Spokane: Early Education

  • By Stephen B. Emerson
  • Posted 8/08/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8723

Education efforts in the Spokane area began with the local Native Americans, were then picked up by missionaries, and subsequently brought into the mainstream of Euro-American civic life. Like any other community educational system, its development was a matter of funding, and the citizens of Spokane showed themselves more than willing to contribute. As a result, during the early years of the twentieth century, the city was able to maintain a network of modern educational facilities worthy of a growing metropolis.

Early Years

The first school in Spokane was opened in 1870 by Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892), a Spokane Indian, near the site Drumheller Springs, on the north side. This school was eclipsed in 1875 when Protestant missionary Henry T. Cowley came to serve as the first white school teacher in what is now Spokane. Cowley's school marked the beginning of public school education in the town. The arrival of Henry Cowley in Spokane coincided with the organization of the first Spokane school district in what was then Stevens County. This district, designated school district number eight, covered a large territory between Hangman Creek and the Spokane River. The superintendent of Stevens County schools at the time was James Monaghan, who later became a prominent Spokane businessman and was father to war hero John R. Monaghan, whose statue stands in downtown Spokane. The school founded by Henry Cowley became part of the new school district. When Spokane County was created out of the southern part of Stevens County in 1879, early local inhabitant J. J. Browne was appointed superintendent of newly designated Spokane School District No. 41. In the first Spokane County election, held in 1880, Mrs. Maggie M. Halsell was elected to succeed Browne.

At first, most of the students instructed by Henry Cowley at the Spokane school were local Indians, both children and adults. The school also served the few white children of the fledgling town. But the transformation from an Indian mission school to a white public school occurred quite quickly, as the white population of Spokane grew rapidly while Native Americans were pressured to remove themselves to reservations. Henry Cowley retired from teaching soon after opening his little school, turning his attention to business and journalism. School sessions, as well as attendance, were sporadic for several years following 1875.

In 1878 a new permanent school was built, located on Lincoln Street. This was a simple front-gabled wood frame structure 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. When the Northern Pacific Railroad built tracks through Spokane, the school was moved to a location near Post and Sprague, where the Davenport Hotel is now situated. Attendance steadily increased and the number of students was soon too great for the small two-room schoolhouse to accommodate. The school closed after the 1882-1883 session and plans were made to build a larger structure.

Decade of Change

Classes began in the new building on October 22, 1883. The principal was W. W. Johnson; he was assisted by three teachers. Professor L.H. Prather served as principal in 1884-1885, during which time a two-room addition was built onto the school. At first all grades were taught in this building, but by 1886 it became necessary to find separate quarters for the primary grades. As attendance grew, makeshift classrooms were utilized at different locations to handle the overflow. In the fall of 1886, Principal W. B. Turner presided over 523 pupils and seven teachers. By the next year, this number had increased to 715 students and 13 teachers. In 1888, the high school system was in place, with Jonathan Heaton as principal.

The year 1889 was a momentous one for Spokane. Washington achieved statehood, much of downtown Spokane was destroyed by a fire, and schools in Spokane were reorganized as School District No. 81. David Bemis, a Canadian with extensive experience in school administration, was hired as superintendent of Spokane Public Schools in the fall of 1889. Mr. Bemis, who remained as Superintendent for 10 years, is largely credited with the advancement and expansion of Spokane schools. At the time that David Bemis took charge, there were not nearly enough seats to accommodate the nearly 2,000 pupils in the city. An 1890 report, issued by President of the Board of Education E. A. Routhe, recommended that the District required "four large ward schoolhouses and a large central building for the high school." This would require $250,000 more than what was made available through the normal tax levy. Spokane citizens voted to issue bonds for the necessary money, reflecting a new confidence in and support for the local school system. Subsequently, the new high school and six elementary schools were built.

Spokane High and South Central High

The new high school, designed by architect Charles F. Helmle, was completed in May of 1891, at a cost of $110,000. The new building was constructed on the same site as the old wood frame school. It was an impressive building, clad in brick and boasting a massive granite foundation and north-facing front entry portal. At some point, between 1902 and 1906, the Spokane High School building was about doubled in size by the construction of a large addition to the rear. In the spring of 1891, Spokane High School produced its first graduates, a class of seven students. In June 1901, Herbert T. Coleman was selected by the School Board as principal. The graduating class of that year had grown to 39.

The large number of graduates was gratifying to the community, but increasing enrollment was taxing the ability of the school district to provide enough space for students. During 1901, attendance at Spokane High School jumped by about 300 students and at least 125 more were expected during the first months of 1902. It was becoming painfully apparent that more room was needed. Many began to call for a new, larger high school or a second high school that would serve the northern portion of the city. It was suggested that citizens vote on a bond issue to provide funds for this and other pressing projects.

It took several years to secure the $200,000 in bonds necessary to finance a new high school as well as other needed elementary schools. It was not until the spring of 1907 that the bond issue was authorized and later that year the contract for construction of the new north-side high school was granted. It went to the J. E. Cunningham Company, which had submitted a bid of $53,056.

The new building was opened in 1908. The original high school then became South Central High School. The school bond levies of 1907 and 1909 provided the funds to greatly improve public educational facilities in the city of Spokane.

But the District received a terrible blow when South Central High School burned to the ground on June 21, 1910. Spokane citizens responded by passing another bond issue to rebuild the destroyed school, resulting in the present Lewis and Clark High School. The district was guided through the post-World War I years and the Great Depression by Superintendent Orville C. Pratt, who served from 1916 to 1943, the longest tenancy of anyone in that office.

Rogers High School

The next high school to be built in the City of Spokane was Rogers High School, constructed in 1932 and named after John Rankin Rogers, the third governor of the state of Washington, who died in office in 1901, shortly after his re-election. The new school was intended to replace the former Hillyard High School, which had been located at the corner of E Everett Avenue and N Regal Street. After Hillyard was annexed by Spokane in 1924, Hillyard High School came under the jurisdiction of the district. As the enrollment climbed, various portables were moved adjacent to the Hillyard school, creating a campus-like appearance.

By 1929, a delegation of educators, businessmen, and social clubs was calling for a new high school to be built in northeast Spokane. In order to serve both the Hillyard area and other north Spokane neighborhoods, it was suggested that the new school be placed to the south and west of the existing structure. John R. Rogers High School was an Art Deco Style brick building designed by Spokane architect J. K. Dow.

Sources: Angie Burt Bowden, Early Schools of Washington Territory (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford Company, 1935); Clifford M. Drury, A Teepee in His Front Yard (Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1949); N. W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington, Vols. 1 and 2 (Spokane: J. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912); Reverend Jonathan Edwards, An Illustrated History of Spokane County, State of Washington (W. H. Lever, Publisher, 1900); Orville C. Pratt, Spokane Public Schools: A Brief History, and the Annual Report for 1941-1942 (Spokane: Spokane School District No. 81, 1943); "High School Is Destroyed," Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 21, 1910, p. 1; "Graduates of High School," Spokesman-Review, June 7, 1901, p. 1; "Many Favor Bonds," Ibid., January 11, 1902, p. 5; "May Issue Bonds For High School," Ibid., July 25, 1903, p. 1; "Will Build New High School," Ibid., October 17, 1907, p. 7; "Hillyard in Line for New School," Ibid., November 26, 1929, p. 1.

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