Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Kansas Education
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The First Schools in Kansas 

The first schools in Kansas were the mission schools for the Indians. When Kansas was organized as a Territory and the white settlers began to make their homes here, the education of their children became one of their first interests. In the summer of 1855 the first Territorial Legislature passed a law providing for the establishment of common schools, and thus laid the foundation for our public school system.


Early Territorial Schools 

In January of 1855, when the town of Lawrence was only six months old, a school was opened in the back of Dr. Charles Robinson's office. A term of school was held in Lawrence every winter thereafter. Other towns also maintained schools, as did a few of the country communities, but the settlers' claims were so widely scattered and the dangers during the days of raids and warfare were so great that country schools were almost an impossibility during the first few years. Subscription Schools. Many of the earlier schools were "subscription schools," which means that they were not public schools supported by a tax levy, but that the teacher's pay came from a tuition charged each pupil who attended.

Beginning of Our School System 

By 1859, when Territorial conditions had become more settled, the Legislature turned its attention to the matter of education and passed a set of school laws that has served ever since as the basis of our system of education. While Kansas was still a Territory, a few districts were organized and schoolhouses built, and the minimum school term was made three months.

(Sod School house)

Schools After the Civil War 

Little educational progress was made during the Civil War, but when peace had come to Kansas and the people could turn their minds to the needs of their homes and communities, school houses built of legs or sod sprang up everywhere, for the pioneers had brought with them a desire to educate their children. Sometimes the settlers did not even wait to organize their district, but gathered together and began work on their schoolhouse. Where there was a timber supply they made their buildings of logs. On the prairie they built of sod. With the breaking plow they sliced out long pieces of sod from two to four inches thick and twelve to fourteen inches wide, and these, mortared with soft mud, were used like brick to build the walls. The roof was sometimes of lumber, but often the sod was laid over a framework of brush and poles. Whether the building was of logs or of sod, the floor was usually of dirt sprinkled and packed until it was hard and smooth. As the country grew in population and resources these buildings were replaced by others made of lumber, brick, or stone, but the little log and sod schoolhouses served the pioneers well. They were used not only for school purposes, but for religious services and for social gatherings, spelling schools, singing schools, and literary societies. The schoolhouses were the social centers in early Kansas.

(Interior of Sod School House)

The Work of the Pioneer Schools 

Although the minimum term was three months, it was usually made a little longer for the benefit of the smaller children. As a rule the older boys and girls went to school only during the winter months when they could be spared from the farms. The work in the schools in those days consisted chiefly of the three R's, "readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmetic." In most cases, the pupils started each year at the beginning of their books and worked as far as they could. This was continued winter after winter until the girls and boys were eighteen to twenty-one years of age, or even older. There was no such thing as graduating from the country schools; the pupils attended until they were ready to quit. Since there were almost no high schools in the State, few of the children received more than a common school education, and most of the teachers had no more than that.

(A Present Day Rural School C. 1900's)

Changes in the District Schools 

Conditions are quite different in the country schools today. Many of them have terms of eight months, a few have nine months, while seven months is the shortest term permitted by the State. The truancy law requires attendance during the full term, whatever its length. The sod and log schoolhouses of pioneer days were, in time, replaced by neat little box-like buildings usually constructed of wood, though occasionally of brick or stone, and these in turn are now rapidly disappearing and their places are being taken by buildings that are larger, more beautiful, more comfortable, and far better adapted to educational needs. The qualifications of teachers have been raised. In earlier days, when there were but few high schools, many teachers had no education beyond what they had obtained in the country schools, but today ninety per cent of the rural teachers of the State are high-school graduates, and this per cent is steadily increasing. The work of the rural schools has expanded far beyond the "three R's." In addition to theregular work it now includes as much as time will permit of such subjects as music, manual training, agriculture, and household arts. The rural schools have been receiving a great deal of attention in recent years and are very rapidly being improved. Several hundred of them have already met the requirements laid down by the State for a "standard" school, and a few for a "superior" school, and these lists are constantly growing.

