In 1869 Nina Anderson Pape was born in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of Edward and Nina Pape and the granddaughter of Edward Clifford Anderson—five-term mayor of Savannah. She was considered a woman of privilege and a debutante in the years following the Civil War, attending finishing school in Baltimore, Maryland. However, in 1893, the United States entered an economic depression that wiped out her family’s fortune.
Pape went to work, teaching first grade in a local public school, Massey Elementary. Her first classroom contained 65 students with a curriculum centered around recitation. Today, we better understand what does and does not hold children’s attention during a school day. But at the turn of the century, the day involved much reciting and even more waiting for the students.
Noticing that this manner of teaching did not keep the students engaged, Ms. Pape felt a few changes in the classroom were essential to improve her students’ attention. Using the educational philosophy pioneered by Frederic Froebel of France, she divided the class into three groups; one group would practice recitations while the other two would practice spelling or maths, rotating throughout the school day. Word spread about her innovative teaching methods to the point that the school’s superintendent visited the class. Very much entrenched in the old methods of classroom instruction, Ms. Pape received not only disapproval from her administrator but took this as a sign to open a new school and implement her teaching methodologies.
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Nina Anderson Pape and Alice West joined forces in 1900 to create the Pape and West School, a private school for girls. The headmistresses provided rigorous academics and a stern demeanor but found that the students respected them. After researching educational advancement for girls, the Pape School’s mission became readying their students to attend female colleges, specifically in the Northeast. Their first graduate was accepted into Radcliffe. The Pape School was creating opportunities for advancement for young women in the South.
In addition to preparing her students for advanced studies, Ms. Pape was a strong proponent of the Kindergarten Movement. At her insistence, the Savannah Electric company funded the first five kindergartens in the city, focusing primarily on children in lower socio-economic communities. From there, the school opened Pape Cottage on Tybee Island, an open-air classroom allowing students to visit the beaches for the first time. This insistence from the Pape School that children must have access to outdoor areas led to events in Forsyth Park, addressing the need for public playgrounds in Savannah.
While Nina Anderson Pape continued operating the Pape School, her cousin was busy developing a social organization for girls in Savannah. In 1912, Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts. Needing students to fill each troop, Ms. Pape volunteered the sixth and seventh-grade students from her school, and they became the first Girl Scouts. Not only did Ms. Pape contribute students to her cousin’s organization, but she helped write the first-ever Girl Scout handbook.
After she died in 1940, the school Nina Anderson Pape co-founded continued to be successful and survives today as the Savannah Country Day School, a private college-preparatory educational institution.
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Progressive education, particularly for girls, and creative thinking in the classroom is Nina Anderson Pape’s legacy to the generations of girls who were given the opportunities for higher education, all thanks to the vision of this incredible woman. When you visit Tybee Island, notice the public play areas in Savannah, or even register your child for Kindergarten in the state of Georgia, these things were made possible by the determination and forward-thinking of a bankrupt debutante.
“Pape School.” Photograph. Savannah: c1911. From Georgia Historical Society: GHS 1361-PH-07-23-1419, Georgia Historical Society collection of photographs.