Emily Griffith (1868–1947) was a visionary educator in the field of adult, vocational, and alternative education. After working as a teacher and administrator in Denver, she started the Denver Opportunity School in 1916, premised on the idea that education should be accessible to everyone regardless of age, race, or gender. The school, funded by Denver Public Schools, was free and open to “all who wished to learn.” The first institution of its kind in the nation, the school and its philosophy established Denver as a leader in adult education in America.
Emily Griffith was born on February 10, 1868, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second of four children born to Andrew and Martha Griffith. Her father was an unsuccessful lawyer, and the family struggled financially. Her parents and siblings were often sick, so she left school after the eighth grade to take care of her family. Her sister Florence was developmentally disabled, and the sisters developed a strong bond that would last their entire lives.
The family left Ohio to homestead in Nebraska when Griffith was sixteen. Her father was unable to support the family, so Emily found work as a teacher in a one-room sod schoolhouse. Living with families in the community, she found that many of the adults had limited opportunities for education. She came to believe that access to education could lift people out of poverty.
Move to Denver
In 1894 the family moved to Denver, where Griffith applied to teach in the local school system. After a decade in Denver classrooms, she was promoted in 1904 to be the deputy state superintendent of schools, helping to oversee schools throughout the state. In 1908 she returned to the classroom as an eighth-grade teacher at the Twenty-Fourth Street School in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. The neighborhood was home to African Americans and immigrants whose lack of education and opportunity often left them in poverty. Many of Griffith’s young students had to work to support their families, as she had at their age. A compassionate teacher, Griffith became involved in the lives of her students and their families, and she began to offer basic literacy lessons to adults in the neighborhood.
From 1910 to 1912, Griffith served the state of Colorado as deputy state superintendent of instruction before returning to the Twenty-Fourth Street School as an administrator and teacher. She also continued to teach adult classes at night, after the children had left the building. Her classes were well attended and spoke to the need for education in the broader community. Other attempts at adult and vocational education in Denver at this time consisted mainly of English-language and citizenship classes aimed at immigrants and job training in high schools. Griffith started to believe that a new kind of school could serve the needs of adults.
Throughout this period, Griffith lived in Congress Park with her parents and her sister Florence. Her income supported the family. She had a variety of suitors and even, at one point, a fiancé, though she called off the engagement when the man insisted that she quit teaching and said he would not allow Florence to live with them after they married.
Starting Opportunity School
Griffith dreamed of starting a free school where people of all ages could attend classes with flexible hours and personalized instruction. She believed that offering training and skills would enable people to get better jobs and enrich society as well as their own lives. She even had a name for the school: Opportunity. Her ideas seem to have derived primarily from her own experience, but they took part in a larger wave of Progressive-era educational reforms that included incorporating immigrants into American society (Jane Addams) and offering greater opportunities for experiential education (John Dewey).
Griffith used her connections in the community and around the state to campaign for funding for her proposed school, speaking to business leaders, “society women,” educators, and others about the school. Newspaperwoman Frances “Pinky” Wayne became a powerful ally and supporter who introduced the idea to the public.
Griffith presented her idea to the Denver Board of Education on May 11, 1916. The board endorsed Opportunity School, which would open that fall at the condemned Longfellow School at Thirteenth Avenue and Welton Street. Griffith and her staff of five teachers worked all summer to prepare. On September 9, Opportunity School opened its doors. Griffith hoped that 200 students would register for classes, but 1,400 students enrolled the first week. Griffith pulled a desk into the front hall and welcomed every student who entered. The school’s motto was posted on the building: “For All Who Wish to Learn.” The motto was inspired by Griffith’s uncle, who spent his evenings teaching his neighbors to read.
Opportunity School was open thirteen hours a day, five days a week, allowing students to attend free, walk-in classes as their schedules permitted. Some classes taught specific job skills such as millinery, telegraphy, typewriting, sewing, and carpentry. Other classes taught academic subjects such as reading, writing, math, and English. Griffith added new skills and subjects based on what students wanted to learn. Inspirational quotes such as “You Can Do It” and “We Do Not Believe in Failure” were placed around the building, and teachers were ordered to be positive with each student. During the school’s first year, 2,398 students attended, and the staff grew from 5 to 38 teachers.
When a student fainted from hunger one day, Griffith recognized a new need. Her mother made a pot of soup, which her sister Florence served in the school’s basement. By the end of the year, 200 bowls of soup were served each day. Women’s clubs started to provide the soup, and Florence continued to serve the soup to students for many years.
