The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1993, Volume 39, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

By Ethel Mintzer Lichtman

“Here’s an institution where study is a pleasure, even to children … it is fast becoming famous all over the United States.”

-Mary White, San Diego Union, March 27, 1917

Images from the Article

The Francis W. Parker School was founded by Clara Sturges Johnson and her husband, William Templeton Johnson. It officially opened on December 31, 1912. Throughout 1993, Parker students, faculty, parents and alumni have been celebrating the school’s eightieth anniversary in a year-long series of events and activities.

The School’s founders were not only interested in achieving success with Parker students. They also wanted to try out and demonstrate improved teaching methods that could be replicated in other schools to improve the education of all the community’s children. Many innovations first introduced at Parker were later incorporated into public schools. A number of them are seen as particularly relevant in meeting critical education needs today.

The idea for a new private school emerged in 1910 when Mrs. Johnson, youngest daughter of prominent Chicago banker George Sturges, along with her husband visited her brother, George, and her older sister Ethel Sturges (Mrs. William) Dummer in Coronado. The Dummers, also of Chicago, had a summer home in Coronado. The Johnsons had just returned from four years in France, where Mr. Johnson had studied architecture. They had planned to settle in Greenwich, Connecticut with their two children, Winthrop and Arthur Delafield. But they fell in love with San Diego. A year later they built their first home on Ocean Boulevard in Coronado.

The Johnsons were concerned that their children get a good education and distressed about the general caliber of schools, in San Diego and in the East. Conditions in many early twentieth century public schools were ripe for reform. For some pupils, sitting at desks or on benches all day long under the watchful eye of a teacher was not conducive to learning—certainly not to a love of learning. One student reflecting back on his years in a New York City school recalled: “The school—from every last stone in the courtyard to the battlements frowning down at me from the walls—was only the stage for a trial. I felt that the very atmosphere of learning that surrounded us was fake.”

The Johnsons believed that the Francis Parker School in Chicago which the four Dummer daughters attended was providing the kind of education they were seeking. The subject of schooling was discussed at length with Mrs. Dummer, who was active in education, civic affairs and other social and public interests in Chicago and the East.

The Francis Parker School in Chicago first put into practice the principles of Colonel Parker. Born in New Hampshire in 1837, Parker worked on a farm and sporadically attended a village school. Despite his scant formal education, he started teaching at age 16 and at 21 became principal of a school in Massachusetts. After achieving the rank of Colonel fighting in the Civil War, he gained fame as the School Superintendent in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Quincy School Committee summarized his achievements in these words:

In five years he transformed our schools. He found them machines; he left them living organisms. Drill gave way to growth, and the weary prison became a pleasure house. He breathed life, growth and happiness into our school rooms.

Col. Parker then moved on to Chicago where he became Director of the School of Education at the University of Chicago. From there he sowed seeds that later came to flourish. Young children learned by doing and parents joined with teachers in a partnership that eventually reached into every school in the land.

In 1902, a year before Parker’s death, the Francis Parker School was founded in Chicago to carry out his educational objectives. It served as a laboratory school in that city and as a model for schools elsewhere. Some key persuasions which governed the work of the Chicago school, and informed the namesake school that opened in San Diego a decade later, are reflected in these quotes of Francis Parker.

It is the present, the immediate use of knowledge acquired, that arouses in children the highest zest for learning.

True growth cannot be produced by discipline which restrains by the use of external force, whether that be in the form of physical control or the force of fear.

With the artist teacher, method is the way he or she reaches an ideal. Therefore, method is entirely personal, ever changing, ever improving.

The needs of society determine the work of the school…The supreme need of society is good citizenship … Ideal citizenship demands of the individual the highest degree of knowledge, power and skill.

In February of 1912, at the Johnson’s request, Mrs. Dummer approached Mrs. Adele Outcalt, a Los Angeles high school teacher and former San Diegan, to head the school. Mrs. Outcalt later gave this account.

Mrs. Dummer called on me at the Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles and invited me to spend a week-end with them in Coronado. I accepted gladly not knowing that this visit was one at which I was to be inspected by her as well as by Mr. and Mrs. Johnson who were planning to build at Coronado and ultimately to found a school.

We spent the summer at Coronado. I was surprised one day by a visit from Mr. Johnson – and an offer from him to take charge of a school which they expected to found. I was to begin by teaching the two children of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. The offer seemed absurd to me; I was a high school teacher with a good ($1,500) salary (for those days). Teaching young children seemed like stepping down. However the idea attracted me, as I saw a future ahead.

Mrs. Outcalt at first declined, but eventually succumbed to the Johnsons’ insistent persuasion and became the school’s first principal the following year.

The Johnsons turned to Columbia University and engaged Miss Fay Henley, an experienced primary teacher. The new Francis Parker School opened on December 31 in a small bungalow at the corner of what are now Randolph and Ft. Stockton streets—a site later occupied by the Mission Hills Nursery.

