With fewer students and dollars in Peoria’s public schools, closing buildings and designing replacements is under discussion. This seems a good time to observe that the history of schools in Peoria dates back to 1821.

In 1882, Peoria’s Board of School Inspectors designated names for what had been numbered as district schools. The buildings became known as Douglas, Lincoln, Irving, Greeley, Franklin, Webster, White, Sumner, and Jefferson. Teachers were directed “to hold exercises commemorative of the person whose name their building bears.”

Thus, students learned of politicians; writers; statesmen; and educator Samuel White, principal of an 1868 teacher training school that became a grade school in 1879.

Modern buildings were constructed, remodeled, relocated, and reconfigured. Architecture took on heroic proportions, distinctive styling, and fireproof construction. Webster closed, Sumner merged, and Douglas School was torn down in 1969, but the legacies of the other schools remain.

By 1910, subsequent schools recognized presidents (Garfield, Harrison, McKinley, and Washington); poets (Longfellow and Whittier); local leaders (John Lee and Lucie Tyng); politicians (Blaine); and curriculum (Manual Training High). Annexation added Glen Oak and Columbia in 1900, Loucks in 1909, and Kingman and Reservoir Heights in 1928. Suburban elementary schools from four districts—Kellar, Hines, Sipp, and Woodrow Wilson—were annexed to District 150 in November 1964. Richwoods Township High School was annexed in the 1966-1967 school year.

When McKinley School closed, the president’s portrait, a gift from his friend, Peoria patron Joseph Greenhut, was donated to Lakeview Museum. The Longfellow engraved stone rests on the grounds of the present Lincoln school. Lee and Sipp were torn down.

Newer local schools commemorate presidents (Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt); location (Rolling Acres, Northmoor, Sterling, and Charter Oak); school board members (Trewyn and Jamieson); administrative staff (Mark Bills); and local or national personalities (Woodruff, Valeska Hinton, Lindbergh, and Von Steuben).

An 1855 law formalized provisions for public free schools, and most sources date the founding of Peoria’s Public Schools to the amending of the city charter in February 1855. The first board of school inspectors was elected February 15, 1856. Peoria’s 1869 charter included the mayor on the board of school inspectors, as well as two representatives per ward.

Early private schools often were associated with churches. Shareholders established stock schools, including one for girls in 1850 and one for boys in 1854. The latter, which took on the name Peoria Academy, transferred to the public school system in 1856. Its principal, the Dartmouth-educated Charles C. Hovey, became the first principal of Peoria High School, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. Just one year later, Hovey was chosen to open the new state Normal School in Bloomington as its first president.

A separate school for “colored” children existed in Peoria prior to 1860. By 1863, the teacher was on the public school payroll and the public system also supported the building. Integration came in September 1872 after J. Rogers, Thomas Lindsay, and seven other citizens of color petitioned the Board of School Inspectors, requesting that their children be admitted to the district school. Board minutes show Lucie B. Tyng’s husband moved that the petition be received and that the request of the petitioners be granted. His straightforward motion carried by a vote of seven to three.

Two months later, the board discussed creating a night school in the colored school building, “when so many as 20 pupils over 12 years of age who are usefully employed during the day and do not attend the day schools, desire to do so.”

In 1880, Moses Pettengill founded the Pettengill Seminary for young ladies. It was discontinued 10 years later, after Peoria High School’s curriculum expanded to include subjects that had been taught at the private school.

By the time John Lancaster Spalding was appointed first bishop of the Catholic diocese of Peoria in 1877, there were already three Catholic schools for students. A high school for young women had been in operation since 1863. Spalding deplored the dearth of intellectual men in the church and became involved in the founding of the Catholic University of America in 1889 in Washington, D.C.

When an 1889 Illinois law called for education in English in a school approved by the board of education, Catholic and Lutheran Germans joined forces to replace offending politicians and repeal the law. The first German school had begun in Peoria in 1849. Several Lutheran schools continue today, as well as a new Peoria Academy, and various private and religious schools—including a Hebrew school—have existed here since 1934.

In all, it’s a complex legacy that deserves to be remembered and respected. AA!