History of Cincinnati Public Schools

  • The Early History

    The Cincinnati Public School District dates from its official start in 1829 as a district called The Common Schools of Cincinnati.

    The City of Cincinnati was founded in 1788 on the Ohio River bank opposite the mouth of the Licking River. By the early 1800s, several public schools were operating, making Cincinnati the first to have a public school system in the new Northwest Territory, according to a 1902 book by John B. Shotwell, “Schools of Cincinnati.”

    In 1827, William Woodward, a leather tanner, and his wife, Abigail Cutter, donated land on Sycamore Street, downtown, for a public school. In 1831, Woodward High School opened at 1310 Sycamore Street; in the 1970s, the Woodward building became home to the School for Creative and Performing Arts, which moved August 2010 to East Central Parkway.

    The first successful school in Cincinnati, Woodward High (now, Woodward Career Technical High School in Bond Hill) today remains the oldest public school west of the Allegheny Mountains. Famous Woodward graduates include President William Howard Taft. In the mid-1840s, William McGuffey, author of the famous textbooks, was a Woodward teacher.

    An Ohio state law passed in 1825 allowed a half-mill tax to be collected to pay for public schools. That led to the establishment in 1829 of “The Common Schools of Cincinnati.” The district was run by a Board of Trustees, with one member elected from each ward by popular vote of the public. The Board’s name was changed in 1868 to the “Board of Education.”

    For two decades, there was no superintendent. The Board ran the district, doing inspections of schools and hiring teachers. On March 23, 1850, a special state act authorized the election of a superintendent by popular vote of the public. Nathan Guilford, a lawyer and state senator who had helped create the 1825 school-funding law, was elected Cincinnati's first superintendent. He served from 1850-52. Joseph Merrill, elected superintendent in 1853, followed him. After 1853, the Board received authority to appoint its superintendent.

    The first printed report on the district appeared in 1833, according to Shotwell. The district then enrolled 1,900 students and had spent $7,778 on its schools in 1832.

    The district struggled financially in the early years. An 1831 report mentions that, "many of the schools were poorly lighted and situated in unhealthful localities."

    The Board, seeking ways to ignite interest in public schools, began in the 1830s to hold annual public examinations of students. Invited to watch were the press, teachers from other states, politicians and students’ family and friends. In 1833, the examination ended with students parading through the streets before enthusiastic crowds. The interest stuck, and, within two years, the district had built new, model schools throughout the city.

    Cincinnati schools continued to grow in popularity. A German Department was added in 1840 to help educate the city’s growing German-immigrant population. By 1846, enrollment had grown to 7,000 students, and the district employed 76 teachers and was overseen by a 20-member Board of Education. Enrollment grew by 1850 to 11,000 students taught by 124 teachers.

    Nine years before the Civil War, the city’s African-American residents successfully moved to create their own, separate public school system. In 1852, the state granted them the right to create and operate the Independent Colored School System. Financed by proceeds from taxes on property owned by African-Americans and operated by a board elected by African-Americans, this school system was credited for providing a base for Cincinnati’s emerging black middle class, according to an account in “Cincinnati — The Queen City” by Daniel Hurley.

    After black males were enfranchised by the 15th Amendment, the independent black school board was abolished in 1874 and the system was gradually dismantled. Ten years later, the only school that remained was the Elm Street School, which became Douglass School in 1910.

    In 1914, an African-American teacher in Cincinnati Public Schools, Jennie D. Porter, persuaded the Cincinnati Board of Education to allow her to organize a segregated school with black teachers and a black student body in the West End. Although Porter’s Harriet Beecher Stowe School was successful, it was also controversial among some black leaders in the community. One of the most prominent, newspaper publisher Wendell Phillips Dabney, was outspoken in his criticism of Porter, arguing for true integration. Stowe remained an all-black school until it closed in 1962.

    Sources: “ Cincinnati: An Urban History,” published by the Cincinnati Historical Society (1989); “History of the Schools of Cincinnati and Other Educational Institutions — 1900,” compiled and published by Isaac M. Martin; “Schools of Cincinnati,” By John B. Shotwell (1902); “The Schools of Cincinnati and Its Vicinity,” J.P. Foote (1855); and “Cincinnati — The Queen City,” by Daniel Hurley (1982, Cincinnati Historical Society).