Mr. Johnson not only founded and designed Parker School. He was soon to become a leading San Diego architect of such landmark buildings as the Serra Museum in Presidio Park, the Fine Arts Gallery (now the San Diego Museum of Art) in Balboa Park, and the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank in downtown San Diego.

In designing the Parker School the Johnsons believed strongly in the importance of physical environment to the education of children. To Colonel Parker’s fundamental ideas the Johnsons added another: adapting the architecture to the educational aims of the school. Taking advantage of San Diego’s mild climate, ideal for an open-air school, Johnson established these architectural goals for the building project:


To construct a practical and efficient building at a low cost; .
To achieve artistic effect by good proportions and pleasing color rather than by the use of lavish and expensive ornament.

In Johnson’s opinion, a great deal of money had been wastefully spent on ornate and costly buildings that were intended to impress visitors and to be monuments to architects. He believed that money could be much better spent relieving over-crowded classrooms and paying adequate teacher salaries.

The building, when completed, was to be a quadrangle. All classrooms would have sliding doors opening on the inner courtyard. The portico became the communication between classrooms, saving the cost of a closed corridor. In lieu of an elaborate heating system, small wood stoves in each classroom kept students warm on wet days. Believing in the subconscious influence of art, the Johnsons filled school room walls with photographs and prints of famous paintings. The usual rigid rows of desks were rejected for moveable chairs and tables. Specially made little chairs in the kindergarten, with backs shaped and painted like flowers, were examples of what set this school apart. Their goal, as described by Johnson: “The building, equipment, and the courses of study are planned to give each student the very best possible chance to develop physically, morally and mentally. If a child is in perfect physical condition, his mental and moral possibilities are correspondingly advanced.”

A newspaper account of the opening described the school’s new method of teaching the three R’s together with manual training. “There is at hand right here in San Diego,” it reported, “a sincere attempt to meet the criticisms of the modern school such as have appeared recently in numerous American periodicals.” The school’s founders, the article explained, were very interested in modern movements for civic betterment, having been active in civic affairs in Chicago and the East. They were not setting up the school as a finished product, but with the hope that their educational experiment would be helpful to education in California — “a sort of laboratory or experiment station.”

Mrs. Outcalt recalls the school’s beginnings:

In November the first wing of the quadrangle was open for occupation and we moved into the new school…. The morning on which we moved was characteristically Parker. While the moving van carried the large pieces of furniture, the children carried many of the smaller articles in their little red wagons, which they had brought for that purpose. Numbers had grown to about 30 and it was a charming picture to see the little group trundling its belongings to the new building. A little ceremony about the fireplace in the kindergarten room marked the beginning of the school in its new surroundings.

Several hundred San Diegans attended dedication exercises held November 26, 1913. The children participated by presenting articles they had made for the school. President Hardy of the San Diego State Normal School (now San Diego State University) told the audience that the Francis Parker School would be to the public schools in San Diego what Stanford University had been to the University of California. Johnson described their aims and priorities for Parker:

The purpose of the school, in a broad sense, is to break through the ironbound curriculum of our school system and evolve a type of education related to the problems of daily life: an education which teaches pupils to think and to solve problems by their own initiative rather than by accepting blindly the statements of teachers or textbooks. To ‘help’ and to do real things are natural tendencies among children, and the plan of the school is to capitalize and develop these self-active impulses as a basis for school work. …

After seven years at Francis Parker, Mrs. Outcalt’s notes describe the school’s activities and philosophy during the early years.

We do not claim anything new—only as compared with (the) traditional, prevailing, now passing school. …The object of the founders originally was to found a school which, by its environment, its methods, its opportunities, would develop (the) young for participation in citizenship—the world’s work. The school, it was hoped, would point the way to the public school system into which it should be absorbed, where the public school would be doing the same or better work.

We adopted the Dewey principle that the school is not a preparation, but is life itself—that the school must not be divorced from life, but participate. …

As the school grew, a council grew up consisting of representatives from grades. The duties were called community duties, such as raising the flag, helping in the cafeteria, keeping grounds free of paper, decorating the library, and handling lost and found articles …. It is important that children and young people become intelligently acquainted with their environment. The city’s industries as well as the great out-of-doors offer an unlimited fund of information which can be utilized in the routine work as compositions or be connected with the manual work. The study of industries leads naturally into the more serious study of occupation in the life career classes. …

Although no direct instruction in morals is given, we believe that the ethical value of a child doing what is right in daily performance must have more influence. …

The public schools at this time looked with some distrust at our experiment. But when after seven years I returned into the public school work as principal of Garfield School, I found that school beginning to adopt the newer methods we had pioneered, and today these methods are taken for granted in our public school system.

By the end of the first year in the new building the number of students had increased to sixty, with several in the 7th and 8th grades. A west wing was added to the building’s south wing in 1914, with a main entrance facing the still unpaved Randolph Street. The north wing was built in 1918. The following year the quadrangle was completed with an east wing, dominated by the new auditorium which dwarfed the tent nearby that had served as a school cafeteria.

