Schools That Reform

In the past some children who had many problems in their lives went to live in a "reform school." Sometimes the problem was their behavior at home or at school. Others lived on their own and made trouble in the town. Still others were simply very poor or had no parents due to death or poverty.

These schools were called "reform schools" because their purposes was to change, or "reform," the child. 

Reform schools were places to live. They provided educational classes and religious lessons for the children. Sometimes the children who came to live in a reform school made friends and were satisfied to live there. Other times they were very unhappy and ran away.

An Early Reform School

Iowa's first reform school was in Lee County. It was built in 1868 and was the second reform school in the country. It was called Glenwood. Boys there learned how to make shoes and clothing. Like many early schools of this type, Glenwood had a farm. The boys helped with the farming. Some of the produce was used for their meals, and some of it was sold. They also learned school subjects.

Each boy worked four hours and attended school four hours. On Saturday afternoons the boys played. On Sunday they went to church and had outings.

The goal was to reform rather than to punish. A trust system was used on the boys instead of "bolts and bars." This worked well. A report in 1871 said that none of the boys ran away from the school.

Education was more than school subjects and job skills. The adults gave moral leadership. And they taught the children to keep themselves clean, to be polite, and to use good manners.

The Girls' School

An early reform school for girls was in Mitchellville. For 17 years Lorenzo and Angie Lewelling, ran the school at Mitchellville. The Lewellings were Quakers. Lorenzo was a minister. The Lewellings taught and guided the girls. Even after the girls left the school, Angie wrote to them. In the school's first 30 years, 804 girls lived at Mitchellville. Most of the girls were called "incorrigible."

Most of the girls were from poor families and had lost one or both parents through death or divorce. Sometimes when families had sudden problems, such as a lost job or a death in the family, a daughter was sent to Mitchellville because the family couldn't afford to keep her. One girl was from a wealthy family. She had tried to poison a stepparent. Most of them were 13 to 15 years old, though there were some as young as seven. Many of the girls had once lived on their own as maids or workers in button, candy or cigar factories. Three had traveled with acting groups prior to arriving in Mitchellville.

Good and Bad Experiences

Reform schools in Iowa provided a place for children with problems. In some cases the young people who attended the schools had no place else to go. Some of the children who were forced to attend Iowa's reform schools had good experiences and ended up having good lives as adults. But for others the reform school experience was bad. The reform schools of the past were the beginnings of the juvenile court system in Iowa.


  • Carolyn Hardesty, “Schools that Reform,” The Goldfinch 12, no. 2 (November 1990): 30-31.


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