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State Library of Iowa

010_Early Schools in Des Moines


010_Early Schools in Des Moines


1976 marked the 130th anniversary of the Des Moines Public Schools. This booklet is a celebration of that event.It provides many of the historical highlights of the development of schools within the city of Des Moines, Iowa.



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Bird School (Photograph) Harding Road and Woodland - 1874-1974 Frederika Bremer School. (Photograph) 1st and Des Moines Street Early Schools in Des Moines The history of education in Des Moines goes back almost as far as the history of the city itself. There is some question as to who conducted the very first school. Records show that there were two established in the same year—in the fall and winter of 1846-1847. Both schools were held in cabins along Raccoon Row. Mr. Lewis Whitten was the teacher of one and Miss Mary Davis of the other. These schools were called "subscription schools,11 since the expenses were paid by the parents of the pupils. The first school district was organized in 1849, four years prior to the incorporation of the town of Fort Des Moines. About sixty dollars was appropriated for the use of the school district during the 1849-50 school year. School costs were also defrayed by a tuition charge of $2.50 per pupil for the term of twelve weeks. The Methodist Church was the meeting place of the first school, and later it was moved to the 'new1 courthouse. Because the building was not yet finished, it was a cold and uncomfortable learning situation. At the end of the first term of three months the teacher, Byron Rice, suggested that school be dropped temporarily. Mr. Rice later became a prominent banker and judge. In 1851 the sum of $100 was appropriated to purchase a half acre of, ground at Ninth and Locust on which to erect a school building. The first tax for the erection of a school building was levied in 1854. The Third Ward School (or "Brick School House,11 as it was called) was opened for school in 1856. It had cost the staggering sum of $8,000. There were four departments and four teachers when it opened. A bronze plaque has been placed on the front of the present building at 9th and Locust to commemorate the site of the first public school in Des Moines. West Side Schools in 1860's The west side enrollments of the 1860's increased so that in a few years additional space had to be rented to accommodate the pupils. In April, 1869, the school board purchased a new site at Tenth and Pleasant, to replace the Third Ward School at 9th and Locust. The new unit was later named Irving School. Capitol Park High School (Photograph) E. 13th and Polk William Cullen Bryant School (Photograph) Pennsylvania and Grand Avenue Des Moines School History On May 30, 1864, a committee in the West Des Moines schools was appointed to examine and report about the advisability of establishing a high school for the following fall. On July 1, 1864, they decided, upon a favorable report of the committee, to establish a high school and to open it in the second ward building (Crocker) at Sixth and School. Mr. Barrels, the County Superintendent, was requested to furnish a "course of study" and discipline for the same. The board elected Mr. Barrels as principal at a salary of $100 per month. The records shows that Mr. Barrels was first, county superintendent; second, principal of the high school and thirdly, a congregational minister. Apparently the citizens of 1864 were not overly concerned with the separation of Church and State. It is recorded that when Mr. Barrels found it necessary to visit the outlying schools of Polk County that Mr. J. A. Nash substituted for him as the high school principal. At a meeting of the Board of Education, October 1, 1864, a committee was appointed to classify the schools and draft a course of study. However, the committee recorded on October 24 that they had not been able to prepare the course of study owing to the excitement caused throughout the state by the presence of Confederate rebel raiders. They requested more time and the course of study was received November 9, amended and adopted. Des Moines was growing very rapidly during this Civil War period and the schools were becoming more and more crowded. The organization of the high school made more room necessary and in 1867 a proposition providing for a special tax for the erection of a school was submitted to the voters. The proposition lost. The crowded conditions continued producing much discomfort, even the window sills soon became seats for students. When a discontented parent complained to the president of the board about the crowded conditions and lack of seats, he was asked by the board president "Did you vote on the proposition for more seats or against more seats?" If the parent confessed that he had voted against this bond issue, he was told that in that case his child must continue to sit in the window.