The curriculum was planned around real-life problems using real equipment, under the theory that training hand and eye coordination together with brain stimulation aroused interest far more than textbook study alone. An arithmetic class, for example, figured the lumber required for an additional outdoor room, then helped build it. A class in “environmental history” made excursions to the site of ruins at the Presidio and to the Mission, then acted in an open air play about the life of Father Junipero Serra.

Upper grade students turned horticulturists and helped to landscape the now-enclosed patio. A Christmas play and what were to become traditional, beloved Christmas Story tableaux were the first presentations in the new auditorium on December 19, 1919. Earlier that year, in March, Herbert Flint became the hundredth child to enter Francis Parker. He received a bouquet of one hundred yellow violets-the lovely flower which appeared on surrounding terraces and canyons and inspired the school colors: gold and brown.

In 1922 the Johnsons’ twenty-seven-year-old niece, Ethel Sturges Durnmer, known as “Happy,” took over as principal-thus continuing the Sturges family influence at Parker. She had come to the school several years earlier to teach physical education and drama, after graduating from Francis Parker School in Chicago and from the University of Wisconsin. The following year she married Murney Mintzer. The three Mintzer daughters were born in the 1920s during Mrs. Mintzer’s years as principal. With the first baby, the family nurse-housekeeper would alert her when it was time for a nursing by raising a flag from the Mintzer home several blocks away. Mrs. Mintzer could see it from her office window, and thus carried out her dual role as mother and educator.

In 1929 she stated her priorities for the school:

In a number of its aims Parker School has differed from preparatory schools of the old type. In the first place it has tried to develop in its students the ability to think and reason clearly and logically rather than to make education simply a memory cramming process. Secondly, it has offered, at least to the pupils of the elementary school, the privilege of working to satisfy an interest in a subject rather than a required grade. It has endeavored to bring out rather than crush out individual differences in its students. And it has felt that students should be given an opportunity while in school to learn to take responsibility for themselves rather than to leave school still dependent upon discipline imposed by others.

Comments made later by Armistead Carter, Parker parent and Board President, reflect another of her priorities.

She recognized that in this country, and particularly in other countries, there are large groups of people who assume no responsibilities and will follow blindly any kind of leadership, good or bad. Mrs. Mintzer believed that if these people were taken when quite young, when they were in their early formative years, and given sufficient time and a good deal of help to build self-confidence and courage, that they then would become effective adults.

Mrs. Mintzer believed in young children and in people. She believed in the people with whom she worked to such an extent that she was able to make them believe in themselves.

From the beginning, parents had an important role at Parker. Each year several served with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson on a Board of Directors helping them run the school. A Parent-Teacher Association was formed in 1914. Members heard lectures by local and visiting educators, held informal discussions on child development and the work of the school and helped out with classroom and social events. One event that typified the parental role was a dinner for parents, prepared by girls of the domestic science class, followed by a complete school session with all students, teachers, and parents present. It was held in the evening to give mothers and fathers an opportunity to observe the work actually going on at the school.

By 1916, when the Parker parent group became affiliated with the City Federation of PTAs, membership stood at forty-two. Three years later Mrs. Curtis Hillyer, who had been President of the Parker Parent-Teacher Association, served as President of the City PTA. That same year a citywide study group was formed—an outgrowth of the Parker PTA Study Committee. Thus did Parker parents, with faculty encouragement, establish a precedent for educating themselves and other parents about their children’s education—to learn what they could do to ensure the best results.

By the mid-twenties the Johnsons and Mrs. Mintzer wanted parents to have a more active role in school governance. An Interim Board was formed to help arrange gradual transfer of decision-making to parents. Members included parents, faculty representatives, the Johnsons, and Mrs. Mintzer. Mr. Gould, a parent, served as the first Chairman.

Management of the school was officially transferred in 1927 to the Parker School Association-an organization of parents, educators and interested citizenry. Every parent automatically became a member of the Association. Its leaders acknowledged a need to carefully work out the kind of organization that practiced the democracy the school professed. The prospectus that year reflected their priorities. The school was not committed to an educational theory, either of academic tradition or of experimentation. Its purpose was rather to “present the heritage of the human past in a form which will help the student to participate understandingly in the life of his own day.”

While (the school) is now—in 1927-28—passing through a transitional stage in the growth of its corporate consciousness, parents who enroll their children here do so realizing that the school is upholding, through their cooperation and constructive criticism, ideals which are not only inspirational to their children, but also a definite contribution to the cause of education.

A school’s reasons for being are its educational program and the learning it promises. What was the curriculum actually like during Parker’s formative years? Students from nursery through senior high (until grades ten through twelve were discontinued after the 1929 depression) were nurtured in a rich environment by a faculty committed to the school’s ideals.

Comments made by several early Parker alumni, who got together in 1983 to reminisce, reflect varied opinions about their Parker experience. When talk turned to curriculum, one asked “When did Parker become less permissive and finally make people sit down and study? I had the most beautiful time but I certainly didn’t study.”

