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Miss Woodward, innovator at BFS and beyond from 1900 to 1951

Examining the history of Brooklyn Friends School means also examining the history of education in Brooklyn and New York City. Brooklyn Friends School has a long history of educational innovations, but it also has a long history of allowing innovative educators to implement their ideas at BFS.

E. Frances Woodward
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1951,
accessible courtesy of fultonhistory.com

Ella Frances Woodward exemplifies our long-standing commitment to educational innovation and to supporting innovative teachers.
Educated at Pratt Institute, Miss Woodward graduated in 1900 and worked as an assistant at Pratt’s kindergarten for a year before going to the Gerald Memorial Kindergarten, part of the Brooklyn Free Kindergarten Society, becoming Gerald’s director in a short time. The BFS kindergarten only began in 1902 and Miss Woodward joined BFS as a kindergarten teacher in the fall of 1907. Miss Woodward was deeply connected with the Froebel League of New York, one of many such leagues named for the German educator Friedrich Froebel who believed that all children possess unique needs and talents, the man who first named and created the idea of kindergartens.

It is interesting to note that kindergarten education was once for all children between the ages of 2 and 7 years old, very different from the modern kindergarten now present in the United States in which kindergarten is considered more of an academic grade. During the early years of kindergarten education at BFS, it was not unusual for children to enter the kindergarten at three years of age, then spend perhaps two years in the kindergarten before beginning the 1st grade when they were ready.

Miss Woodward soon made her mark at BFS in several areas which are now considered standards at both BFS and in education in the United States. One was the outdoor classroom, an educational movement which apparently grew from President Theodore Roosevelt’s recommendations of the benefits of outdoor life. While BFS was educating children outdoors in warmer months, Ms. Woodward is the teacher who began the practice of holding classes year-round, with children in wearing their coats and “leg-bags” which kept them warm. At BFS, the outdoor classrooms, in old photographs, seem quite similar to lean-tos. Outdoor education was a feature of every BFS education from approximately 1910 to 1932 or so, when the rooftop classrooms were converted to recreational space. BFS always used the yard next to the Meeting House for play and for physical education, but the early 20th Century’s outdoor education movement lies at the heart of BFS’s long history of rooftop playgrounds.

Other innovations from Ms. Woodward occurred in the Mothers’ Club which was founded for kindergarten parents in 1903 and is the forerunner of our Parent Teachers Club and our present association, Parents and Teachers (the PAT).  By the time Miss Woodward joined BFS, the Mothers’ Club was only a few years old and was committed to parental education and had already begun featuring a speakers series of “educational experts.” Miss Woodward joined the Mothers’ Club immediately as she felt parental education was as important as educating children and she soon expanded the Mothers’ Club so to include parents of all grades, beyond the kindergarten, and she offered weekly classes and meetings. Miss Woodward’s aim was to “promote intelligent and sympathetic understanding of child life and to keep in touch with present educational movements. Lectures from time to time by prominent educators, general discussion on child study, the home and kindred subjects are some of the means used to awaken the feeling of cooperation so desirable between patrons [parents] and school.”

From Seventy-Five Years of Brooklyn Friends School:


Mrs. Eastman [former BFS teacher and parent], on the occasion of the [Parent Teacher] Club’s twentieth anniversary, in commenting on these early times recalled that the constitution of the new organization read, “The purpose and object in this club is to maintain and further the interest in our school and to mother the universal child.”

This last clause is explained by the fact that Miss Woodward had come to Friends from a kindergarten entirely made up of the children of the very poor. The contrast between the two groups she found amazing. The poor children reached out thirstily, in her first kindergarten, for all they could get; the more well-to-do, selected children in Friends placidly accepted Kindergarten as just one more agreeable interest in their pleasant, sheltered lives. Miss Woodward, therefore, brought to the new Mothers’ Club, first hand, the need of children in poor neighborhoods and the need of more intelligent mothering generally. In working for less fortunate children, she thought the Club members would probably be better, perhaps more worthy, mothers of their own children. Anyhow, she fired that early Club with so strong a social sense that from the first it has been something to reckon with.” 

With those paragaphs in mind, it is easy to conclude that Miss Woodward’s influence may well have been behind the decision to open our Grace Court Playground to the public as soon as it was acquired. Read of the history our Grace Court Playground in last December’s post to understand the playground movement, the lack of playgrounds in Brooklyn at the time, and the response from BFS. 

In addition to teaching in the BFS kindergarten, Miss Woodward soon became the head of both our Kindergarten and Primary (Lower School) departments. By 1918, her duties expanded to include acting as the Executive Assistant to our new principal Guy C. Chipman, and she became the Assistant Principal three years later. Her several years in that last position must have led to her next career move.

After 20 years with BFS, E. Frances Woodward opened her own school in 1928, The Woodward School for students in grades kindergarten through 8th grade, and many of its students continued their educations at Brooklyn Friends School. First founded in 1928 at 506 Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill (this building no longer exists), it was in such demand that it soon moved to larger quarters at 321 Clinton Avenue (that building is considered one of the mansions in Clinton Hill, and is now a co-operative apartment building). In 1978, The Woodward School merged with the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School, moved to Ethical Culture’s home at the historic Hulbert Mansion on Prospect Park West, and changed its name to The Woodward Park School. In 1995, due to decreasing enrollment resulting from the “Baby Bust” of the 1960s and 1970s which caused many NYC independent schools to close or merge during the 1990s, the Woodward Park School and its property was acquired by Poly Prep’s Lower School.

Miss Woodward died in 1951 at the age of 75, shortly after celebrating her 50 years as a Brooklyn educator with a gala testimonial dinner at the Towers Hotel in Brooklyn Heights. Her celebratory dinner was attended by many luminaries, and the speakers that night included Horace Mann’s Principal Dr. Mitchell Gratwick and Charles Pratt, President of Pratt Institute, who had been one of Ms. Woodward’s first students at Pratt Institute when she was an assistant teacher. In recapping her 50-year career, The Brooklyn Eagle reported that Miss Woodward “introduced such revolutionary education practices as bringing parents into the classroom and making them a part of the school program; evening classes in cooking, nursing, sewing and child study for the mothers of the… children she taught by day; and democratic classroom procedures to replace the lecture and textbook.”

One must remember that education in the 19th Century was highly focused on recitations, drills and oral quizzes. The Eagle also reported in 1951, “The idea was the once revolutionary one in the field of education that children are human individuals, not empty receptacles to be stuffed with knowledge-by-rote. The person was E. Frances Woodward, who translated the idea into living practical reality… [creating classrooms] where seats and desks are not nailed down and children forget the distinction betweeen study and play.” We can still be grateful for Miss Woodward’s deep impact on education and on Brooklyn Friends School.