Sullivan Caverno – Champion of free public schools
The history of education in Niagara County is usually told through the lives of men and women that challenged the status quo to establish new paradigms of excellence in education. Mr. Sullivan Caverno is one of the seldom-mentioned heroes of education.
Caverno received his own education at Dartmouth College and first began to impact education in Niagara County as the Principal of the old Lewiston Academy. After two years there, he moved to Lockport and began to study law. In 1846, he conceived the idea of a new school system that would expand upon the common school education of the day to provide a complete academic education available to all students. In his plan, the existing seven common school districts would be united to form secondary districts, with a new central school, the Lockport Union School, to teach higher education. The resulting configuration provided for seven primary schools, three secondaries and the Union School. The control of the system was to be vested in a Board of Education who would supervise all of the schools. The board would be composed of 12 trustees, one for each of the seven primary districts and five for the Union School.
In 1847, after conferring with educational experts across the state, Caverno drafted the Union School Act which was later passed by the NYS legislature and became the model for free public school districts all across the country. One hallmark of his plan stated that any student who could not contribute financially towards their education would still be allowed to attend with the cost of their education to be covered through a general tax upon the citizens of the region. Caverno served as the first President of the Board of Education and work commenced on the “new” Union School with completion in the spring of 1848. Caverno donated a great deal of time to the school system, to the point where most would recognize that he served as an unpaid superintendent of schools. Following in his footsteps, other notable champions of education followed, such as Belva McNall Lockwood, Emmett Belknap, Hon. John E. Pound and Miss Charlotte Cross.
Douglas Farley, Director
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094