Most of her former classmates had different recollections. “We learned how to use our brains at Parker,” said one. “We did learn,” recalled another. “We’d go into the courtyard in history class with Mr. Smoor and everybody was interested and talking.” “I strongly reinforce that,” added a third, who had attended high school grades. “I can remember specific things I learned from Paul Coburn, talking about automobile engines with some of us who had just acquired driver’s licenses, and Sterling Smith explaining to me about stocks and bonds and business—maybe the result of questions I had asked. These kinds of informal learning situations were frequent.”

One student cited a requirement for three themes a week as evidence of the work level at Parker. “Mrs. Snyder opened up a whole new world for me in biology,” the alumna recalled. “Sterling Smith opened every math class with mental arithmetic, throwing questions to us faster and faster to get us warmed up.”

When asked about how a Parker education in those years prepared students for transfer to public schools and college, there was consensus that students felt stronger in some subjects and weaker in others. “We weren’t pressured as much at Parker. Big classes at college overwhelmed me at first, but as soon as I could make the adjustment I fit in because I had a good basis for studying and accomplishing things. All through Parker there was a terrific desire to accomplish whatever somebody had given us to do. We had wonderful preparation for college. In my year, two of the three who applied were admitted to Stanford.”

A study Mrs. Mintzer conducted in the 1920s compared the college success level of Parker graduates with students from other prep schools. It showed that Parker students did not do as well during their freshman year. The predominant “rote” learning method of other schools apparently carried over better at first, but its superiority petered out after that. The performance of Parker students, in contrast, continued to improve. Their curiosity and desire to learn apparently served them well throughout college years.

Students fondly remember the many plays, assemblies and festivals that were central to the education program in early years. Dramatics at Parker was more than a laboratory for the English Department. Particularly in upper grades, drama and art closely related to all academic subjects being studied. Dramatization of both great plays and original stories by students served to cultivate their interest in history, science, and math. The Art and Manual Training Departments created scenery and costumes—sometimes with help from parents. Music and dance were frequently part of presentations. Students sang together in class and at assemblies. During years when there was a high school, Parker had a Girls’ Glee Club and Boys’ Chorus.

Mrs. Mintzer placed great importance on the use of dramatics in the education and development of young children. She considered it one of the greatest aids to self-confidence and self-expression. She tried especially hard to bring out students who were bashful, often placing them in roles for which they did not seem well suited. “That is where her genius played an important part,” Armistead Carter later observed. “She demonstrated to them that any job worth doing could be done—and could be done well. All that was necessary for the child to do was to make up his mind that he could do it. And that was what she did with comparative ease. The places these children now occupy in life as adults prove the effectiveness and value of her use of the drama.”

The Thespian Society was very popular with high school students during the twenties. In addition to producing plays and helping to plan assemblies, members studied parliamentary law, gave programs on conducting elections, and sponsored parties. Alumni agree that this opportunity to perform and get public speaking experience, to develop poise and self-confidence, served them later in college, careers, and volunteer work.

The frequent assemblies, presided over by the student body president, were a special feature at Francis Parker. They sparked for students of every age an interest in the real world and served to develop a consciousness of sharing and caring. In addition to programs on drama, music and dance, arts and crafts, there were presentations by city officials, reports on field trips and special vacations, and academic topics such as a school-wide spelling bee. Audiences learned how to be good listeners, how to debate controversial subjects and be governed by student leaders. All became part of the growing “Parker Spirit.”

Festivals, fairs and special events such as pet day and kite day are fondly remembered by early Parker alumni. In addition to being fun, the Annual Fair held in early years provided opportunities for students to plan, decorate, and manage booths. Proceeds from booths went for commercial ventures such as the School Press and for charities such as the Red Cross and War Relief.

During one memorable year the point overlooking the valley was transformed into a Plains Indian village with a tepee and simulated pueblo-type house—a frame covered with gunny sacks and plastered with adobe from the site. In 1920 a Spanish Pageant, Fiesta and Fair filled the newly enclosed courtyard with scenes of mission life and dancing, while spectators watched from the portico and the roof of the new north wing. An English Festival one spring included a maypole dance, starting a tradition still carried on today.

Field trips, not then common in most schools, were another important part of being educated at Parker. Early years’ alumni recall visits to a saw mill and flour mill, to a paper box factory and wireless station, to San Diego’s Chinatown and Wangenheim’s wholesale grocers. The visits piqued student’s interest and formed the base for writing and math projects back in the classroom.

Mornings started with a flag raising ceremony in the courtyard. Sometimes there were talks on related subjects such as what flags stand for. During one program on “The Ideal of the Home, State, Nation and World,” students discussed what the school could do as a constructive part of each.

A 1918 San Diego Union article gave this account of the Parker brand of patriotism:

At Randolph and Arbor Way … at the Francis Parker School, on any morning of a school day, you may witness one of the most inspiring flag ceremonies that takes place in or about San Diego. …The school expresses the very essence of American ideals. Its whole work emphasizes the principles for which we are fighting in Europe. …

(It) is radical in its attempts to reform methods, but it is not radical in what it teaches. …The main purpose of Francis W. Parker School seems to be to make existing tools of education more effective. …

The tendency to develop responsibility in the child is a dominant factor. … Whether (the child) plays or studies, the one inflexible rule of the institution is that what is begun must be finished.
From “This School Makes American Citizens,” by Randolph Arlom, May 4, 1918.

