Schools of Arkansas
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Since its beginning, education in Arkansas has been a constantly evolving and improving system. Even today Arkansas’s schools continue to strive for improvement. While the days of the one-room schoolhouse and small schools in every community are gone forever, as you travel across every region of Arkansas you will see these historic school buildings dotting the landscape. In some cases the entire community the school serviced has all but vanished, and an ever increasing part of the population never experienced school and life in “the good old days.” However, as long as these pillars of the past continue to grace our neighborhoods, highways, and country roads, we will always be reminded of the past and Arkansas’s rich educational legacy.
If any society is to progress, it must educate its young. The first bright spot in Arkansas’s educational history began with the founding of Cane Hill College in 1842, but the college was closely tied to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and received no financial help from the state. The first government sponsorship of education in Arkansas came in the form of the 1842 “Common School Law,” which set aside the sixteenth section of land in each geographic township to be sold for the construction and operation of public schools. Some communities made the most of the program and organized schools prior to the Civil War, but education was still largely a private matter. The most unfortunate part of the system was the tuition requirements for students, which made formal education an unattainable goal for those who most desperately needed it, the poor.
The Administration Building of the Second District Agricultural School – now Arkansas Tech University – was one of the first structures on the campus. Designed by Frank Blaisdell in 1910, it is now known as Craigbaugh Hall. (Courtesy of Arkansas History Commission)
The Henderson School in Fayetteville was constructed by the Freedman’s Bureau, otherwise known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Land. The Bureau would supervise efforts to educate former slaves and their children and provide school buildings. (Courtesy of Arkansas History Commission)
The Dyess Colony, located ten miles from Wilson, was a cooperative agricultural community implemented by the Resettlement Administration. Dyess High School at the colony was part of the New Deal effort to provide a “new order” for qualifying low-income farm families. (Courtesy of Arkansas History Commission)
The Mississippi County town of Marie proudly displayed its new school with a before and after photo. Many early rural schools were held in any available structure such as the log building seen here. (Courtesy of Arkansas History Commission)
The first truly public school system in Arkansas was created during Reconstruction. For the first time, teachers had licensing requirements and schools throughout the state had a standardized course curriculum. In 1869, Arkansas had over 600 schools educating more than 67,000 students. By 1871, the number of schools had more than doubled and student enrollment was pushing 108,000. Higher education also received attention from the Reconstruction government. In 1871, Fayetteville was chosen as the location for Arkansas’s first state-supported college, the Arkansas Industrial University, later renamed the University of Arkansas. Other colleges to be founded in this same era usually had close ties to church denominations, including Arkansas College in Batesville (now Lyon College), Hendrix College in Conway, and Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia.
By 1900 the schools were having problems. Attendance was lagging around 50 percent and Arkansas had the shortest school term in the nation. In an attempt to help remedy the problem, the state finally passed a law requiring children between 7 and 15 to attend school and adopted standard grade school textbooks for the state. Larger gains were made in higher education during this period. In 1907, the State Normal School, later named the University of Central Arkansas, opened in Conway and served as the state’s primary training ground for teachers. With the vast majority of Arkansas citizens involved in agriculture, the state also established technical schools at Jonesboro, Magnolia, Monticello, and Russellville. All four of the schools eventually became four-year colleges and have evolved into Arkansas State University, Southern Arkansas University, University of Arkansas at Monticello and Arkansas Tech University. Advanced educational opportunities for African-Americans were available at Shorter College in North Little Rock and Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. Although still segregated from campus, prospective black teachers were allowed to take courses through State Teachers’ College and the University of Arkansas. The Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, also provided African-Americans with educational opportunity.
A lingering problem with Arkansas’s schools was their sheer number, which stood at over 5,000 districts in 1910. The lack of transportation required students to walk to school, and even the smallest of communities had a school. However, most only offered classes through the eighth grade. A substantial number of the districts held school in one-room buildings that often served as the community school, church, and meeting hall. Although dedicated to making the best of the situation, it was a nearly impossible task for one or two teachers to adequately teach children as young as 5 and as old as 16 simultaneously. Although there were over 5,000 school districts, only around 150 had high schools. With so many small schools dotting the state, the limited amount of education funding made improving facilities and expanding curricula nearly impossible. This was especially true in the even more inadequately funded African-American schools.
In the late 1920s Arkansas began exploring the idea of consolidating schools as part of an overall reorganization of the public school system. The Department of Education examined everything from current facilities, population trends, and even topographic conditions. The study recommended sweeping consolidation measures that would reduce school districts to an average of four per county. The resulting plan also called for set student-to-teacher ratios, a 12-year education system, and free transportation for students living more than two hours away from campus. The recommendations were never fully adopted, and only around 350 consolidated districts were formed. The education system was showing signs of improvement, and this round of consolidation was a sign of things to come.
Although the United States as a whole was still experiencing a good economy as schools were being consolidated, Arkansas’s economy was already slipping into the depths of depression. In an ironic twist, it was Great Depression relief programs that would leave Arkansas’s districts better equipped with school facilities than ever before. New Deal programs, including the Works Progress Administration and National Youth Administration, built facilities throughout Arkansas. While most buildings were built for white students, black schools were not categorically excluded. School facilities were built in the largest cities and the smallest communities. Although the New Deal programs lasted less than a decade, there is no other building program in the state that has had a greater impact on Arkansas schools. For the first time, many one-room schools, even in rural areas, were abandoned.
Some assistance for African-American school facilities came from a philanthropic source, the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Rosenwald was a wealthy businessman from New York who had made his fortune as the head of the Chicago-based Sears and Roebuck Company. To ensure that communities supported a school for black students, the Rosenwald Fund required that local monetary matches be raised among both white and black citizens in the community. The Rosenwald fund had a profound effect on black school facilities in Arkansas. By the time the program was discontinued in 1948, the Rosenwald Fund had aided in the construction of 389 school-related facilities in 45 Arkansas counties.
In 1948 Arkansas underwent the most extensive school reorganization in state history. A major part of the reorganization was consolidation. All schools, except for those in isolated regions, that had fewer than 350 students, were forced to consolidate. Farm mechanization and the resulting urban growth had rendered many rural districts unnecessary. The children of families who continued to live in rural areas were now easily served by schools in surrounding towns by buses traveling over an ever-improving highway system. Most of the schools were given to the local community or were simply abandoned. Another school reform was coming that would result in the abandonment of additional schools and would place Little Rock in the national spotlight.
When the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, many schools in Arkansas closed their doors. Black school facilities that had suffered from decades of inadequate funding were usually closed in favor of the white schools. While school desegregation went relatively well in most schools, Central High School would be a completely different story.
On September 2, 1957, nine black students were to enroll at Little Rock’s Central High School. When they arrived at the building, they were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard, which had been activated by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent the students’ entry into the school. The students attempted to enter the school on several occasions throughout the month, but each time were turned away. A mob of well over 1,000 angry white protesters was growing daily. Finally, on September 24, President Dwight Eisenhower stepped in. By the following day the students were escorted into the school by over 1,000 members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The event is remembered today as one of the milestone events in the Civil Rights movement.