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By Scott Roberto / August 24, 12:00 AM
A Peek at the Past: North Bennet Street School
Photo: A. H. Folsom, c. 1892–1893/courtesy of Boston Public Library

 

Although it has evolved over the years, the North End-based North Bennet Street School has been instrumental in the betterment of its students lives, educating countless men, women and children for more than a century. What began as a charitable organization dedicated to helping immigrants acclimate to life in the U.S. is now one of the premier locales in the country to learn traditional crafts.


The institution began its life at 39 Bennet Street as the North End Industrial Home, a settlement house for recent arrivals to these shores. It became the North Bennet Street Industrial School (NBSIS) in 1881 thanks to philanthropist and visionary Pauline Agassiz Shaw, and, in 1885, the Board of Managers purchased the building. The school continued to aid immigrants by offering vocational training to both men and women, while lessons were also extended to Boston school children, who used Bennet Street’s rented space and equipment as part of Boston Public School’s manual arts requirement for decades. Trades and classes taught at the school in the early days included instruction in home economics, woodworking and printing. The school also offered social services, a library and recreational opportunities. In 1889, NBSIS became an early American adopter of the Swedish “sloyd” method of education, which involved giving students progressively more difficult craft projects in order to improve efficiency and knowledge. 


The types of classes and people taught over its history have changed, yet the main mission of improving the lives of students through the teaching of practical skills has remained. Acknowledged as America’s first trade school, the institution—which shortened its name to North Bennet Street School in 1981—continued to grow in size and prestige over the course of the 20th century. This prompted a major transition in this century as the school left its original home in 2013 and consolidated all operations—some of which had expanded to other neighborhoods and the suburbs—at a new, larger facility at 150 North Street carved out of Boston’s old printing building and a former police station. Current classes include bookbinding, cabinet and furniture making, jewelry making, locksmithing, and violin making and repair. More information on current offerings can be found at nbss.edu

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