Along with festivals there were often special projects. A memorable one at the time of the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915 was the model students built of the Panama Canal. It so delighted Zone Governor George Washington Goethals during a visit to the school that he sent a set of drawings of the Canal, which were framed and hung in the library.

In a number of ways this “progressive” school provided students with practical experiences they might not get at home and with opportunities to work together for their school-community. For example, students helped with planning and budgeting in the cafeteria. Money left over after expenses was used to cover bills for Domestic Science classes and to buy playground and sports equipment. Domestic Science was taught in a specially designed room where boys as well as girls learned to cook in “the most tasteful and economic ways.” Manual training had the upper grade boys making equipment for the lower grades. Flowers and vegetables were raised for the school and an attempt was made to raise bees and sell honey.

An old Gordon Type printing press that Mrs. Outcalt had secured became another example of Parker students’ semi-commercial ventures. The high school students decided that the printing department should endeavor to be self-supporting. They started with a monthly sheet the Ginger Snap, then introduced The Parker Post, printed and published by students. “We hope to arouse in the parents a deeper interest in the welfare of the school and the progress of their children by placing before them each month a record and report of what the school is doing.” Money was raised by subscriptions, advertising, sale of a school calendar and events such as the school fair. The faculty reported pride in this commercial achievement, but even more pleasure with the literary efforts that made up most of the publication.

A major project of the Junior Class from 1920 through 1929 was the writing, editing and business management of the school annual Gold and Brown. That included getting bids for outside printing and professional photography and selling advertising space.

Some qualified students were allowed to earn part of their tuition working, mostly in the cafeteria assisting in food preparation, setting tables, serving lunches and cleaning up. Boys also swept classrooms and corridors and helped set up chairs in the auditorium.

Physical education was another fundamental part of a Parker education. To enable the school to meet the needs of each individual, “scientific studies” of each child included a physical exam. Corrective exercise was prescribed where needed.

One of Parker’s most unique and colorful teachers was Mr. Tahar, a physical education instructor known fondly as “A. B.” The son of an Arabian Sheik, his full name was Abdullah Ben Tahar Sid (or Sahib) Mohammad. Tahar had been an acrobat and circus performer. All students remember being part of his pyramids and trying to do backbends, stand on their heads and walk on their hands. Some became skilled at walking a slackwire strung between posts in the courtyard, or walking and jumping rope on two-foot diameter wooden balls specially constructed by the Sullivan Lumber Company. In addition to obvious new challenges, both activities were designed to improve balance and strengthen weak ankles.

Tahar’s philosophy of physical education was rare in his time. He started classes with stretches, breathing and bending exercises and told students that every muscle should be stretched before it is exercised. He offered opportunities for feelings of challenge and accomplishment to children regardless of ability and was creative in thinking of activities to suit many ages. Mothers and teachers attended his classes for women that included exercises to ease conditions related to pregnancy and menstruation. He also conducted classes elsewhere for parents and their friends: at the Shelton home in La Jolla and for Tom Hamilton at the downtown Marstons department store which he managed. Student demonstrations of pyramids and other gymnastics were popular throughout the city.

A Parker Athletic Association was formed in 1918 with tennis, basketball and softball as three major sports. Football and basketball for boys and volleyball and basketball for girls were soon added. Football games with teams from other schools were held in a dusty field in Mission Valley near what is now the Hanalei Hotel.

Colonel Parker had seen the school as a transition from family life to living as a responsible, effective member of a larger community. Life at the school reflected this extended family concept in many ways. John Shelton, an alumnus and member of a family with close ties to the school, put it this way. “I realize how indistinct was the boundary between life in school and life after school, on weekends, vacations, etc. It is remarkable how much we did with Parker teachers and parents. Teachers who do things with students and the students’ families during their free time must be really dedicated and must really enjoy their work.”

Most Parker teachers in early years came from such universities as Columbia, Chicago, Missouri, California and Stanford. They were selected for an understanding of modern teaching methods and for sympathy with the school’s ideals as well as for their academic preparation. Local talent, some without formal training in teaching, was recruited to fill vacant spots in some years.

Teachers chosen were those who enjoyed the friendly, informal Way the Parker community worked together, freedom to plan their own work, and the responsibility of handling their own jobs—focused on the goal of ensuring the growth of each individual student. It meant harder work than public school teaching, an all-absorbing interest in the job, more preparation time, open-mindedness and willingness to experiment, plus keeping up with trends in education and child psychology. It was a difficult and uncharted course, Mrs. Mintzer admitted to the faculty. But she promised that the School would respond with loyalty to its teachers. It would help to develop their potential, doing for them what it was expected they try to do for each child.

