In 1917, Father Edward J. Flanagan founded Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, as a revolutionary home for children. At Boys Town, children were valued, nurtured and cared for with compassion and understanding.
Why were Father Flanagan’s ideas and practices considered to be so contrary to America’s prevailing child care system?
Boys Town was conceived through years of research by Father Flanagan as a response to the American concept of eugenics. The philosophy of eugenics stated that a child’s race, religion or social class determined his or her behavior and ability to be educated. White children of western European descent were considered to be the ideal; all other children were inferior. This philosophy would eventually be adopted by the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s.
Boys Town’s approach called for accepting all children, regardless of their race, religion or social standing. Father Flanagan also believed all children had the right to an education, and that the power of having an education could change the life of any child. In 1918, he realized that having the boys in his care attend Omaha public schools was not working. The boys were often bullied for living at Father Flanagan’s Home, and often did not receive equal treatment in the classroom due to their race or religion.
That same year, the priest started his first Boys Town School.
The Boys Town School would focus on much more than academic achievement. Father Flanagan stated, “…The school has a definite part to play in character education and citizenship training….” Early teachers at the school included mentors from the Omaha community, nuns and Father Flanagan himself. Each boy was evaluated to determine his academic level and to identify any learning deficiencies that needed to be addressed. The School began with elementary classes, and a new grade was added each year.
By 1937, Father Flanagan had achieved his dream of providing his boys with a fully accredited high school program. As a new decade approached and the size of graduation classes began to increase, he developed plans for a massive expansion of Boys Town’s education program in the late 1940s.
Boys Town Schools were not ordinary community schools. Father Flanagan once said “…Our school is accredited by the State of Nebraska and is, I believe, one of the finest that can be found anywhere in a community of like size. Our teachers are chosen because of their outstanding ability and training and because of their proven success in working with boys….”
For many Boys Town students, their teachers and instructors became role models and served as surrogate mothers and fathers. Over the decades, these dedicated individuals helped guide children toward a brighter future by providing them with a quality education as well as instruction in a trade. (Father Flanagan always said he wanted his students to leave the Home with these “two strikes in their favor.”) Most former students credit the education they received at Boys Town for preparing them for a productive life as adults.
Boys Town Schools have continually changed in order to meet and adapt to the changing needs of their students. Today, the boys and girls of Boys Town receive the quality education Father Flanagan envisioned when he founded his first school nearly 100 years ago.