Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Foundation School: Home

Written by Heather Dent

Foundation School

The Foundation School served as a secondary educational institution as a part of Berea College for over fifty years, from 1911 through 1968. This institution was established under the administration of William Goodell Frost and flourished under his supervision. The Foundation School’s primary goal was to educate and fulfill the needs of boys and girls from the Appalachian Mountains. President Frost observed that, “The mountains were full of respectable and brainy people who could not read. Here was, and is the largest mass of native white illiteracy in our country – a condition to be attacked from every side.”

Frost not only wanted to educate students in mathematics,literacy, and science, he aspired to teach the Foundation Students skills that would come in handy for their careers in the mountains. He placed a great deal of emphasis on furnishing “facilities for a thorough education to all persons of good moral character – not only those of different races, but to those of different life-careers.” He explained, “It is not enough to train selected boys for the learned professions. Christian education must take account of more than preachers, lawyers and doctors. Every boy, every girl, must find at Berea training for whatever is to be his or her life’s calling.”

Student Life at the Foundation School
Students fifteen and older were admitted into the school, and lived away from home in the school dormitories. These dormitories were built in 1916. Talcott and Kentucky Hall were built to house the Foundation School girls until the time school closed. They were both three story brick buildings with over 50 dormitory rooms in each and dining rooms in the basements. That same year two boys’ dormitories were built: Blue Ridge and Cumberland Hall. It has been said that Cumberland Hall was built within a 90 day period – the fastest that any building of its size has ever been built on campus.

Although the staff and quality of the institution were better than what most of the incoming students experienced back home many were unable to adjust to life at the Foundation School. During the year 1933 – 1934, ninety-eight students from a total enrollment of one-hundred and thirty three left for home before completing the entirety of the school year. Fifty-five reported leaving because they were dissatisfied, six claimed illness, twelve said they were needed at home, and twenty four were sent home for violating regulations. Despite the numbers of those unable to finish their education at the school, President Frost maintained a positive attitude. He said, "Much can be done for a boy or girl in a stay too short to called a course – one winter term! The mere overcoming of homesickness and going away from home with some aspiring thoughts is educational. The meeting with others who are bent on self-improvement is an enrichment of the soul. The new contact with teachers and authors are worth more than any facts of information, precious as these may be. The briefest experience of this kind, even if one goes home before the end of a single term, gives much that the best of high schools in one’s home area could never give. There is the journey beyond fixed horizons, meeting new people, some of whom will be unusual; coming to know a roommate, approaching new teachers, gathering in chapel, beholding a library, wondering over what may be going on in other class rooms – such thrills and gropings giving the mind an expansion it can never lose. Every human being that lives to be fifteen years old ought to have one taste of school away from home."

Boys and Girls from the Mountains
Most of the incoming Foundation School students came from poor rural backgrounds and obtained their early education in one-room schools under inadequately trained teachers working with practically no equipment and teaching aids. Data collected by the county superintendents in 1932 revealed that 30 percent of pupils in the rural schools of eastern Kentucky did not have school books. One boy attending the Foundation School described his school at home:

"The school house was by the side of a creek. It was about thirty feet long and twenty five feet wide. We had benches around the wall for seats and the teacher had a chair at one end of the building. He would call the class up front to recite. We had no lights at all. When it got cloudy we would go home because of no lights.
When school was out the men that owned the building would put hay inside of it. The next year they would clean the building up and teach just the same.

When it got cold we would put pasteboard over the windows to keep the wind and snow out. We just had a little stove in the center of the house. We would almost fight for who should sit around it.

It was very dangerous for anyone to get close to the stove, for fear someone would push you into it. I had to walk two miles to the school. When I got there I would be almost frozen to death before the teacher came. When the teacher came we would build a fire in the stove and have classes the rest of the day."

Because many of these students came from such modest backgrounds and limited resources, many came up with creative ways to earn money for their education at Berea. One boy made a drilling machine with his own hands in order to drill wells for money. He and his brother worked on it together inventively using the limited resources they had, such as an engine taken from an old discarded ford in their barnyard, to create the drilling machine at a modest expense. They could not afford new parts so they traveled as far as fifty miles to obtain some second hand parts. The overall cost of assembling the drill was $12.00. He made $220.00 from drilling wells that summer, enough to allow him to come back to school.

Teaching at the Foundation Schools
Teachers at the Foundation Schools had the rewarding opportunity to watch their students grow and develop from boys and girls who could barely read and write into well educated young men and women. On one occasion in a general science class at the academy a teacher pulled out a chart showing the development of life, from the cell to human birth, and a boy exclaimed, “My goodness, my goodness, I’ll bet that 90 percent, no, 95 percent of all the grown folks in the mountains, never have and never will know half as much as we can learn about life right here from this chart.”