Mrs. Irene Thuli took over as Principal of Parker School in 1930. She had attended the Universities of Chicago and Arizona, done graduate work at Berkeley, and been a teacher and Assistant Principal at Parker. Mrs. Thuli believed the school was committed to giving academic training in the most efficient, effective way known but she retained a broad view of the purpose of schooling. Because education is dynamic with conditions and student needs constantly changing, she believed continuous, goaldirected study by faculty was essential. To reach common goals, she shared her own educational objectives with the staff and encouraged frank discussion.

The financial situation at Parker was often tenuous during its first fifteen years. Tuition, which ranged from $75 to $140 in 1917, did not cover expenses. For more than a decade the Johnsons picked up the deficit, which got as high as $28,000 one year. Parents and supporters provided scholarships and helped by contributing or locating many items the new school needed.

Mrs. Johnson, who had separated from her husband and moved to New York, suffered major financial losses in the depression years. She was no longer able to meet the Parker deficit. By 1932 enrollment had dropped to sixty. A number of parents worked part time at the school in lieu of paying tuition.

As Board President Armistead Carter later explained, the school was broke. Its fairy godmother had withdrawn her support, and a world-wide depression was at hand. The Parker School Association had little experience and no organization for raising funds to help weather the storm. Progressive education was not fully accepted by the public, and private schools were not very popular in San Diego and the West.

The School was dramatically saved from extinction on April 17, 1932. At a meeting of the Association it was recognized that the school had to be closed. A vote made the decision official and the meeting was adjourned. Seeing tears in Mrs. Mintzer’s eyes moved Carter to stand up, call the meeting back to order, and ask for appointment of a committee to try solving the problem so the school could continue. The committee consisted of Carter and three other parents: Dwight Bell, Alan LeMay and John O’Hair, plus Mrs. Mintzer and Mrs. Thuli. The small group got to work with renewed resolve; incorporation papers were filed the following September.

They decided upon reflection that they had a school which by then was recognized throughout the United States and in several foreign countries (if not in San Diego) as an outstanding progressive school. (A guest book kept during initial years contains names of many national and international visitors, including Maria Montessori of Italy.) The committee was determined to maintain the school’s high rating and standards and, if possible, a teaching staff they believed to be excellent. In a demonstration of sacrifice and commitment, the faculty agreed to accept as salaries whatever money could be raised—one of the chief reasons the school was able to continue.

Mrs. Thuli, who fell and broke her hip in the fall of 1932, continued her part in the fight to recruit students and keep the school alive from her bedside in the hospital and then at home. With renewed effort and determination, reinvigorated by the committee and incorporation of the Parker Association, somehow the school’s leadership “muddled through.”

Mrs. Mintzer served as principal until 1929, then as Director until her untimely death from cancer in 1938. She had expanded her educational and civic activities beyond the school. She designed and had produced a set of blocks to help teach young children arithmetic, algebra and geometry through play. She was the first president of the San Diego League of Women Voters and served on boards and committees of various arts and community organizations. She chaired a citizens group that worked with the City Schools’ Board of Education to establish four federally funded nursery schools for children of working mothers. And with Armistead Carter and local Ford dealer Walter Casey, she helped establish the Civic Affairs Conference which recruited and helped elect four reform candidates to the City Council. For the Francis W. Parker Centennial Conference in Chicago in the fall of 1937, where the subject was “Where Is Education Going?,” Mrs. Mintzer prepared an interpretation of Colonel Parker’s educational philosophy that embodied her own ideals, titled “The Zest for Learning.”

Comments at Mrs. Mintzer’s memorial service attested to her educational and civic impact in San Diego:

To all school people, teachers and administrators alike, Mrs. Mintzer has been a sort of unofficial adviser. …Consistently, for many years, school people have gone to Mrs. Mintzer for advice and counsel. Never has she failed us.
Will C. Crawford, Superintendent San Diego School District

We deeply appreciate (her) ideally practical patriotism. Doing good for a community … requires intelligence, sanity, honesty and unselfish motives in the citizens, their leaders and their officials. Mrs. Mintzer exemplified these characteristics.
Dr. Harvey Stallard, Civic Affairs Conference

A statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the friendly Saint whom Mrs. Mintzer deeply admired, preserves her memory in the school’s courtyard. The Mexican onyx stone, purchased with alumni gifts, was carved by art teacher Isabelle Churchman using ideas provided by clay models made by students.

One more hurdle had to be overcome before parent control and the school’s continued existence was assured. In 1941, Mrs. Johnson was approached by a local real estate agent on behalf of the Catholic Bishop of the San Diego Diocese who was interested in purchasing the school. She sent her eldest son Winthrop, an attorney, to San Diego to see if the school had served its purpose. The Johnsons’ original plan was to discontinue the school when successes resulting from the progressive education experiment and experience had been absorbed by the public schools.

Winthrop Johnson found that many aspects of the kinds of teaching developed at Parker had indeed been accepted in both public and private schools. A 1937 letter from Walter Hepner, President of San Diego State College, said the school “is to be congratulated upon the splendid educational contributions that it is making in this community. …(It) is using the freedom and the opportunities which are inherent in private school organization for experimentation and for the demonstration of improved practices.” Caroline Cummins, Headmistress of Bishop School, commented that Parker 9th grade graduate transfers were not only well prepared, but had a “loyalty of spirit and a sense of responsibility which has made them helpful citizens.”

