Most of the children of Wisconsin’s German immigrants attended public schools, where the language of instruction was sometimes German, especially in rural areas. German parochial schools were popular, too, with many Lutheran schools teaching in German well into the 20th century. Communities legislated their own requirements, such as five months of “winter school” (public) in English and two months of “summer school” (parochial) in German.
One unique Milwaukee school was the German-English Academy, founded in 1853. With all subjects taught in both languages, it emphasized natural sciences and hands-on learning. The school’s collection of natural specimens eventually became the nucleus of the Milwaukee Public Museum. In 1917, the Academy changed its name to Milwaukee University School, now known as University School of Milwaukee.
Progressive methods in early-childhood education were promoted by the German immigrant Margarethe Meyer Schurz, who moved with her family to Watertown in 1855. Trained in the Froebel method, she opened a Kindergarten (preschool) in her neighborhood, which is now considered America’s first kindergarten.
To improve teacher education and as a bilingual alternative to the state’s normal schools, the National German-American Teachers Seminary was established in Milwaukee in 1878. It prepared teachers to teach all subjects in German and English. Meanwhile, Catholic schools recruited among the Sisters of St. Dominic in Racine and St. Francis in Milwaukee; and Lutheran synods trained young male teachers at Northwestern College in Watertown.
Going to school as a German-American child brought unique challenges. At home, many children spoke regional dialects of German. In school, they had to learn to read and write in standard High German and also in English. In addition, they had to master two different script and print styles: “Latin” print and script for English texts and Fraktur (print) and Kurrent (script) for German.
In 1889, at a time of economic recession and anti-immigrant sentiments, the Wisconsin legislature passed the Bennett Law, which stipulated that reading, writing, arithmetic, and United States history be taught in English. German Americans and other immigrant groups interpreted the law as an affront against their patriotism, culture, language, academic standards, and – since by 1889 most German instruction occurred in parochial schools – their religion. Wisconsin’s ethnic populations banded together in protest, and in 1891 a new legislature repealed the Bennett Law.
Today English is the dominant language across Wisconsin. German has been abandoned as a language of instruction and is taught primarily as a foreign language, with the notable exception of the Milwaukee German Immersion School. Yet the question of how best to teach children from non-English-speaking backgrounds is as current as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.