On the one hand, it means inter-views with employers and foremen, and on the other, interviews with the child before he leaves school, with his teachers, and with parents in the home-interviews which give as complete information as can be gained of what the boy wants to do and thinks he can do, of what his teachers believe him to be fitted for physically and mentally, and most important of all, the judgment of his parents, their hopes and fears if they will share them, and such light as his home circumstances and relationships throw on the possibilities of his working career. This is, of course, only half the battle. There is also the selection, from among all of the available jobs that can be found, of the one to which the boy seems best adapted, and then frequently the difficult task of persuading the boy to give up being a messenger boy or some other wasteful occupation on which he may have set his heart, convincing the parents perhaps to take a lower wage at the start in a job which is going to mean learning as well as earning, and, finally, constant communication with the boy after he is placed; for watching the child after a job has been found is as important as finding the job. The temptation to leave one employer and "try another" is in the air. Boys give up their jobs on the most trivial pretexts and of ten without telling the employer they intend to leave. In such cases it is often possible to persuade the employer to give the boy another trial, to show the boy how much he may gain by working steadily for the same firm, and to explain to the parents the dangers of casual habits. The task is not a simple task. It involves often many interviews, much firm but gentle doling with boy and parents, and close co-operation with employer, but it also means a knowledge of the chaos surrounding fourteen-year-old boys entering the wage-earning market unguarded and unguided--a knowledge which is worth all it costs.


The same problem presents itself to the fourteen-year-old girls who are leaving school to go to work, and the same method is of even greater value in the case of girls than of boys; because, few as are the opportunities of an industrially promising kind for boys, they are fewer for girls, since most employments for women today are in fact "blind-alley" or "dead end" employments. Moreover, the problem of school attendance for girls is one to which much less attention has been given. The number of girls whose attendance is so irregular or whose conduct so bad as to call for action on the part of the Compulsory Education Department is almost negligible; and few of these are brought into the juvenile Court. There is no Parental School for girls. We therefore had no opportunity to undertake in connection with our juvenile Court inquiry the same investigational experiment for girls which we undertook for the Parental School boys. But by the co-operation of three women's organizations, the Chicago Woman's Club, the Chicago Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and the Woman's City Club, we were enabled to obtain at first for a period of four months and later, permanently, a special investigator who was peculiarly fitted for the work of investigating employment opportunities for girls.

Toward the end of the school year, as the knowledge of trade conditions accumulated and the connection with good employers became gradually established, we were able to take care of a very considerable number of children sent to us by the settlements who knew of our experimental work, and by the United Charities and some other organizations. In particular, especially handicapped children were sent to us, a one-armed girl, a lame boy, a deaf and dumb girl, and undersized or delicate children who were in work that was too hard for them or unsuitable for other reasons.

In the month of June we undertook to interview and to place all of the children in the Washburne School, one of the largest schools on the West Side, who were planning to go to work at the end of the school year. Office hours were kept in a neighboring settlement, the Henry Booth House, which generously offered space, and the school principal was glad to co-operate by sending the children to us and by giving his personal advice. In addition to interviews with the children, visits to all the homes were made, and

(457) when the parents seemed able to keep the child in school longer, they were strongly urged to do so.

At this early period in our experiment, the work received a certain official sanction from the educational authorities. The data gathered by the investigator[2] were placed at the disposal of the principal of the Lucy Flower Technical High School, which was opened in September 1909, so that various questions connected with the curriculum of that school could be determined with reference to trade opportunities for girls. At the request of Mrs. Young, superintendent of schools, office hours were held in the school building in order to advise the girls taking technical training with reference to their selection of a trade and their placement at the end of their course.

After the close of the first year, the work was continued under the joint Committee, supported by the various woman's clubs of Chicago. The Chicago Women's Aid Society undertook the support of a worker who would handle the cases of Jewish children, and the Joint Committee entered upon a policy of raising so-called scholarships for children who were wholly unfit to be placed and whose family needs were too great to allow of their remaining longer in school without aid.