Johnson also found a dedicated, committed group of parents and faculty who wanted Francis Parker School to continue. He reported to his mother about the school’s continued stature in the community and his view that management had improved under Mrs. Thuli. He cited Armistead Carter’s appointment to the State Board of Education as an example of the level of interest of Parker parents in education beyond the confines of Parker. Convinced, Mrs. Johnson negotiated with the Parent Association leaders. In a final generous gesture, she agreed to sell the property and buildings for $35,000—considerably less than its worth but all the parents could afford at the time.

During the 1939-40 school year, C. Arnholt Smith, President of the Parker Board, reportedly foretold World War II and predicted there would be a scarcity of school space in San Diego. An increased military presence and expansion of the city’s defense industry seemed likely. The Board therefore launched a program to enlarge the facilities to handle the anticipated increased load.

Smith’s prediction proved accurate. Wartime conditions and their aftermath doubled enrollment during the next years, the treasury was replenished, and for the first time the school operated soundly in the black. Mr. Smith received much of the credit. Mrs. Thuli told parents at the Annual Meeting that he not only had planned the improvements but had been on hand daily to see that they were executed.

In 1943, the Board presented Arnholt Smith with a testimonial recognizing his “devotion, ability and zeal so brilliantly displayed in the school’s behalf.” They praised his efforts that “prevented the sale of the school to outside bidders, financed the school’s unique plan of ownership by the Parents Association, carried out a program of improvement in buildings and grounds, enabled the School to set up a substantial reserve, and stimulated the largest enrollment in the School’s long history.”

The war years brought special problems along with bigger enrollments. All schools had difficulty getting textbooks, educational toys and playground equipment. Parker had to arrange extended day-care for children of working parents; the playground was crowded after school. Four adults and a ninth grade “Playground Squad” helped direct games and care for younger children. Students helped with chores such as clearing weeds because janitorial help was hard to get with pay much higher in defense industries. Attempts were made to get draft deferments for male teachers. The biggest problem was that of coping with a constantly shifting student population. The continual movement of armed forces and defense workers in and out of San Diego required continual adjustments.

Wartime brought other special challenges to teachers and students. For some months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, San Diego prepared for a possible attack. Defense precautions made the threat of war seem very close. Parker game nights had to be discontinued because of blackouts; barrage balloons, tended by small contingents of soldiers, were in the air to protect against attack. One of them hung above houses a few blocks from the school. As part of the defense preparedness plan, students gave up PE time to fill and sew sandbags on the playground. The bags then became part of a bomb shelter on the lower level of the school’s east wing.

In a newspaper article headed “Now What Shall We Teach?”, Mrs. Thuli discussed the dilemma presented by World War Il. For nearly twenty-five years since the first World War schools and colleges had been educating for peace, she reminded readers, particularly a school such as Parker founded on the Golden Rule and Colonel Parker’s principles. What should be taught the young now, in addition to and beyond self-preservation?

Shall we spend the next 25 years after this war is over trying to rebuild their faith in mankind, holding peace as the goal of life, or shall we admit that wars are necessary and prepare them to protect themselves from this scourge which sweeps over us at fairly frequent intervals? … Unless education prepares youth to ‘come to terms with whatever life has to offer’ it is valueless.

During the 1930s and 1940s Parker’s academic aims at the junior high level were superior to those of any school in San Diego. The rigid course requirements were justified, the school’s leaders believed, by the record of graduates in high school and college and by the fact that most Parker students were college bound. In 1946 the Secondary Association (of private schools) in California, to which Parker belonged, formed an affiliated organization of lower schools. Parker was one of eight schools in the state invited to create the affiliate (based on its reputation and the excellent performance of graduates at schools such as Webb, Thatcher and the Bishop Schools).

The group set up a Code of Standards (not as high as those Parker had maintained) and established a Board of Standards to visit the schools and report annually. The Board included representatives of two private schools, Scripps College, the University of California and an Assistant Superintendent of the Los Angeles City Schools. Their reports, together with results from the National Testing Bureau of Independent Schools, were used by Parker teachers for annual review—to help keep them aware of the need to balance the values of progressive and formal education procedures.

The trend toward increased academic emphasis did not dilute the rich program that had become the foundation of a Parker education. Continuing to believe that children need to express what they know and feel in creative ways, the curriculum still included art and handicraft, speech arts, and music or rhythm. The development of poise, emotional stability, happiness and self-confidence that resulted from creative activities were felt to be proof of their importance in the education of children. Mrs. Thuli assured parents of the school’s commitment to both academic and other aspects of the child’s growth, inviting them to visit often. “You will see your children involved in many active experiences which are designed to help them ‘grow up’ and accept their share of responsibility in their school life.”

