History of the Little Rock School District
The first public school in Little Rock began operation on August 29, 1853, with 52 students. The one-room school was located at 7th and Scott streets, and classes were conducted by Mr. Hiram Scofield. He had been hired at a salary of $800 a year.
The new public school was governed by the City Council of Little Rock, with the primary administration carried out by the council's Committee on Schools. The committee hoped "...that it is the commencement of a system which will fully meet the wants of the whole community." City Council meetings ceased during the Civil War, as did operation of the public schools. In February 1869 the Arkansas General Assembly granted the right for cities to organize single school districts and set the powers of the district. The citizens of Little Rock voted to establish a school district and elect a Board of Directors. The first School Board meeting of the newly created Little Rock School District met on February 16, 1869, electing Frederick Kramer as its first president. [Individuals shown in boldface type ultimately will have schools named after them.] N.P. Gates was named the first Superintendent for the fledgling school district in September 1869 and moved to Little Rock from Matoon, Illinois. He left this position in 1871 to organize Arkansas' new industrial university, and his associate Jacob R. Rightsell was appointed to be his replacement.
By the 1874-75 school year, a total of 23 teachers were employed by the district in five schools (Sherman, Peabody, Union, First Ward and Capitol Hill). In 1875-76 the High School and a new primary school (up to the 8th grade), the Marshall Avenue School, were opened. A new superintendent, J.M. Fish, led the district. By 1877 the Marshall Avenue School and the First Ward School had disappeared. In this year Richard H. Parham, Jr., is shown as a member of the district's Board of Visitors and Examiners; by the next year he is principal of the high school, a post he retains until 1893 when he becomes principal of Fort Steele School. Also this same year Jefferson G. Ish shows up as principal of Union School, where Lottie (Charlotte) E. Stephens is a teacher. Stephens is the first African-American teacher in the Little Rock School District; she also is the first African-American woman in Arkansas to attend college (she went to Oberlin College in Ohio). The LRSD enrollment in 1878-79 was 2,142. In 1879 Mifflin W. Gibbs is listed on the Board of Visitors and Examiners along with Superintendent J.M. Fish. Gibbs appears on this board intermittently throughout the next few years. This year sees another new school in Little Rock, Forest Grove, and J.E. Bush is the new principal at Capital Hill.
In 1880 Jacob R. Rightsell takes over as principal at Peabody. Arsenal School begins to show up here, but it is listed under Sherman School, possibly as a sub-school. In later years it is listed separately. The School Board takes up residence at the Dodge & Osborne Block at 4th & Main streets. The Scott Street School opens in 1882; Fort Steele opens in 1885. J.R. Rightsell assumes the title of superintendent in 1883. J.G. Ish becomes principal of the Arsenal School in 1885. In 1887 the School Board moves its offices to the Vaughan Bldg. at 5th & Main streets. By the end of the decade, the Little Rock School District had the following schools in operation: Scott Street (high school, grammar, primary); Peabody (grammar, primary); Fort Steele (grammar, primary); Sherman (grammar, primary); Forest Grove (primary); Union (high school, grammar, primary--for African-Americans); Arsenal (grammar, primary--for African-Americans); Capital Hill (primary--for African-Americans).
In the 1890s the 21st Street School opened in 1892 with Jefferson G. Ish as its principal, Centennial School opened in 1894 and the Kramer and Rector Avenue schools opened in 1895. Robert C. Hall became principal of Peabody in 1898, J.G. Ish became a math teacher at Union H.S. and Charlotte Stephens became a history and Latin teacher at Union H.S. in 1898.
The school board set a teacher pay schedule for the first time in 1904 in an attempt to settle ongoing salary disputes and prevent future problems. In accordance with the new schedule, a first-year teacher holding a first-grade license made $45 a month. A teacher with the same license with eleven years of consecutive teaching in Little Rock schools would earn $70 a month.
In 1915 Little Rock had the following schools in operation: Peabody, Centennial, Kramer, Rightsell, Lee, Rose (built in 1915, replacing Fort Steele, which was destroyed by fire earlier that same year), Parham, Mitchell, Pulaski Heights, Garland, Woodruff, Forest Park, Rock Creek, Exceptional, Pfeifer, Gibbs (high school and grammar school), Capital Hill, 21st Street, Stephens, East End, South End, Riverside and St. Paul. The district's enrollment in 1915 was 9,327.
As Little Rock's population grew, new schools were added to accommodate the growth. Sixteen new schools were built during the tenure of R.C. Hall, LRSD's Superintendent from 1909 to 1941. The 1915-16 annual report first broaches the subject of junior high schools for grades 7, 8 and 9 (at this time, grammar school continued through the 8th grade and high school began with 9th grade), partly because of overcrowding in the grammar schools and partly because of the recognition that adolescent children required a separate learning environment. The junior high school had been used in other parts of the country at this point in time, and the superintendent felt that its time had come here in Little Rock. His proposal was to construct two junior high schools, one west of High Street and one east of Broadway. (West Side junior high school opened in 1917, and East Side operated as a junior/senior high school until Little Rock [Central] High School opened in 1927 and then operated solely as a junior high school.)