On January 12, 1912 through the interest and co-operation of Miss Addams, the Hull-House Trade School was opened. On May 15 the joint Committee undertook to pay the salary of another visitor, and in October of that year the Association of Commerce undertook the support of a worker. From that time until February, 1916, the staff consisted of four persons, the director and three other "visitors" working under her supervision. In March, 1913, the Board of Education recognized the work more definitely by allotting office space in the Jones School, near the headquarters of the Certificate Issuing Bureau, by providing clerical assistance and telephone service, and by placing the work under the general supervision of one (A the district superintendents. On May 1, 1913,

(459) he issued the following circular (Series III, No. 18) regarding the Bureau and its work:


The work of the Bureau of Vocational Supervision which has been established in a number of the Chicago Schools is an enlargement of the work which has been carried on for the last two years at the Lucy Flower Technical High School through a general office maintained by a number of private organizations. A central office has been established in the rooms of the Board of Education, and office hours are held in a number of schools in which it seems the workers might be of service in advising children.

The Bureau for two years has been making a special study of the industrial opportunities open to boys and girls who are leaving school to go to work. As a result of this study it is obvious that there is little prospect for the child who leaves school at fourteen, and that there is a great need for continued education and training. With this fund of information concerning conditions of employment the Bureau is prepared to interview children and parents and advise them with regard to the most suitable occupations and further educational courses.


1. To encourage boys and girls to remain and to continue their education after leaving the Elementary School.

2. To refrain from suggesting to the child the possibilities of going to work before it is absolutely necessary.

3. In case a child cannot be persuaded to continue in school, to see that the children enter as far as possible the trades or occupations for which they seem best fitted.

4. To suggest to those children who enter unskilled employment to attend Evening Schools and classes to qualify themselves to undertake other work of a more skilled nature.

5. To keep in touch with children who have been interviewed and advise them after they have been placed, whether again in school or at work.


The Bureau is anxious to render effective and efficient service to the Principals and to supplement and extend their work in advising the children who contemplate leaving school to go to work.


To the knowledge which the Principals and teachers Possess of the child's educational qualifications, his inclinations, and perhaps his physical condition, the Bureau wishes to add its information as to opportunities open to children of this age, and its corps of trained workers who visit the homes, consult with the parents, and make suggestions as to the child's possibilities and future.

A number of children, to whom age and school certificates had already been issued, have been returned to school after such consultations. The Bureau feels that a great deal more could be done if these children and parents were interviewed before certificates are granted. It is hoped that so far as possible the Principals will send children to the workers before giving them their certificates.

W. M. ROBERTS, District Superintendent

Superintendent of Schools

In March, 1914, there was published for the use of the schools a report prepared by the director of the Bureau on Occupations and Industries open to Children between Fourteen and Sixteen Years of Age in Chicago, and during that year Mrs. Young recommended that the Board of Education assume the entire support of the Bureau and, in anticipation of such action, asked the workers in the Bureau to qualify for public service by taking an examination which entitled them to certificates as high-school teachers. The recommendation of the Superintendent was rejected at that time, and the work of the Bureau retained its peculiar semi-public semi-private character until March 1, 1916, when in accordance with action taken January, 1916, the names of the three workers still connected with the Bureau who had taken the examination were transferred to the public pay-roll.

As the work has been from the beginning under the same director, it has developed uninterruptedly and without radical change of method. The work has been done principally in about twenty schools, where the principals have given cordial and sympathetic co-operation. One object always held in view is that of persuading all children whose family situation makes it possible for them to do so to remain in school. Consequently a considerable number of these children who come to the Bureau before going to work, even if they have been given their working papers, are persuaded to return to

(461) school or to remain in school. It seems practically impossible to persuade children who come to the Bureau after having gone to work to return to school. In some schools a representative of the Bureau confers with each child expecting to graduate with reference to his plans. Advantage is then taken of the opportunity to make known to the child the advantages of going on to high school. In every case in which there is a possibility of the child's continuing his school life, the parents are visited and informed of the vocational and technical training now available for their children.