The instructors also had to face several obstacles and frustrations. English teachers were faced with the challenge of getting their students back onto the same level as the rest of the United States. One English teacher Miss Clark described these difficulties:

"It is impossible to use any text book without considerable supplementary material. For example, a certain highly recommended eighth grade work book gives as its first rule in punctuation: ‘A comma should be used between two principal clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction.’ An excellent rule, but my pupils do not know what a clause or a conjunction is, and as far as for the word coordinating, I shrink from considering how long it would take to explain its meaning satisfactorily."

Another instance demonstrating the delayed progress of these young mountain students before coming to the Foundation School occurred in another English teacher’s class. The teacher, Miss Cowan, recalled her students as being far behind in reading competency. She recorded that, “One day last fall I left my paper on my classroom desk. When I returned the class was all excited for one boy had read the paper and reported to the class that Roosevelt had been arrested for driving. This is what the paper said, “Roosevelt rests after his long and strenuous drive.”

Growth and Development
Foundation students developed in ways beyond what they learned in the classroom. One of the major changes that took place during their stay was their posture. Posture pictures were taken of every Foundation School pupil by the Physical Education Department. Many of the boys and girls coming to Berea for the first time walked with their head and shoulders forward, and chest cramped. Such posture if continued meant many of them were on their way to becoming old and bent in body while still in their youth. The difference between posture pictures taken in the fall and in the spring was highly noticeable. One young man in his second year at the Foundation School said in a conference with the dean, “I would not take five hundred dollars for what Berea has done for me besides my books. I am straightened up. Had I not come to Berea I would have been humped up and an old man at twenty-one.”

Foundation School teachers also noticed a difference in the grammar and accents used by the students after attending the school. Many students learned and recognized the importance of speaking correctly. Some students said things like, “If one cannot understand and express English he loses out in business and society, which are commonly thought to be the things necessary to happiness,” and “A mistake in grammar and spelling is like a dirty face.”

Recreational Activities
An activity the Foundation School highly encouraged was simply recreation through play. One staff member observed, “Boys and girls come to Berea from communities and homes that sadly lack the spirit of creative play. Many youngsters have become stiff and angular of body, and some at least are apparently aged in mind as well.” Another staff member expounded on this comment adding:

"One of the greatest difficulties we encounter is getting the boys started in physical education. Many of the new boys feel as though our program [physical education] is a work program – something as a burden to them; or else they have never had the opportunity to play nor express themselves physically. They have always used their bodies as a medium for work and drudgery – not play and recreation. We try to make them feel that their bodies have an intrinsic value far above the attitude of it being a work machine."

Games were considered an important method to teach students to lose their bashful shy attitudes and gain a sense of group consciousness, fair play and sportsmanship. Another work-free activity the Foundation Junior High school encouraged was leisurely reading. The school made a reading room available to its students containing over two thousand books. On one of the tables in the reading room was a “treasure chest”. Fastened to its lid was a candy bar wrapper and a sign saying “Three of these will buy a book,” indicating that if people would cut down on the candy they would be able to afford more books. Next to this was a “savings bank”, a collection of new edition fifteen cent books.

One man who took, placed particular awareness and concentration on the importance of reading in the Foundation School, was one of the deans, William Jesse Baird. He conducted a survey discovering that incoming students had only read an average of three books. To promote reading among the students he place in their hands a list of twenty-five books which “should have been read by every boy and girl by the age sixteen.” Near the end of the year another survey was taken and Baird discovered that nearly all of the students had read as many as ten books throughout the year and many had read all twenty-five on the list.

The Foundation School was one of the five secondary departments of Berea College. The other departments included the: College, Normal, Academy, and Vocational schools. During President Hutchins’s administration the Normal and Vocational schools were discontinued and the Academy was reorganized eventually becoming a part of the Foundation School. Out of the four secondary departments outside of the College, the Foundation School held out the longest. It was not until the late 1950’s when the school began to struggle finding students to enroll. The number of students enrolled began to decrease significantly in those years and finally the school was forced to close in 1968. At the final commencement exercises of the Foundation School on May 31, 1968, President Weatherford presented a tribute to the faculty of the school saying, "Since 1911, the Foundation School has opened the door of opportunity to children and youth of Appalachia. It has provided a high school of quality for those too isolated to reach county schools; it has given the personal encouragement and warm friendship some youth needed to see them through difficult years in school, and it has provided others with an enriched program not available locally. It has encouraged sound learning, intellectual curiosity and moral integrity. It has sent generations of youths into Appalachian communities equipped with needed skills and fired with enthusiasm to build a better life and a finer society. For all of these we pay high tribute to the Foundation School, to its teachers and staff and to those who have crossed its portals."

Additional Resources

  • Berea College Vertical File, Special Collections and Archives 

  • RG 6.03 – Academy School Annual Reports 1926-1927 to 1932-933, Berea College Archives 

  • Walters, Roy N. Historical Summary of the Foundation School, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky. Berea, Ky.: Berea College, 1974.  

Related Guides by Subject