In the early years of the 20th Century, education was a scare commodity. In rural Wisconsin, over half of the students quit by fifth grade and only one in 30 graduated from high school. Wisconsin's agricultural, forestry, and mining economies called for physical labor, so for most, there was no need for more education. However, as automation required workers to have more skills, the 1900s brought out a need for education that had not existed before.
In 1911, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the first comprehensive continuation school legislation in the country. It established a system of state supported continuation schools for boys and girls who had quit school, evening schools for adults, and trade schools. The first continuation school opened in October, 1911 in Racine.
From the beginning, it was realized that learning by doing was essential for students. Courses would be offered that were needed by local workers for local industries. Each school would be tailored to its own community. By design, continuation schools were to have teachers from the workforce, not lifelong academics.
La Crosse Continuation and Adult Schools was established in 1912. Free Day School classes began on Monday, Oct. 28, in two rooms – the kitchen and a shop – in the old Longfellow (First Ward) school building on 6th and Vine Streets – the present site of Western's Coleman Center. Free Evening School was also offered at First Ward as well as the La Crosse High School, at 16th and Cass Streets.
After the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the first federal legislation specifically for vocational education, created a federal, state, and local support system for the schools. All institutions previously known as continuation schools became vocation schools. The vocational school's purpose was threefold: to give advice, give help, and give guidance to all people to enable them to meet new occupational situations. The philosophy held by the La Crosse Vocational School was that it would never be too big to care for individual cases.
Vocational schools became a critical resource during the U.S. involvement in World War I (1917-1919). The La Crosse School was used as a training station to assist the federal government, providing classes for motor truck drivers, electricians, gas engine repairmen, and radio and buzzer operators every evening of the week.
Other interesting facts:
The first two instructors: Thomas G. Sutherland had a salary of $1,600 and Miss Gertrude L. Brandt was paid $600, with Mr. Sutherland also serving as the first director of the school.
The first part-time teachers were paid $1 per hour and taught for 4 hours per week.
Free Evening School possible subjects included:
Bookkeeping, Cabinetmaking, Home Decoration, Shorthand, Electrical Work Mathematics, Typewriting, Plain Sewing, Safety Devices, Penmanship, Cooking Hygiene, Mechanical Drawing, Dressmaking, Telegraphy, Pattern Making, Millinery, Practical and Business English, Joinery, Sanitation English, Government, and Citizenship for Foreigners.
Enrollment for the 1912-1913 school year:
Day Permit Pupils 212
All-Day Pupils 22
Evening School 566
By 1919, Day School had an enrollment of 825 pupils and 1,760 people enrolled in Evening School classes.
John B. Coleman was hired as director of the La Crosse Vocational School in September, 1916, a position he held for 47 years.