In several schools, arrangements have been made for the vocational supervisor to conduct the graduating class to the different technical high schools, so that the children may have a better idea of the kinds of training offered. In a number of schools talks are given not only to the graduating class, but to the sixth and seventh grades, emphasizing the need for further education and urging the children to remain in school until they are at least sixteen years of age. And principals of several of these schools have thought that the influence of the Bureau could be felt in the decreasing number of children who leave school and the increasing number who are going on to high school.

During each summer, letters are written to parents whose children plan not to return, and interviews are had with them explaining the seasonal and wasteful character of boy and girl labor and the advantage of keeping the children in school until they are at least sixteen years of age. In the same way, before the time at which promotions are made, when children are likely to drop out, the principals of all the schools are reminded of the great loss resulting from failure to complete the course and are stimulated to urge the children to continue in school.

The numbers of children served by this small group of workers has been very considerable. During the year 1914-15, the last for which complete figures are at hand, 3,568 children, of whom 1,809 were boys and 1,759 were girls, were helped by the Bureau. Of these, 3,519 children had never worked, and 640 were persuaded to remain in school or to return to school. How important this part of the Bureau's work is may be indicated to some extent by the fact that 1,349 children had gone no farther than the sixth grade in school.


From the nature of the problem presented by these children, it is evident that the Bureau offers the opportunity for very careful and thorough personal service, on which not only the industrial future of the children but the well-being of the family may depend. The results of such service may be illustrated by the case of Stanley _____, who came to the Bureau shortly after it began to care for other than Parental School boys. Stanley was sixteen years old when he first came to the Bureau and was the next to the oldest in a family of six children. His brother of nineteen had left school at the earliest possible moment, had drifted from one job to another, and had become a casual laborer. His father, too, worked spasmodically, had never learned a trade, nor been taught to do anything well. The boy was working in a box factory carrying boards, and earned six dollars a week. He was sent to the Bureau by the United Charities, who had been assisting the family from time to time, to see if he could be placed where he would learn something, so that he would not follow in the footsteps of his father and brother. He had graduated from the eighth grade, was found to be eager and ambitious, and wanted to learn the printing trade. A place was found for him with a good printing firm at an initial wage of five dollars a week. He has been in this same shop over three years now, and is earning fourteen dollars a week. A year later he sent to the Bureau his brother Joseph, who had just left school at the age of fourteen, having finished the seventh grade. Joseph came to the Bureau for work, but he was encouraged to return to complete the eighth grade. A year later he applied for work. He, too, thought that he would like to learn the printing trade. He was told that he could not be placed in a printing shop until he was sixteen, but a temporary position was found for him in an office. When he reached his sixteenth birthday, he was transferred to a printing shop where he began work at a wage of five dollars a week, and has had his wages raised several times. Both boys have attended one of the technical evening schools.

These boys, because they were given a little advice and assistance, are not only learning a trade and are happy in the work they are doing, but they are able to support their family, which is no longer a burden to the community.


In the matter of persuading children to return to school sometimes only a little effort is necessary. Often "the lady in the downtown office" to whom the principals send the children can do what the principals themselves cannot do. But sometimes a great deal of effort is necessary; for example, a boy who applied for his working permit, was leaving school because several of his friends were working, and had offered to get him a job. At first he would not listen to any argument in favor of his staying in school. Finally it was discovered that he was interested in electrical work. He was told then that if he graduated he could go to a technical school and take an electrical course. So he decided to go back and finish the eighth grade. In the autumn, however, the boy appeared at the Bureau with his father. He had visions of not making his grade, and had decided that he might as well quit and go to work. He was again persuaded to go to school. In December, the mother was doubtful if she could send the boy to high school after graduation, since her husband had worked irregularly through the winter. But in February, when the boy was graduated, no further opposition was put in his way and he went on to a technical high school.

Sometimes it is necessary to change the child from one school to another in order that he may receive the best training for a particular need. For instance, an unenlightened teacher advised a boy to leave school "because he had too much energy" and the boy came to the Bureau. Though he had completed only the seventh grade at fourteen, he was very bright, and it seemed too bad to turn him loose into some "blind alley" occupation. So he was advised to enter the prevocational class at a technical high school. There he found in working with his hands an outlet for his surplus energy, and had progressed so well in his academic studies that he went on with some high-school courses.

