SCHENECTADY Tuberculosis was no excuse for skipping school when Pleasant Valley Elementary School was built. The dreaded lung disease was so pervasive that the school had a special floor built just for children suffering from it.
Students were fascinated when they learned about the fourth floor that they’ve never been allowed to enter. The young students are researching the school’s unusual history this year in celebration of its 90th anniversary.
And there is a lot to research: Pleasant Valley is definitely not the typical school, according to a history compiled by the school’s teachers.
It was the first school in the state to teach students who had cerebral palsy, rather than sending them away to learn elsewhere.
Other schools around the state sent teachers to observe the cerebral palsy classes. But the idea didn’t catch on. After 10 years, the program was moved to Sunnyview Rehabilitation Center.
High school students at nearby Mont Pleasant walked to the elementary school to build airplanes in a workshop on the ground floor. There was even a zoo with monkeys for middle-school science students to study.
But what surprised current students most was a picture of children climbing ropes to the ceiling of the gym.
They’re not allowed to climb ropes in gym now.
Pleasant Valley opened in 1922 to resolve a pressing problem: there were so many children in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood that they had to take turns going to school. Everyone attended for just half a day.
Parents were eager to get their students into full-day school — so eager that they pitched in to help. On opening day, most of the desk-chair combos were not put together and screwed into the floor, so only the fourth-grade classes could be seated.
Everyone else stayed home for an extra day while hundreds of men donated their time to put 1,000 desks together. On Jan. 24, the school finally opened with 849 students.
Now the school has far fewer students — 526 — but the top floor is no longer in use.
That’s the tuberculosis floor.
Doctors believed TB patients needed fresh air to help them breathe, so the school district constructed three classrooms on the roof. All of them had one wall made entirely of windows. Those windows were kept open almost all the time, with the temperature kept below 60 degrees.
The school bought 100 Eskimo suits and 100 pairs of felt boots to keep students warm. In addition to regular classes, teachers taught children breathing exercises and weighed them every week. Special nurses cared for them.
Doctors now know that tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria that can be killed with months of intensive antibiotics. But in the 1920s — two decades before antibiotics were commonly manufactured — fresh-air treatments were common.
The patients didn’t get any respite from the cold. They had recess on the roof, which was lined with 6-foot brick walls to keep them from tumbling off. There were windows cut into the bricks so they could peer out over the city.
On Wednesday, students showed off what they had discovered. Teacher Lisa David gave a multimedia presentation that included pictures of TB patients on beds on the roof, wearing their Eskimo suits. Sixth-graders gave tours to visitors and fourth-graders interviewed retired staff about their experiences.
Third-graders stuffed a time capsule, which will be opened the year they graduate from high school. Each of them carefully wrote out their plans for the future — what they will do and how they will change the world.
Curing cancer and teaching children were their top goals, but one girl said simply, “I don’t want to be a nobody. I want to be a somebody.”