Kindergarten class at Center Street School in Orange, circa 1920 (courtesy the Orange Public Library and History Center).

Kindergarten class at Center Street School in Orange, circa 1920 (courtesy the Orange Public Library and History Center).

Early Kindergarten in Orange

[In 1984 I received an airmail letter from a woman in Saitama, Japan, who was researching early childhood education. She had been referred to me by the Santa Ana Public Library. She enclosed an article from Orange’s first Kindergarten teacher, Helen Le Beuf, from the Kindergarten Magazine for October 1896 and asked if I could provide any additional details about the teacher and the start of Kindergarten in Orange. The article below is based on my reply. I was particularly struck because I knew at least two of the students Le Beuf mentioned. Click here to read her original article. —P.B.]

Reportedly, the first Kindergarten in California opened in Los Angeles in 1872. That same year, the first elementary school (grades 1-8) opened in Orange, just one year after the town was founded.

The first attempt to offer Kindergarten classes in Orange was in 1888, when Miss Ella Tilford announced plans for a private Kindergarten for children “three and a half to eight years of age.” Classes would be offered just three hours a day, from 9-12 in the morning. Tilford asked for “the patronage and co-operation of the parents in this community.” (Orange Tribune, September 8, 1888)

There is no indication in the surviving newspapers that Miss Tilford found enough support to start classes.

A second, brief attempt at a private Kindergarten was launched in May 1891, when Helen Le Beuf began holding classes in a former hotel building downtown, which was then being used as a private college. Twenty pupils enrolled on the first day, with “as many more expected soon.” (Orange News, May 13, 1891)

A few weeks later, Le Beuf invited the community to visit her classroom. “The programme for each day will be as follows: Nine o’clock marching; 9:10, hymn, morning talk and good morning song; 9:20, circle games; 9:50, work at tables; 10:30, circle games; 10:50, lunch and singing; 11:10, work at tables; 11:50, distribution of hats and baskets; 12, ‘good bye.’” “We hope to see present during the week every citizen of Orange. ‘Come, let us live with our children.’” (Orange News, June 24, 1891)

But after two months, Le Beuf’s first Kindergarten closed.

Discussion of a public Kindergarten in Orange began a year later, in August 1892, when the Orange School District trustees called a public meeting to “consider the advisability of adding the kindergarten to our public school system.” The meeting was not well attended, “but the unanimity in favor of the proposition made the popularity of the measure evident. A number of educators and civic leaders spoke in favor of the project, including the County Superintendent of Schools. (Orange News, August 10, 24, 1892)

Still, it was not until early 1893, that the school board launched plans for a Kindergarten classes in Orange. In May they purchased the old Baptist Church building downtown (cost: $425, including the land) and had it remodeled for use as a classroom. To attract students for their new venture, the trustees placed an announcement in a local newspaper:


“Parents in Orange School District wishing to patronize the public kindergarten are requested to register the names of their children at once, which they may do by sending a card to the undersigned. This is necessary in order that the clerk may know how many children are to be provided for. Children will be received between the ages of four and six years.

Henri F. Gardner, Clerk of School Board” (Orange Post, July 22, 1893)

The next important step was taken at their July 31st meeting – in fact, it was the only business before the board that day. The complete minutes read as follows: “Board met at Mr. Northcross’ present – Trustees Northcross and Gardner. Mrs. Helen J. LeBoef [sic] was appointed principal of the Kindergarten. (s) H.F. Gardner, clerk.”

Later board actions concerning the Kindergarten include hiring Carrie Corey as Le Beuf’s assistant, and setting their salaries at $60 a month for Le Beuf and $30 a month for Corey (most other teachers in the district got $70 a month). Other expenses included $225 to remodel the old church, some $75 for furniture, and the rent of a piano (one was purchased in 1894).

Classes began on September 18, 1893. The Orange Post reported: “If you wish to see a series of pretty pictures and spend a pleasant hour, visit our kindergarten in its neat and tasteful quarters. Mrs. Le Beuf has enrolled thirty-one little pupils this week. She is assisted in her work by Miss Carrie Corey of San Francisco, a trained kindergartener.” (September 23, 1893)

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the Kindergarten, however. After the close of the first year of classes the trustees decided, “Owing to opposition to the Kindergarten it was deemed best before deciding to continue the school another year to get an expression of the voters of the District.” (July 7, 1894)

“For some time Orange has been maintaining a kindergarten,” the Los Angeles Times explained, “and it is but fair to say too, that it has been one of the best in the southern portion of the state. It is quite expensive, however, and the school board does not feel like taking the responsibility of continuing it without an expression from the taxpayers on the subject…. The people here, generally, know the value of such a school, properly conducted, and the ability of the management of the Orange kindergarten is not questioned, but the question now seems to be, can it be continued now, without too much extra expense and without detriment to the regular public schools?” (July 14, 1894)

To do this, printed cards were mailed out to local residents. After a week they were to be returned. In all, 68 cards came back: 32 in favor of continuing the Kindergarten and 36 opposed to it. However, “owing to the close vote it was deemed best to continue the school for the coming year.” (July 19, 1894) But Le Beuf’s salary was reduced to $50 a month, and Corey’s to just $25.