Another child, a girl, who had not been able to keep up with her school work on account of sickness, had become discouraged and was about to leave school. Since she could go to school only two years longer, she needed to make the best of that time in getting practical training and was consequently sent to the Lucy Flower Technical School.

Sometimes persuasion is all that is necessary to keep a child in school or to send him on to high school, but in other cases it is necessary

(464) to provide books or clothes or a small scholarship. In interviewing children who were graduating at the mid-year, it was found that a number of them could go to high school if books were provided. Children cannot depend upon getting books from school funds. One girl who entered high school was forced to drop out at the end of the first week and went to work in a factory because she could not secure "fund" books. In a single day six boys came to the Bureau who had entered high school but had to leave because they could not afford to buy books. In order to meet this need for school books the Bureau has established a loan-book fund which in one term enabled thirty children who otherwise would have been compelled to drop out to continue their high-school work. A free textbook law would of course obviate these difficulties.

During the year 1914-15, sixty-eight children were kept in school by being given "scholarships," ranging in amount from so cents a week, or carfare, in some cases, to $3. 00 a week in others. These "scholarships," which were provided by private subscription, have been given to the handicapped or physically weak children who are not able to work, yet would be compelled to do so if a scholarship were not provided; to the immigrant children who would have a better chance if they could go to school a while longer to acquire a better knowledge of English; to exceptionally bright children who are anxious to stay in school and who might make rapid progress if given an opportunity.

For example, late in the summer a district superintendent sent to the Bureau a mother and her daughter who had inquired concerning a free business course. The girl was just fourteen. She had graduated from grammar school in June with a high average. The mother, a widow, who supported herself and her daughter, wanted to send the girl to high school, but found that she could not afford it, as she was working irregularly. She bad beard of a business college which offered tree instruction for six months, and she thought she might make a sacrifice for that short time. The girl was unusually ambitious, her teachers spoke well of her ability, and it seemed unfair that she should not have an opportunity. A scholarship of ten dollars a month was secured for the next two years, and the girl was enabled to enter the high school for the two-year commercial course.


Another girl of fourteen was sent to the Bureau for employment. Her mother did occasional washings, and one sister earned $7.50 a week. There were two other children in school. The child was undersized and pale looking. After a physical examination it was found that she had tubercular glands. She was given a scholarship of $10.00 a month and sent to the Franklin Open Air School, where she has made good progress.

An immigrant girl of fourteen, whose father was dead, had reached the third grade in school, though she had been in this country only six months. She was bright and eager and was anxious to remain in school so that she might learn more English. A scholarship of $10.00 a month was provided so that she could finish the year in school. At the end of the term she was transferred to the Hull-House Trade School to learn dressmaking.

In November, 1914, a girl of fourteen applied to the Bureau for work. She was valedictorian of her class which had graduated in June, and she had hoped that she might go to high school. But her father had met with an accident and could not work regularly, and there were five younger children to be supported. A scholarship of $8.00 a month was provided, which enabled her to go to high school. Though she was two months late in entering she made up her work, and her average for the first semester was over 95 per cent.

The Bureau tries so far as possible to place the children to whom scholarships are given in schools and classes where they will receive practical training that will prepare them for some special line of work. Those in the high schools generally take the commercial or vocational courses. One has, however, been enrolled to take the general course in the hope of becoming a health officer, and another is determined to go to college. Experience with these children confirms the testimony which can be got from many sources that accepting "lawful employment" as a substitute for school attendance means great loss to the children and to the community, to the children who are allowed to enter without preparation a labor market which has no real need for them, to the community which needs the labor of men and women of well-developed bodies and trained minds.


  1. It is not possible to obtain the number of these boys from the Reports of the Board of Education. There seem to have been 797 between 1902 and 1913 (see Fifty-ninth Annual Report of the Chicago Board of Education, p. 298).
  2. To this investigator, Miss Anne S. Davis, research student 11907-8 and 1908-9, we are greatly indebted for assistance of many kinds. Miss Davis is now at the head of the Bureau of Vocational Supervision in the. Chicago Public Schools.

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