The Development of High Schools

Think about the community in which you live. Can you imagine it without a school? Can you even think about your town without the football team, band, school plays and other school activities? Maybe your school is consolidated where a group of smaller towns have come together to form one big school district. Over the course of Iowa’s history, towns have provided education in many ways. But one thing is certain. Iowans have always valued education. They believe that if the state is going to have strong citizens, the state must have strong schools. For that reason, as towns grew in early Iowa, residents worked to build good schools.

Iowa’s First Schools

Schools in Iowa were not always like they are today with large buildings, computers and many subjects. Iowa’s first school was actually held in a log cabin! It was built before Iowa was open for pioneer settlement. In 1830 a man named Berryman Jennings taught in a log cabin in Lee County in southeast Iowa. At first the schools were just one room with one teacher. They were usually called grammar schools. Students from many grades shared the same classroom. The grammar schools taught mostly the three R’s—reading, writing and 'rithmetic (arithmetic). Iowa’s earliest schools were funded privately. Parents paid teachers to educate their children.

For older students who wished to have education beyond grammar school, there were "academies." Sometimes academies were also called "seminaries." In the early years of Iowa’s settlement seminaries and academies offered courses in mathematics, history and philosophy. These courses were more complicated than the three R’s taught in the grammar schools.

Iowa’s First High Schools

As the population of Iowa grew, so did the number of schools. As the number of schools grew, leaders in Iowa’s government became more and more concerned about the quality of education. In 1858 the Free School Act was passed by the Iowa legislature. This act allowed local property taxes to support the local schools. Because schools need money to operate, this act made it possible for schools to develop more quickly. This act also allowed for building one high school in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. A superintendent for each county was hired.

Each superintendent supervised many independent self-governing school units. By 1900 there were 14,296 school units in Iowa. Even with 99 counties, that still meant that one superintendent had a lot of schools to supervise. At this time not every student went to high school. Many students finished their formal education at the 8th grade.

As Iowa grew, more students wanted to go to high school. As a result, more and more high schools were built. The Free School Act also allowed for small towns to start their own high schools. Eventually each county had many high schools. By 1910, 406 high schools had been opened in Iowa. In the next 25 years that number more than doubled. By 1935 there were 953 high schools in Iowa. The classes offered in Iowa high schools included courses such as agriculture, manual training and domestic science in addition to the basics of math, writing and literature.

As the number of schools in Iowa grew, more and more women became teachers. In early Iowa most teachers were male. But after the Civil War more and more women became teachers. Because they had very few job choices, many women were eager to become teachers. Remember, in 1900 women still didn’t have the right to vote. But teaching was one of the first occupations that women could choose from. By 1905 over 80 percent of Iowa’s grammar school teachers were female. Many high school teachers were female as well.

Taking a Closer Look: Ottumwa, Iowa

The experiences in one Iowa community reflect the typical sequence of events that led to the evolution of high schools across Iowa. In Ottumwa in 1830 students took private classes in homes. Others went to school at the local Methodist Episcopal Church. At this time, schools were not very organized. Teachers developed their own teaching materials and even chose what topics to teach. Then in 1865, after the Free School Act was passed, Ottumwa’s first public school was built. It was not a country school like so many across the state. It was a large building that covered the center of a full city block. Students in the lower grades took classes on the lower floors. High school classes were held in four classrooms on the top floor of the building. In 1883 the original building was torn down and a new one built at the same location. Ottumwa was a growing community. So in 1899 a second high school was built. Later, in 1923, a new high school was built at the location of Ottumwa’s first public school. The experiences in Ottumwa were typical of many schools in Iowa.


  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996.


Written for Iowa Pathways by Lynn Nielsen.