Funding seems to have been the major problem in keeping the Kindergarten going. In 1895, local voters approved a $400 special tax which helped – among other things – to keep the Kindergarten going.

Helen Le Beuf left the school at the close of the 1895-96 school year. The teachers following her were Stella Keys (1896-98, 1902-03), Frances Halden (1898-99), Helen Plimpton (1899-1902), and Carrie Dimmick (1903-04). As the years progressed, the Kindergarten teachers were also often given other responsibilities in the primary grades or the school library. After 1898, no assistant seems to have been provided.

Once again, in 1904, the school trustees asked the community whether they wanted to see the local Kindergarten program continued. “The kindergarten … was established eleven years ago and has been generally recognized as a successful institution,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “[But] recently complaint has been made that the expense is too great for the attendance of pupils, and the trustees have decided to give the electors a chance to vote as to its continuance.” (May 30, 1904)

This time, opposition was too great, and in June 1904 the Kindergarten was closed and the building sold. It would be more than a decade until Orange again offered Kindergarten classes. During the interim, some local parents attempted to provide private Kindergarten classes. Eugenie Lee – born in Orange in 1902 – recalled that around 1907 a woman named Ingham ran a private Kindergarten in a small house about three blocks from the center of town. There were “not too many” students, Lee recalled, but she was one of them. They spent their time playing outside, making craft projects, telling stories and such.

In 1914, talk of reviving Kindergarten in the public school began. Principal C.C. Smith wrote to the trustees on April 28th: “…we will have room for this department next year if the community wants it and the Board wishes to take it up. I am counting four rooms for this and the probability is that the installation of the Kindergarten at this time will require new quarters within two years…. The cost of maintaining a Kindergarten with four teachers would be between $2500 and $3000 per year.” But the minutes note that “no definite action [was] then” at that time.

Finally, in the fall of 1915, Kindergarten classes began again in two of the district’s schools – Center Street and Lemon Street. That first year there were 25 Kindergarteners at Center Street and 22 at Lemon Street.

Over the coming years, other local schools added Kindergarten classes, though some of the smaller, rural communities surrounding Orange went without Kindergarten until the 1950s.

By the early 1950s, Southern California’s population was growing at a remarkable rate – especially the number of school-age children. In 1952-53 (the same year Orange and the smaller surrounding districts joined to form the Orange Unified School District), there were 290 Kindergarten students enrolled. By 1954, there were over 350 and the Kindergarten classrooms were filled to overflowing, with students from smaller schools being bused across town to newer, larger schools which were being built with separate Kindergarten classrooms. To help carry the load, double-session classes were common at many local schools in the 1950s and ‘60s, while Kindergarten classes were sometimes expanded to three sessions a day (I started Kindergarten myself at a triple-session school in 1964). Only an extensive building program, which continued on into the 1970s, was able to finally relieve the over-crowding.

Surprisingly, Orange’s two private Lutheran schools (with their large German-American populations) did not launch Kindergarten classes until long after the public schools – the first in the 1920s and the other in the 1930s.

As for Helen Joslin Le Beuf and her interesting article, she was one of six daughters of Dr. Eliab M. Joslin (1816-1889), at three of whom became teachers. She was born in May 1849 in the Midwest and came to Orange about the same time as her parents in 1876. She was briefly married to a sailor named Alexis Le Beuf, but he deserted her and they were later divorced. In 1897 she adopted an orphan baby boy who she named Paul Le Beuf.

After leaving the public Kindergarten in 1896, Le Beuf continued to teach privately in Orange until shortly after 1900, either on her own, or working for the First Presbyterian Church. But in her article she is clearly describing her work in the public school.

One of her students she mentions – “Lena [who] lives near the depot” – was my old friend Lena Mae Thompson (1891-1983). Her older sister, Elsie (Clough) Hart, recalled her Kindergarten days in a 1970 interview. “We had a great time in Kindergarten. We used to have George Washington tissue paper hats and flags, and march around the Plaza on Washington’s Birthday. We thought we were real good…. I went two years and we had a real good time there.”

Helen Le Beuf taught Kindergarten in Orange until at least 1903, and lived in town until 1937 when she moved east to live with her son. She lived to celebrate her 90th birthday but I have not yet found the date of her death.