In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we honor one of America’s many influential Irish immigrants, Thomas J. Scully. Today he’s not a household name, but in the early years of California’s statehood his name would certainly have been known at the schoolyard. An Irish immigrant born in 1821, Scully was teaching in the Los Angeles area in 1851. Consistent with his peer’s praise as a “genial whole-souled man,” in 1854 Scully departed Los Angeles to teach in the surrounding counties; pay was sparse in these rural areas, but teachers were much needed. Though the method in which he taught was common enough in Los Angeles at the time, by the mid-1850s it had never been done as exceptionally as it was by Scully, or as far South as the fast-growing communities around Yorba and San Juan Capistrano. With these two feats combined, his efforts served to make him an important—and sadly forgotten—pioneer in what is today Orange County. However, prior to understanding just why Scully was such a groundbreaking figure in the Orange area we have to take a look at the education system the Irish teacher helped remedy.
Before California’s statehood in 1850, the large territory known then as Alta California was still under Mexican control. Despite interest by some Mexican governors of the region, the largely agrarian population didn’t see the need for a public education system and had countered all large educational initiatives. There were small number of teachers in the Southern California area, but it was a vastly different job from what we see today with state- and federally-legislated standards ensuring the quality of what is taught is homogenous throughout the state. By comparison the educational climate was turbulent back in the times of Alta California, even into the early years of Californian statehood. Many teachers only ever taught for just one year, and with no formal training even teachers who taught for longer periods tended to have serious shortcomings. Rather than consistent standards, instructors who themselves may have struggled with spelling or arithmetic simply wouldn’t teach those subjects. In the worst cases, a teacher’s shortcomings could be passed on to an entire area’s budding generation.
From accounts of Scully, it’s unclear why exactly he headed to California to teach, though perhaps the best explanation to be offered lies in his character; one wrought in the crucible of a rigorous education system back east and probably salted from birth with true grit. It was in Ireland’s heavily structured system that Scully learned to teach, something he brought with himself across the Atlantic and by 1851 to Los Angeles. It was there that he seasonally taught in the home of Don Antonio Coronel, who would become the city’s mayor in 1853. What set Scully apart was the comprehensiveness of his teaching, knowing every subject well enough to teach; as well as the consistency with which he taught. When Scully headed to the new and rapidly expanding Orange County in 1854, his method was simple: during the Winter months, when families could afford to have their children away from the farm he would ride into town on his mule, teach for three months for a salary of $75.00 and he move on to another area when the funding ran out.
Scully was well liked—evidenced by the sheer number of gifts bestowed upon him, his globe and pipe both being examples—but his real accomplishment was to establish uniform standards throughout Orange County with the consistency he showed in teaching and sheer number of children he reached. He may not have been the first man to teach in the area, but he’s been called by many “the first teacher in Orange County” for his skill and dedication to his craft, and for his role as an Irish immigrant in helping to grow and shape our county into what it is today.
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