(A Consolidated School)

Consolidated Schools 

Consolidation is generally looked upon as a method of bettering conditions in the rural schools. A consolidated district is one formed by the union of several districts. The little district schoolhouses are replaced by a larger building, usually centrally located, to which the children are conveyed in wagons provided for that purpose. With its larger valuation the consolidated district can have plenty of teachers and equipment and can offer a greater variety of subjects. There are a number of consolidated schools in the State now, and the plan is being considered in many communities. The good roads movement will no doubt do much to encourage consolidation.

(A County High School)

Growth of the High School 

A number of years passed before there were many high schools in Kansas. Four schools constituted the list of accredited high schools of the State as published in 1876. By 1886 the number had grown to thirty-six, and by 1896 it had reached seventy-seven. From that time on the number increased very rapidly until in 1918 there were six hundred thirty accredited high schools in the State, one hundred twenty-one of which were rural high schools. Until about 1905 the standard for an accredited high school was a course of only three years. Since that time it has been four years.

(A Two Teacher Rural School)

In the early years the real purpose of the high school was considered to be that of preparing the pupils for college, and the courses of study included only such subjects as were suited to that purpose. The present idea is that this is only one of the purposes of the high school, the other being that of supplying to the great mass of pupils, who will never go to college, the best possible preparation for living. To accomplish this latter purpose courses of study have been broadened to include such work as music, manual training, agriculture, commercial work, household arts, teacher training, and industrial training. Until very recent years high schools were established only in towns and cities, but now they are to be found in consolidated districts, and in rural districts, sometimes in small towns in those districts and sometimes in communities that are entirely rural. There is not now a county in the State that is without a four-year accredited high school.

(A Rural High School)

Institutions of Higher Learning 

The deep interest of the Kansas settlers in matters of education is nowhere more apparent than in their early establishment of institutions of higher learning. In the first Constitution, made in 1855, one reads, "The General Assembly may take measures for the establishment of a university"; and again, " Provisions may be made by law for the support of normal schools." These matters were not lost sight of, and almost immediately after the admission of Kansas as a state this ambition found expression in the establishment of the Normal School, the Agricultural College, and the University.

The Normal Schools 

The State Normal School at Emporia opened in 1865 with eighteen students enrolled. It used the upper floor of the new schoolhouse that had just been built for Emporia which was then but a small town. There was no furniture, and the equipment consisted of a Bible and a dictionary. Seats were borrowed from a neighboring church. But the Normal soon had a building of its own. In later years this has been three times replaced by a larger and better one and many new buildings have been added.

The Normal School is based on the principle that it is not only necessary to know what to teach but how to teach; that there are new discoveries and advances in methods of teaching as there are in other lines, such as medicine or farming. The purpose of the Normal School is to train teachers.

(School house Used as a Social Center)

When our State Normal School was established there were not more than a dozen other such schools in the United States and none that prepared teachers for high school positions. Today there are many normal schools, but none larger than ours or more amply equipped to prepare teachers for all lines of teaching. The course of study, reaching from the kindergarten to the completion of a college course, places our State Normal School in the front rank of institutions of its kind.

In 1901 the Western Branch State Normal School was established at Hays, and in 1903 another branch, the Manual Training Normal School, was opened at Pittsburg. Each of these has since been made an independent school. The one at Hays is now known as the Fort Hays Kansas Normal School.

The Agricultural College 

In 1862 Congress passed an act providing for land grants to states for the purpose of establishing colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts. Kansas was among the first states to accept the endowment, and the next year Bluemont Central College, a Methodist school at Manhattan, was given to the State and made the State Agricultural College. During the first ten years the growth of the Agricultural College was very slow. This was chiefly due to the fact that industrial education was something new and did not receive much attention. The College gave only a little work in agriculture or manual training, and what was given was merely supplementary. It was doing little to educate toward the farm or the workshop. In 1873 the school was reorganized. Farmers began to be interested in it and to discuss its possibilities.

Such subjects as Latin and Greek were dropped and agriculture, home economics, and mechanic arts were emphasized. Workshops, print shops, kitchen and sewing rooms, agricultural implements, and livestock, were provided. This was a very advanced step at that time and it aroused some opposition. It was called the "newfangled" education, and farmers who read and studied methods of farming were often sneered at as "book farmers." But in time people began to view these things in a different light. It has now come to be generally recognized that successful farming requires a broader and more varied knowledge than almost any other business, and that in an agricultural state like ours nothing is more important than the training of its citizens for home and farm life. The Agricultural College now occupies the position of leadership in the agricultural and industrial interests of the State, and is one of the largest agricultural colleges in the United States.

