The Moonlight Schools of Kentucky: Changing the face of literacy

The Moonlight Schools of Kentucky: Changing the face of literacy

On a moonlight evening in Rowan County, Kentucky, Cora Wilson Stewart stood in front of a small white one-room schoolhouse hoping some adults would come to learn to read and write.

Cora Wilson StewartThe idea was simple enough.

As superintendent of schools in Rowan County—then considered the poorest county in Kentucky—and editor of the local newspaper, the Rowan County Messenger, Stewart had made it known that when the moon was shining bright, local schoolhouses like Little Brushy would be open and volunteer teachers would be waiting to help adults learn to read and write. Adults were invited to come along the dirt roads and up from the “hollers” guided by the moonlight to learn. This humble beginning in September 1911 would later be known as the establishment of “night schools” across North America.

Stewart had no funding. Her school board colleagues thought the whole idea was a “quixotic” and a waste of time. They told her: “Elderly folks are too self-conscious and embarrassed to go to night school” (Taylor, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 52). Despite the cynicism and mockery, 1200 men and women across Rowan County enrolled in the first year, 1600 the second, and by 1913 no fewer than 25 Kentucky counties had established Moonlight Schools for adult learners (Baldwin, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 52). Families came carrying their children. Many dressed up for the evening lessons: women in their best dresses, men wearing coats and ties. The evening lessons were printed in the Rowan County Messenger every week.

Moonlight Schools of KentuckyFar from a waste of time, within four years Alabama had established “Adult Schools” and South Carolina created “Lay-By Schools.” In North Carolina “Community Schools” sprang up. “Schools for Grown-Ups” became common in Georgia and as far north as Minnesota. By 1915, the Kentucky Moonlight Schools model had reached Oklahoma, Washington and New Mexico. Stewart had created the model for millions where, on moonlight nights—or increasingly on any night in some states—volunteers were teaching adult literacy across North America. Yet few know Cora Wilson Stewart’s name today.

At age 15, Stewart had already begun teaching in the Morehead Public School, including her own brothers and sisters (Honeycutt Baldwin, 2006). Between school teaching sessions, she attended the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio, then continued her education at the Morehead Normal School and the State University of Kentucky. But it was adult literacy that became her life’s work.

By her own account, three incidents led her to focus on adult literacy. A mother asked for her help to write a daughter who had recently moved to Chicago. A middle-aged man “with tears in his eyes” begged to be helped to learn to read and write so he could feel “whole” (Mandrell, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 54). And, an aspiring local musician who could not write, and could therefore not pursue his dreams, asked Stewart for help.

Stewart wrote the first teaching manuals used across many of these adult schools, including the Country Life Readers. She later wrote The Prisoner’s First Book, then the Mother’s Book, in order to help whole families. She was named to the Kentucky Illiteracy Commission in 1914—a commission she herself had proposed—and became its chairperson.

Years ahead of her time, in a time of racism and prejudice towards American Indians, the white poor and African Americans, Stewart organized literacy classes for American First Nations on their reserves and both African American instructors and learners were included in the Moonlight School classrooms.

Far from a “fad and a failure”

During World War I, Stewart was asked to be the advisor to the U.S. army on adult literacy and wrote The Soldier’s First Book so the thousands of soldiers on the front lines with low-literacy skills could write home, and in turn, could read letters sent to them (Honeycutt Baldwin, 2006).

Stewart was an international literacy leader; yet, she toiled as a female educator in a male-dominated profession. When she returned to Kentucky in 1920 to continue her Kentucky efforts, she put forward a bill requesting $75,000 for adult literacy in Kentucky but it was defeated. Fifty-seven of the 120 county school superintendents were asked to vote. They chose to argue for funding for their own school system—for children not adults. Here is a “policy theme” still seen today in North America (Quigley, 2006). Her Superintendent colleagues denied her successes, calling literacy education “a fad and a failure” (Estes, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 56). Some insisted Stewart should “channel her effort” elsewhere—obviously meaning the school system. Stewart continued on with her work but, on December 1958 at age 83, she died in a North Carolina seniors home in relative obscurity.

Little Brushy SchoolhouseOn a personal note, I visited the original Little Brushy schoolhouse in Morehead, Kentucky, after speaking at a conference in Lexington some years ago. Now a local museum, the pot-bellied stove and shelves for boots and lunch buckets are still there.

Far from temporary

Sadly, myths such as the notion that low literacy is “temporary,” and does not really need permanent resources like other systems, still exist. The notion that low literacy affects only a small, “unfortunate” group of adults who are either “crazy or lazy” are just wrong. Yet, adult low literacy is still seen as a “problem” that can apparently be fixed or “cured” with a campaign or “new program.” Clearly the issues of this field are bigger than this.

The next story gives even more food for thought on how we need to see the larger issues—how literacy can shift from a primary focus on serving individual literacy learners to a widened perspective that sees and addresses issues of equity and literacy classism.

Read More

Honeycutt Baldwin, Y. (2006). Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools: Fighting for literacy in America. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.