This article originally appeared in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer on September 12, 2021
The Owensboro Public Schools system is commemorating a milestone few other school districts in the commonwealth have had the pleasure of celebrating: a sesquicentennial.
Almost exactly 150 years ago the city schools system was established by the Kentucky General Assembly, beginning what would become a long history of excellence in education.
Julie Ellis, who worked for the district for a cumulative 34 years, helped to produce a book in 2008 that detailed much of the district’s history. The book, titled “History of Owensboro Public Schools,” was written based on many primary documents the district still has in its possession today, and from which a lot of the details for this article were written.
Ellis, who last served the district as its public information officer and spokeswoman, spent several years compiling information on the beginnings of OPS.
“We realized at that time that if somebody didn’t accumulate that history, we were going to lose it,” she said.
A lot of early information came from bound books published in the 1870s. At that time in the district’s history, OPS officials gathered most of its annual reports, including board minutes, financial statements, and notes of historical significance, in bound editions that came out every three-to-five years.
Some history highlights taken from the book “Annual Report of the Owensboro Public Schools 1872-73,” which is still located in a fragile state at the OPS central office in its archive room, indicate Owensboro’s population in 1870 was 3,437. The school system was proposed and approved by the Kentucky General Assembly March 13, 1871, and professor J.H. Gray was selected as the first superintendent. In mid-April of that same year two trustees were empowered to purchase land in their “respective wards.”
On the first Monday in September of 1871, 623 white students entered the first OPS classrooms.
Classes operated out of two buildings, Upper Ward and Lower Ward. The Upper Ward School was located at Third and Lewis streets (now called J.R. Miller Blvd.)
It was the Daviess County Seminary Building that was built in 1820, and purchased by the city schools system for $2,000. It was located where the current Wax Works building is today.
The Lower Ward School, located at Walnut and Seventh Street, was built for $7,820. At this time it’s a vacant lot, and there’s a historical marker in the general vicinity of where the building once stood.
The Upper Ward principal made $70 a month, while the Lower Ward principal earned $60 a month. Intermediate teachers made $40 per month, and primary teachers made $37.50 a month for nine months.
Owensboro High School was created in 1872 at the Lower Ward School, which was divided into three grade levels: primary, intermediate and senior. Nine grades were offered at that time, with grades eight and nine considered high school level. In 1875 another grade was added, and at that time high school was considered to be grades nine and 10.
By 1880 the Kentucky General Assembly established free public education for Black children, which meant separate schools would be developed to accommodate those students.
In 1883, the school system acquired the Eastern Colored School, located at Poplar Street between Third and Fourth streets and by 1884 plans were drawn up to build a second school for Black students, which would then be called the Upper Ward Colored School. It was located at Eighth and Jackson streets. Both schools had a population of 249 students.
Owensboro High School had its own brick and mortar building built in 1892 at the corner of Ninth and Frederica Streets. At that point, grade 11 was added and grade 12 was added in 1894.
Eight members of the class of 1895 were the first students to complete 12th grade. By 1905, the school board realized it would eventually need a bigger high school, and by 1924 one was built at the current location of OHS, 1800 Frederica Street.
Western High School was built in 1892 for Black students, and in 1951 a new Western High School was built to replace the old one at 820 West Third Street. The cost of the building was $165,000.
In 1923, the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School, at 721 Jackson Street, replaced the old Upper Ward School for African American students that had been located at Eight and Jackson Streets.
The dual system of educating white and Black students was in place until 1954 when it was declared unconstitutional with the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown V. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
In 1958, OPS opened all schools for Black students, but the school district kept Dunbar and Western schools and allowed students to choose which school they preferred to attend.
By 1962, Western High School closed due to enrollment decline.
It took years for the school system to fully integrate. Western was renamed Goodloe Elementary School, which was closed and sold at an auction in 1981 for $151,800.
Tradition of excellence
When Mike Johnson and his wife were determining where to put down roots, it was almost no question they would return to Owensboro where he had attended school, and where his parents both taught.
The Owensboro city schools system has, and continually had, quality teachers, which in turn produced a quality education for students, Johnson said.
Johnson said the founders of OPS “thought an educational system out to where Owensboro was leading the pack from a standpoint of giving kids opportunities.”
All students are given an opportunity, he said, and not just in sports, but in academics and extra-curricular activities.
Johnson’s kids went through the city schools system, and so do his grandkids.
“This school system does a good job of teaching kids, and that’s what makes everybody that has gone here come back and have pride,” he said.
Janet Suwanski’s family also has a long history with the school district. Suwanski, the district’s Foundation for Excellence director, went through the school system, as did her parents and grandparents.
Her great-grandfather, J.R. Laswell, served on the board of education from 1905-1931. Laswell was from Owensboro, and Suwanski figures he was around 18 or so when the school district was formed, and therefore likely wasn’t educated within OPS.
In total, six generations of her family members have attended Owensboro Schools, which she said is a testament to the district’s long history of providing a top-notch education for students.
“It’s just an example of the tradition and the excellence that we have,” she said. “There are very loyal people that go through this school system and want to stick around. It’s a good system that spans many, many generations.”
Independent school districts
According to the Kentucky Department of Education, there are currently 51 independent school districts in Kentucky.
A 2015 Legislative Research Commission compiled a report on Kentucky’s independent school districts. Since that report, two independent districts have merged with county districts.
The report indicates that independent school systems “are those whose geographic boundaries are defined not by the county lines that define most districts, but by historic boundaries within counties. Though they often bear the names of cities, these school districts operate independently of cities.”
The oldest one was located in the city of West Point until the end of the 2019 school year when it merged with Hardin County Schools due to a decline in enrollment.
Covington Schools is now the oldest, having been established in 1825, and fully organizing in 1850.
Ellis said it didn’t surprise her to learn that the three oldest, public independent school systems in the commonwealth all were organized along the Ohio River.
“A lot of populations were in the river towns,” she said.
Owensboro Schools is the largest, with Covington close behind in student population.
In the “History of Owensboro Public Schools” book, Ellis wrote that to understand the district’s trademark — “Tradition of Excellence” — it’s important to understand that from its beginnings the district “set high standards for its teachers and students.”
Many things have changed through the years. OPS has had 20 superintendents since its inception. It has created and closed at least 30 schools in its history, and currently operates 12. It operated on a budget of $7,888 in its first year, and now its total budget for the fiscal year is about $66.5 million.
Approximately half a million students have gone through the system in 150 years, and district officials hope to help honor them and others with some type of celebration this year.
While the pandemic has put a damper on many of the original ideas to commemorate this milestone in OPS history, there are still tentative plans in the works, said current district spokesman Jared Revlett.
Currently a committee is being developed of OPS employees, some Foundation members, and individuals from the community to organize a celebration that can take place safely.
Early ideas include a community-wide potluck that would be outside, in which students, district alums and current and former employees could celebrate.
The district is also about to unveil a new website, which includes a section on its history and details of the 150th anniversary. There will be a space on the website dedicated to alumni testimonials.
“We may do some video interviews with those folks about their experiences here, what going to OPS meant to them, and how it shaped them into who they are,” Revlett said.
Further details about how individuals can participate in this landmark occasion are forthcoming, and will be released by district officials in the coming months.
Matthew Constant, current OPS superintendent, said it’s a humbling experience to look back on the district’s 150-year history, and that he is grateful and lucky to be a part of a district with such a “rich history.”
“We intend to reflect on and celebrate our rich history by locating people who can provide memorable events,” he said. “We want to invite anyone else who has that connection to the Owensboro Public Schools to share their stories and keep our history alive and well.”