The school evolved with the times. During World War I, it offered classes in airplane mechanics, radio communication, steelworking, nursing, and ambulance driving. Classes were also added in salesmanship, bookkeeping, and advertising, as well as in “beauty work,” such as hairstyling and barbering. Special classrooms for blind and deaf students taught communication and job skills. The school partnered with local businesses and unions to train students for specific jobs and certifications, and it coordinated with the police department, social workers, and charity organizations to provide services for students. By 1931 enrollment had grown to about 10,000 people in 43 classes, with 105 teachers.
Influence and Recognition
Griffith treated each of her students with respect and interest, insisting that every person had worth and dignity. She counseled students, created courses to meet their needs, visited their homes, helped them get food and clothing, and assisted them when they were in crisis. She wore the fashionable hats created in the school’s millinery classes and hired graduates of the “Housekeeper Assistant” class to plan and serve her dinner parties.
Opportunity School and its philosophy established Denver as a leader in adult education in the United States and around the world. In 1926 the National Education Association invited Griffith to speak at its annual conference. Educators and civic leaders from Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities across the country visited Opportunity School, looking to start similar schools in their own communities. Opportunity School’s influence also extended overseas, with governments in England, Germany, Greece, and Russia expressing interest in Griffith’s model.
In addition to her work at Opportunity School, Griffith was concerned about the many young homeless people in Denver. In 1927 she bought a neglected mansion near downtown. With financial help from community organizations, including the Denver Kiwanis Club, she established “A Home for the Boy Who Needs One” at 9 Pearl Street. A rotating group of twelve boys lived there in a home-like atmosphere. The boys were provided a room, meals, and the care of a “house mother” until they could make it on their own. The home evolved and still exists as Griffith Centers for Children.
Griffith was well loved in the Denver community and received many honors and awards during her life. She was elected president of the Colorado Education Association, declared “Colorado’s Most Useful Citizen” by The Denver Post, and became the first woman invited to join the Kiwanis Club of Denver. Despite her eighth-grade education, she received honorary degrees from the Colorado State Teacher’s College (now University of Northern Colorado), the University of Colorado, and Colorado Women’s College.
In 1933 Griffith retired after seventeen years as principal of Opportunity School. She was sixty-five years old. Opportunity School’s name was changed to Emily Griffith Opportunity School to honor her contributions.
Griffith retired to Pinecliffe, a small town near Nederland in the hills west of Boulder, where she shared a cabin with Florence, who was unable to live by herself. Their sister Ethelyn and brother-in-law had a cabin on neighboring land.
The sisters lived a simple life in the mountains, surviving on Griffith’s standard pension of fifty dollars each month from Denver Public Schools. Initially their primitive cabin did not have indoor plumbing, electricity, or a telephone; Griffith later allowed the Kiwanis Club to install electricity and plumbing.
The sisters enjoyed entertaining old friends at their cabin, hosting Sunday church services and potlucks. Griffith’s friend Fred Lundy, who lived nearby, was a frequent visitor, often stopping in for meals. He helped the sisters around the cabin, chopping wood and running errands for them.
A Tragic End
On June 18, 1947, Emily and Florence Griffith were found murdered on the floor of their cabin, each shot once in the back of the head. The doors of the cabin were locked, and the dinner table was set for three. Fred Lundy was immediately suspected. He had access to the cabin, and his car was parked nearby with a stash of cash in a briefcase. A nationwide search for Lundy turned up empty until his body was found a month later in nearby South Boulder Creek. His death was ruled a suicide by drowning. Speculation about his motive abounded: did he believe the sisters had become a burden, did he kill them because of Griffith’s concerns about dying before her sister, or was he a thwarted suitor in a jealous rage? Others believed Lundy incapable of the murders and suggested that the sisters were killed by relatives for life insurance money or that an unknown killer was on the loose. Lundy’s guilt was never proven, and the crime was never solved.
The deaths of the Griffith sisters shocked the Denver community. Their double funeral was held at Central Presbyterian Church, where Emily Griffith had been a member for decades. Flags flew at half-mast, and the Emily Griffith Opportunity School closed for the day. The sisters were cremated and their ashes interred at Fairmount Cemetery.
The Emily Griffith Opportunity School celebrated a century of service to the community in 2016. Now known as Emily Griffith Technical College, the school offers more than 500 courses to thousands of students at its a main campus at 1860 Lincoln Street and two satellite locations. Classes are no longer free, but they remain inexpensive. The sign above the door still reads, “For All Who Wish to Learn.”
To celebrate Griffith’s contributions to Colorado, a stained-glass portrait of her was installed in the State Capitol in 1976. Griffith was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985. In 2000 Mayor Wellington Webb honored her with a Millennium Award for her contributions to the city.