R.C. Hall also had strong feelings about compulsory school attendance, which he made known in his Superintendent's Report in 1917: "I have always favored compulsory school attendance," wrote Hall. "If people are compelled to pay taxes to educate children, I certainly think the children should be compelled to attend school. The law is not mandatory, and unless some special provision is made by this district to enforce it, it will be void of results." Arkansas' compulsory school attendance law was enacted in 1909; evidently it was not widely enforced. Apparently non-attendance at school had been an ongoing problem in the city: an article in the Arkansas Gazette in 1875 (reprinted in 1975) estimated that as many as 2,500 of the 6,000 children in Little Rock that year were not attending school or working.
In 1944 the district's student population reached 15,000. Little Rock was thrust into the national and global spotlight in 1957 over the issue of integration. After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which stated that "separate but equal" was not providing an equal education for African-American students, the Little Rock Board of Education decided to integrate its schools. In September 1957 hostilities arose over the admission of nine African-American students (who became known to the world as the "Little Rock Nine") to Little Rock Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine students from entering the building. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was compelled to use troops from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school on September 25, 1957. His action was the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period that federal military force was used to support African-American civil rights. Federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained for the rest of the school year. Inside the school, teachers and students tried to carry on as usual while a small group of students consistently harassed the nine students. Elizabeth Huckaby, Vice Principal for Girls at Central, once wrote, "Our role as administrators seems to be to try to carry on education as normally as possible and to protect these children with every precaution we can." During the summer of 1958, while the NAACP pursued the matter through the courts, Governor Orval Faubus signed a bill into law allowing him to close all four of Little Rock's public high schools to prevent further desegregation efforts. Two weeks later Little Rock's citizens voted against the immediate integration of the district's schools, and the high schools remained closed for the duration of the 1958-59 school year. Students did have some options for their education: some students managed to enroll in high schools in nearby school districts; some enrolled in private schools; some went to live with friends or relatives out of town or out of state; some took correspondence courses; some seniors managed to obtain early admission to college; and some students unfortunately did not pursue their education at all during this year. This school year is commonly referred to in Little Rock as the "Lost Year." In May 1959 three of the six School Board members voted not to renew the contracts of 44 teachers and administrators who they felt had supported desegregation. This move prompted the city's leaders to act, and a campaign to recall the three segregationist School Board members succeeded. In the fall of 1959 the newly constituted School Board reopened the high schools under the existing desegregation plan.
The year 1973 brought about major changes to the district's elementary schools to further aid desegregation efforts: they were divided into primary schools (grades 1 to 3) and intermediate schools (grades 4 to 6). Most of the schools retained their kindergarten classes. This separation continued until 1987 when all elementary schools returned to the standard k-6 format. The 4-year-old, or pre-k, program was introduced in some LRSD schools in 1989. City progress has not occurred, however, without casualties to the district. In June 1979 students and staff mourned the loss of the 70-year-old Parham School, which was demolished to make way for the new Wilbur Mills Expressway (I-630). The dark cloud did have a silver lining: the new, modern Rockefeller Elementary was built near where Parham once stood and took the place of two schools, Parham and the nearby Kramer Elementary, which also closed when Rockefeller opened.
In the autumn of 1987 the Little Rock School District annexed 14 schools from the Pulaski County Special School District, the favorable result of a lawsuit that had been filed by the LRSD under the auspices of a long-running desegregation case involving all three school districts in Pulaski County. The schools were J.A. Fair and McClellan high schools; Cloverdale and Mabelvale junior high schools; and Badgett, Baseline, Chicot, Cloverdale, Dodd, Geyer Springs, Mabelvale, Otter Creek, Wakefield and Watson elementary schools.
Little Rock voters approved a 5-mill tax increase, valued at more than $115 million, in 2000. This money continues to be used for much-needed building repairs, renovations, additions and expansions at all schools; technology upgrades at all schools and district offices; and a dedicated building maintenance fund.
In September 2002 the Federal District Court virtually ended more than 40 years of court-supervised desegregation monitoring in LRSD schools by declaring the Little Rock School District unitary (compliant) in all monitored areas except one: program evaluation. That final monitoring mandate was finally lifted in February 2007, effectively ending the district's book of integration litigation that began with the Central High School desegregation crisis in 1957. This particular chapter began with a lawsuit filed against the district on behalf of a group of African-American students in 1982. No other school district in America has been in desegregation litigation as long as the Little Rock School District.
Today the Little Rock School District operates 30 elementary schools (pre-k - 5), seven middle schools (6 - 8), five high schools (9 - 12), an early childhood center (pre-k), a career-technical center, an accelerated learning center and two alternative learning centers. Approximately 3,700 people work toward the goal of educating more than 25,000 students. More than 55% of our teachers hold a master's degree or higher, and many of our educators have been honored with state and national awards, including the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, the U.S. Department of Education's American Star of Teaching Award and Arkansas PTA Teacher/Administrator of the Year. Our students, who are offered more Advanced Placement (AP) and Pre-AP courses than any other students in the state, have gone on to attend the finest colleges and universities in the nation (Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, just to name a few). The LRSD regularly has more National Merit Semifinalists than any other school district in the state.
As the city of Little Rock has grown in population and expanded in size over time, so the Little Rock School District has kept pace to educate the children of this great city.
- LRSD archives (School Board minutes, annual reports, employee directories, etc.).
- Hobby, Selma; 1991 research project about the Little Rock School District.
- "Constitutional Writes," the official newsletter of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Summer 2003; vol. 1, issue 1.
- Arkansas Democrat. Monday, 7 May 1979; p. 1B.
- Other Days column, Arkansas Gazette, 20 October 1875.If you have information about a Little Rock school or photographs that you would like to contribute to this project (we will return photographs if requested), please contact us!