When the little town of Sioux City was just a few years old, its citizens became eager to open a school. A board of education was formed, but funds were not available right away. Then, a group of businessmen agreed to fund a school session of six months, and Miss Mary Wilkins was hired as the teacher of this first school. Her salary was fifty dollars a month, which was a generous amount for a teacher at that time.
Mary Wilkins arrived in Sioux City on the first steamer of the season, the Omaha, on April 26, 1857. Her schoolhouse, the first in Sioux City, was located on a sloping lot on the east side of Nebraska Street, between Seventh and Eighth Streets. The unpainted wooden building had three brick pillars, six wooden steps and a school bell. Inside, it was fitted with long wooden benches. Long tables were placed against the walls for writing. The schoolhouse was used for many community activities including lectures, music and church services.
Miss Wilkins’ first class opened on May 8, 1857. There were fifteen students, ranging in age from five to nineteen years. Many of them, being children of pioneer settlers, had never been to a real school before. At first, there were no books! The teacher gathered an assortment of books from families, and the school used them until new books arrived. By the end of the first six weeks, school enrollment had doubled and new books were delivered. The books included: Webster’s Speller, McGuffy’s Reader, Ray’s Arithmetic, Mitchell’s Geography and Wells’ Grammar.
In the spring of 1858, public funding became available, and Miss Wilkins’ salary became the object of public discussion. Some people thought that fifty dollars was entirely too much to pay to a young girl. Miss Wilkins thought differently, and some of the board agreed with her. The matter was settled to everyone’s satisfaction. The teacher would receive thirty dollars a month for twenty-five students and a proportionate amount for each additional student. The deal worked out in favor of Miss Wilkins, for the enrollment increased to sixty students and she earned more than she had during the earlier term.
In 1858, Mary Wilkins also received the first teaching certificate in Sioux City. Iowa law stated that all teachers paid with public funds must pass an examination and receive a certificate. Three “gentlemen of education and culture” formed the examining board, and Mary joined two other teachers for the first examination of teachers in Woodbury County. She easily passed the exam and received her certificate.
When Wilkins finished her second year of service, she left Sioux City. Reverend Hoyt, an Episcopal rector was hired to take her place. He taught for four months.
In April of 1859, the school board hired Mr. F. E. Lininger to take charge of the schools in Sioux City. That spring, three schools opened. The original schoolhouse was home to the higher grades, taught by Mr. Lininger. Miss Jenny Bell taught classes in a building near Fourth and Virginia, and Miss Louisa Putnam taught in a room near Sixth and Pearl.
In 1868, the city’s first brick schoolhouse was erected on the east side of Jackson Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets. The school had five rooms with wooden benches and tables, an outside well and pump, outdoor plumbing and wood burning stoves. At first, the building held elementary and secondary classes, but later only the younger students used the school. Originally called Central School, the school was renamed Hunt School in 1873 in honor of Dr. Andrew Hunt, a physician and dentist who was the first president of the Sioux City School Board. The school closed in 1887 and the lot sold at a good profit when the area became part of the booming business district.
By 1869, Sioux City schools were organized under the District Township of Sioux City, but feelings were growing in favor of an independent school district. A town meeting was called in the office of S. T. Davis, a real estate man. Nineteen registered voters came to that meeting on March 29, 1869 and unanimously voted to form the Independent School District of Sioux City. At that time, there were two school buildings, seven teachers and 400 students.
During the first days as an independent school district, the Board of Education planned and supervised the schools. Board members interviewed teachers, settled disputes, decided on textbooks, conducted public examinations of pupils, and decided on their advancement.
In May of 1876, Professor Allen Armstrong was hired to be the first superintendent of schools in Sioux City. Professor Armstrong was a well-known educator throughout the state and highly regarded by those who knew and worked with him. The Board began to pass many of its former responsibilities on to him. They let all teachers and supervisors know that the superintendent must be obeyed. Any failure to cooperate with him would result in dismissal.
In the early years of Sioux City education, the curriculum was based on ten grade levels before high school. Students began at the tenth level and progressed to the first level. Students moved on to the next level after examination and approval of the principal. During their first year in school, students studied reading, counting, drawing, writing, singing, morals, manners, and physical exercise. Music lessons were added to the curriculum in 1874.
In 1885, forty-six teachers taught 2,449 students in Sioux City schools. It is interesting to note that only two and a half percent of the students were attending high school. Fifty-three percent of the students were in first, second and third grades. At that time, many students only finished third grade. The average teacher-student ratio was fifty-three students per teacher.
By 1890, the Sioux City School district boasted eleven wooden buildings, twelve brick buildings, 120 teachers and 8,000 students. As the sprawling city’s population boomed, the district sometimes rented classroom space in available buildings. Records show that around that period of time, in Woodbury County, the average monthly salary of a male teacher was $42.83. The monthly salary of a female teacher was $35.61. Schools were all reported to be in good repair with comfortable seats and plenty of blackboards.
As high school enrollment increased, the need arose for a larger high school facility. Sioux City High School was dedicated in May of 1893. Later known as Central High School or the “castle on the hill”, the school featured the latest technology, including a central ventilating system and thermostatically controlled heating in the classrooms
At the turn of the century, elementary school teachers were required to be high school graduates or have a comparable education. The school district offered its own “normal” or teacher-training school for elementary school teachers. High school teachers had to be graduates of a college or university. Teachers were forbidden to be married. If a teacher married during the school year, she would need to immediately resign.
History of the Counties of Woodbury and Plymouth Iowa. Chicago, Illinois: A. Warner and Co., 1890.
The Public Schools of Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City, Iowa: n.p., 1955.