This is a page from the collection "Bicentennial Reflections: History of Des Moines Public Schools, 1876-1976" by Dr. Robert R. Denny, published by the Des Moines Public Schools in Des Moines, Iowa in 1976.
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6 Bicentennial Reflections Schools and education have changed a great deal from 1776 to 1976. In these 200 years the schools have tended to relfect the ideas, aspirations and daily life of the American people more than any other institution. Throughout these two centures the school boards have become the closest political subdivision to the people than any other aspect of city, state, or federal government agencies. Because of this proximty, the schools have been and continue to be responsive to the demands and will of the people. During the first half of the 19th century Americans turned increasingly to education as the answer for the nations' political, social, religious, and economic problems. In 1832 during his first candidacy for the Illinois House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln called education the most important subject which Americans as a people could be engaged. Thoas Jefferson was one who spoke out on many occasions about the importance of education. Very few persons doubted the Jeffersonian statement that a nation could not long remain ignorant and free. However, in the United States which was mainly agrarian, the common school of eight grades was deemed satisfactory and sufficient for most students. For a few who wished advanced training and would be college bound the private academies were the main route to go. Horace Mann, secretary to the Baord of Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts between 1837 and 1848, was an early leader in the public school movement. Mann's often quoted statement was the education is "the great equalized, the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery." The first high school established was the Boton English, opened in 1821, and by the start of the Civil War, Massachusetts hwas 103 high schools or roughly one to every three towns and cities. Historically, the popular sentiment for replacing the private academies with a new sort of institution, the public high school, first surfaced in a large measure in the 1830's and continued to spread during the next few decades. AS indicated above the first public high school began in 1821, but there were no more than 100 public high schools by 1850. The 1874 Kalamazoo decisionof the Michigan Supreme Court stated that the high schoolwas a part of the common school system and that the establishment of the high school was implied in the state constitution. Thus, it became legal to tax property to support a high school unit that would be free and open to all. The high school had been slow in developing because of repeated challenges by taxpayers for using public monies for the education of a "small, privileged portion of the population." The Kalamazoo decision of 1874 was one of those landmark decisions which opened the way for the establishment of the high school throughout the nation and in time for its acceptance as an approved path for still higher education. The "free" high schools thus established spelled the decline of the private academies that charged tuition. Even with the establishments of free high schools in many communities there were often relatively few high school graduates inasmuch as the labor market could absorb students who has six, seven, or eight years of schooling. Recall the the United States was basically an agrarian society and the need for skilled labor was just beginning to be required by the needs of the industrial rrevolution. As a more technological society emerged so was there an increased demand for more educated workers. Contrary to general belief in its early history in the mied-1800s the high school was not popular with the working class. They tended to view it as an upper class instutions, irrelevant to their aspirations and impossible for them to utilize since adolescent earnings were important to the family. In Des Moines, the West Des Moines Public Schools inaugurated a high school in 1864. The first graduates were in 1868. High school graduating classes numbered anywhere from four to six for a number of years. The East Des Moines Public Schools launched their high school in 1866 and the first high school graduate was Elizabeth Matthews in 1871. The high schools in the West Des Moines Public School District, East Des Moines Public School District, North Des Moines Public School District, Capital Park Public School District and Grant Park Public School District as well as the twenty other suburban districts such as Greenwoor, Oak Park, Oak Dale, and Chesterfield housed grades 9-12 on the upper floor of one of their grammar school buidlings for a number of years. Later in this booklet the history of the high schools is given and the buildings that were built to accommodate them. The point is that there was not a big demand by parents for high school education for their children. Those who did attend high school were mainly the college-bound students and they were attending the high school instead of the private academy. Land Grant Colleges The Morril Act of 1862 was another development in liberalizing access to higher education with the extablishment of land grant colleges. The Morrill Act which authorized these colleges--in Iowa, Iowa State University at Ames, for example--represented the first direction on the part of the nation government to provide educational opportunity. It is interesting that this governmental action was first appled to the one community, the agricultural, which was national and which had definable needs and the power to express these needs. It was a landmark decidion, too, inasmuch as it introduced a new political idea that despite the constitutional restrictions on the power of the federal government to manage and control education, the government could nevertheless support and facilitate the development of specific forms of education whenever such development was determined to be in the national interest.