The University 

The University of Kansas was established by an act of the Legislature of 1864, and its object, as given by this act, is to "provide the inhabitants of the State with means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science, and the arts." The university idea is hundreds of years old, and so there was nothing new in the thought of a university in Kansas. The University of Kansas was built on the flat-topped hill in Lawrence where the first party of free-state settlers pitched their tents. It was opened in 1866 with forty students and three professors. To-day there are twenty great buildings on Mount Oread. The central department of the University is the college, which provides a liberal education in languages, sciences, mathematics, history, and kindred subjects. Besides the college there are schools of en^neering, of fine arts, of law, of pharmacy, of medicine, and of education. Ours now ranks high among the universities of the United States.

Control of State Schools 

Altogether, the University, the Agricultural College, and the Normal Schools employ about seven hundred instructors and enroll between eight and nine thousand students each year. The total annual cost to the people of Kansas is nearly two million dollars. These schools, together with the School for the Blind at Kansas City, and the School for the Deaf at Olathe, were, in 1913, placed under the management of a board of three members called the Board of Administration. In 1917 the Board of Administration was reorganized and the penal and the charitable institutions of the State were placed under its control.

Denominational Colleges 

In addition to the State institutions Kansas has more than thirty denominational colleges. A few of the largest of these are Baker University at Baldwin, Washburn College at Topeka, Ottawa University at Ottawa, Friends University at Wichita, the Southwestern University at Winfield, and the College of Emporia. There are also a number of business colleges and a few independent schools.

Other Provisions for Education 

Besides all the schools where the people of Kansas may obtain an education, every effort is being made to provide other educational opportunities by means of extension work, public and traveling libraries, and night schools . The State Normal School, the Agricultural College, and the University all do extension work, which means that they offer correspondence courses, send out lecturers, and in various other ways carry their work to those who can not attend the schools. Many communities maintain free public libraries and the State maintains a traveling library.(1) Night schools are now provided in several of our larger cities. An education is now possible to any one who really wants it.

All of this has been brought about within little more than a half century, and though there is much yet to be done the people of Kansas have every reason to be proud of what they have accomplished in the interests of education.


Education in Kansas began with the mission schools and was one of the first interests in Territorial days. There were many subscription schools before district schools were organized. The organization of districts began in the Territorial period and kept pace with settlement. The University, the Normal School and the Agricultural College were established during the Civil War. Since that time many denominational colleges have been established, the high school has been developed, and many other means of education have been provided. Great educational progress has been made.


Prentis, History of Kansas, chap. xxxv.

Historical Collections, vol. vi, pp. 70, 114; vol. vii, pp. 167, 502;

Tol. XI, p. 424; vol. xil, pp. 69, 77, 195.

Catalogues of the State Schools.

Reports of State Department of Education.

Statutes of Kansas.

Blackmar, Kansas, Selected Topics.

Andreas, History of Kansas, General and County Histories.

Spring, Kansas, pp. 319-325.


1. What were the mission schools? 

2. When did the settlers become interested in education? 

3. What was done in education during the Territorial period? 

4. What were subscription schools? 

5. Describe the early schoolhouses. Compare them with the buildings of to-day. 

6. How did work in the early schools differ from work in the schools of to-day? 

7. Give the history of the growth of the high school. 

8. Give an account of the establishment of the State Normal School; its growth; its purpose. What other normal schools do we now have? 

9. When and where was the Agricultural College established? Give an account of its growth; its work today. 

10. What is the purpose of a university? When and where was the University of Kansas established? 

11. What is the present enrollment and cost of the State schools? 

12. What is a denominational college? Name some of the most important of the denominational colleges in Kansas. 

13. What other opportunities for education have been provided?



1. The traveling library system in Kansas was adopted in 1900 and is now under state control through a Commission which maintains an office in the capitol at Topeka. These traveling libraries are made up of collections of fifty books each, selected in accordance with the wishes of the applicant. They are sent to schools, clubs, granges, and similar organizations without charge other than a fee of two dollars to cover the cost of transportation. The libraries may be retained six months, or exchanged at any time for others.


Source: A History of Kansas / Anna E. Arnold. pp.187-206

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