With this continuing goal of helping each child grow toward his finest potential, groups remained small so that every child could have a chance to develop initiative and leadership. Individual counseling was still included in the program. In discipline matters, teachers were urged to develop cooperative responses from children as a group, by whatever method they chose consistent with school principles. Teacher guidelines called for maintaining decorum in the classroom, with the teacher’s relationship clearly defined as one of authority in matters affecting the welfare of the group. Teacher requests were to be respected.

A Book of Etiquette, prepared by a committee of faculty and students, gave regulations for correct behavior in the classroom, lunchroom, chapel, assemblies, playground, courtyard, and even on the streetcar. Its contents were frequently referred to in class discussion—which teachers found valuable in “unifying the responses and attitudes of various groups” of students.

Active participation in student government continued. The School Council, consisting of two members each elected from grades three through nine, met each week with Mrs. Thuli as their advisor. Council members were given considerable voice in helping to shape school policy, so teachers were urged to guide the classes toward fair and wise choices. Elections were not to be popularity contests. Teachers encouraged those elected to take a responsible interest in school affairs and to make constructive suggestions to the council. Formal class meetings, conducted under parliamentary procedure, were held promptly after council meetings.

Other activities also helped prepare students for effective lives as adults. Those from grades five on, for example, obtained supplies from the school store. Check books were provided at a cost of seven cents, and teachers helped the children keep accurate records.

Jackson Wooley, who had just completed two years as a Globe Theater lead actor at the San Diego Exposition, became drama coach as well as 8th grade teacher. Joe Swedelius, former Globe Theater folk dancer, taught students dances from many lands as well as taking over physical education and wood shop. After Isabelle Churchman departed, art was taught by Ella Marie Packard (later Wooley) and then by Belle Baranceaneau—both of whom became accomplished, recognized San Diego artists. In addition to the regular faculty, many students received tennis lessons from Binney Brinton, piano lessons from Jim O’Connor in his studio across the street, or dancing with Mr. Thompson. Non-denominational chapel services were held each Monday morning, conducted first by Father Williams and later by the Reverend John Wylie. Opportunities for social growth continued. In addition to the student council and assemblies, held not quite as frequently as in early years, Parker traditions such as Games Night, Field Day, Kite and Pet Day, as well as groups such as the Cub Scouts, were continued.

The first half of the twentieth century concluded, in 1950, with Mrs. Thuli’s retirement. Francis Parker School had become firmly established as one of the most highly regarded schools in San Diego, a reputation it continues to hold today.

After eighty years, Parker remains at the forefront of education excellence and innovation, and continues an interest in sharing the results of proven successes with the San Diego community. As this article is written, the school is planning a two-day Education Fair for November 5 and 6, open to the public, to highlight education past, present, and future. In addition to demonstrating what classrooms and curriculum were and are like in the teens/20s, the 30s/40s, and currently, visitors will see a classroom of the future. They will have opportunities to talk with teachers and producers of the latest technology, and to hear predictions by Parker and public school authorities on how schools will change and/or retain features of the past and present.



Curti, Merle. Social Ideals of American Educators. Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1968.

“Francis Parker School on Camera, 1912-1971: A Kaleidoscope of Its Past; A Projection of Its Future.” San Diego Magazine (April 1971): 100-107.

“Frank Talk About a Private School.” San Diego Magazine (Oct.-Nov. 1952): 22-23, 39-42.1

Johnson, W. Templeton. “Studying Out-of-Doors: An Open-Air School that Furnishes a New Ideal in Education.” Craftsman Publishing Company, September 1916.

___. “Where Lessons Come From Real Things: The Parker School in the Open Air at San Diego, California.” The Survey, Survey Association, New York, September 1914.

Kazin, Alfred. A Walker in the City: From the Subway to the Synagogue. New York: Harcourt Brace,1951.

Lichtman, Ethel M. The Francis Parker School Heritage. San Diego: Francis W. Parker School, 1985.

___. “Progressive Education Revisited: Early Years in the Francis Parker Schools at San Diego and Chicago—What Relevance for Today.” Unpublished ms. Stanford University, 1974.

Mintzer, Ethel Dummer. “The Zest for Learning.” Educational Trends. Northwestern University, April-May, 1938.

Origins and Aims of the Francis W. Parker School. Chicago, 1912.

Parker School Publications: brochures, bulletins, and prospectives; year books; student newsletters and publications.

Personal Notes: Adele Meyer Outcalt, first principal; Ethel Dummer Mintzer, second principal and later, director; Armistead Carter, parent and board president; Irene F.Thuli, third principal.

Stone, Harold A. City Manager Government in San Diego. Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1939.

Ethel Mintzer Lichtman, a retired educator, is the daughter of Ethel Dummer Mintzer who served as the second principal of Francis Parker School and later became the school’s director. Ms. Lichtman holds a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in Education Administration-both degrees from Stanford University. She has served as an Assistant to the Director of Teacher Education at Stanford, as Executive Director of the Action Center for Citizens in Education in Menlo Park, and as a consultant to the California State Department of Education. In San Diego, Ms. Lichtman has been Assistant Development Director at Children’s Hospital and Health Center. She retired last year after ten years as Director of Volunteer Services and Development for the San Diego office of Children’s Home Society of California.