The State of Our Schools: A 1926 Rotary Club Report | Opinion columns


I recently came across an article in the Walla Walla Daily Bulletin which was dated July 25, 1926. (Yes, it was called the Daily Bulletin then.) In the paper for that day there was a long story titled “Public School History”. Here, it dates from the time of the civil war. I was immediately mesmerized when I started reading the column that highlighted Walla Walla High School Principal WA Lacey’s presentation he had given to the Rotary Club; a club that was established seven years earlier in 1919. This story was particularly interesting because I had recently presented it to the same club of which I also have the privilege of being a member. When I read Lacey’s written report to Rotarians, reprinted in the newspaper, it served as a remarkable record of our district’s history, both in its celebration of successes and in a call for improvement.

Lacey began her club report with a brief overview of the origins of the district. While informal schooling in the valley dates back to Fort Walla Walla, the city’s first formal program is believed to have begun in 1861. Around this time, Sarah G. Minor, superintendent and sole teacher, opened a makeshift school serving 57 students. Between then and Lacey’s presentation in 1926, the school system had blossomed to nearly 5,000 students. As noted in its report to Rotary, the bond issues, “voluntarily voted on by good majorities,” built many new schools to serve the city’s burgeoning student population over the previous 60 years.

In Lacey’s speech, he highlights dozens of dedicated school board members who helped manage the district’s growth, some of their surnames still prominent in our valley today. He praises this benevolent leadership, stating, “Without this will and interest on the part of qualified people, the forces of self-interest and scarcity would overwhelm our schools.” The service and responsibilities of board members are just as important and challenging today as they were 100 years ago. (In full transparency, I needed to consult Webster’s dictionary for “shortage”. Think “financially strapped”.)

WA Lacey then extolled the remarkable institution that Walla Walla Secondary School had become. He pointed out that WaHi was considered one of the best in the state, where about one in four graduates went to college. Additionally, a great source of pride in 1926 was the state’s only Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the time. Staffed by nearly 300 boys across the school’s businesses, the high school had recently been classified as an honors school by the US War Department.

However, Lacey shared a few areas that needed improvement in the mid-twenties. While only one in three eligible students in the Walla Walla community was actually attending high school at the time, programs like music, home economics, art, and “crafts” were still particularly lacking according to his report. . “Our offerings should not become entirely academic,” he stresses, as a comprehensive education should be provided to those who are both academic and non-academic. Additionally, with a remarkable level of candor, he also shared some of the significant challenges they faced in trying to motivate students and strengthen their individual efforts and care for their own schooling.

As I reflect on many of Lacey’s promising remarks a century ago, it is a privilege to share that I am able to relay many of the same accomplishments in recent speeches I have given to the same Rotary Club. . Our high school JROTC program, for example, which now includes dozens of cadets, continues its incredible legacy of success. Not one in four students, but now six in ten, attend college after high school. From a focus in 1926, we now offer award-winning vocational and technical training programs, performing arts, culinary education and fine arts opportunities. Our faculty remains top notch and our community continues to step up and invest in our schools as facility and program needs are identified.

Despite the myriad of opportunities maintained or improved over the past 100 years, the education system still struggles to motivate and instill courage in all of its students. While the expulsion of disengaged students has long been prohibited, a strategy Lacey noted was being implemented at the time, we continue to face similar challenges today. To that end, our school board has put in place many proactive strategies to break down barriers and help build student determination and perseverance. Fostering such a work ethic remains as essential today as it was a century ago. We can and must do better to ensure that every student, whether college, professional or military, leaves with these essential skills.

As efforts continue to make our schools the best they can be, we continue to prepare and graduate the most incredible young men and women. As Lacey shared during her Rotary address reflecting on the recent graduates of Wa-Hi, “the names of many of those who now figure prominently in the business life of this town… dispersed in all the activities of the community and in other communities, [are] do their part to turn the wheels of the world.

Our vision today is as true as it was a century ago – we are indeed developing Washington’s most sought-after graduates.

Wade Smith is the Superintendent of Public Schools in Walla Walla.


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