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Our Rich History: High School in Covington — long before Holmes — had 20 students in 1853

By David E. Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

Covington High School was established by the city of Covington in 1853. On January 8, 1853, Covington High School opened its doors for the first time in the district elementary school building at 11th and Scott Streets. The school enrolled 20 students in this inaugural year.

In the early years, Covington High School purposefully enrolled a small number of pupils. Prospective scholars needed to pass a test and have a recommendation from their elementary school teacher which indicated the pupil’s “high moral character.” When the school opened, a reporter for the Covington Journal wrote, “The pupils of the school will be taken from the more advanced scholars of the common schools.” Students were expected to take Latin and Greek and have a proficiency in elocution.

First principal, Asa Drury (Kentucky County Public Library archives)

First principal, Asa Drury (Kentucky County Public Library archives)

Asa Drury was hired as the first principal of Covington High School. Drury had a fascinating life. He was born on July 26, 1802 at Athol, Massachusetts and graduated from Yale University in 1829. He taught at Yale from 1829 till 1831 and then decided to study for the ministry. Drury earned a Doctorate in Divinity from Brown University in 1834 and was ordained by the Baptist Church in 1832. Following ordination, Drury moved to Ohio and began teaching Greek and Latin at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. In 1835, he made another move – this time to Cincinnati, where he taught at Cincinnati College.

In 1845, Drury was among the first faculty members at the Western Baptist Theological Institute in Covington. Drury taught Theology and was also responsible for the classical school attached to the seminary. He was an ardent abolitionist and his views often conflicted with some of the southern trustees of the Institute. When the new Covington High School was established, Drury was the unanimous choice of the school board as the first principal.

On January 26, 1856, Asa Drury was named the first Superintendent of the Covington Public School System. Drury’s work as superintendent was exemplary. He was given several raises by the board. These raises, however, violated the charter of the school system (his salary had increased beyond the legal limit imposed by the school charter). In 1859, the members of the board reduced his salary so it would be in compliance with the charter. Drury resigned on the spot. In 1859, Drury opened the Judsonia Female Seminary in the old Baptist Theological Institute building (the institute had closed several years earlier). In about 1865, Drury moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he died on March 18, 1870. His body was returned to Covington and laid to rest in Linden Grove Cemetery.

Covington High School grew quickly under Drury and his successors, and by 1856, enrolled 106 pupils. Increased enrollment following the Civil War resulted in the need of a new building. Bonds were issued and property at the corner of 12th and Russell was acquired and construction began. The cornerstone of the twelve-classroom, three-story, brick building was set in place on October 25, 1872 with appropriate Masonic ceremonies. The number of faculty increased to five and enrollment reached 172 in 1880.

Covington High School (KCPL photo)

Covington High School (KCPL photos)

Covington High School continued to advance. In 1896, the school was accredited by the University of Kentucky. Despite this success, the high school program was facing a serious challenge. The number of pupils wishing to attend secondary classes was quickly growing and the old building was beyond capacity.

In 1915, the school board placed a bond issue on the Covington ballot in the hope of raising funds for the construction of a new high school building. The issue failed. Overcrowding became progressively worse. In January 1916, enrollment at the high school had reached 471 (the building’s capacity was 400). That year, another bond issue ($165,000) was placed on the ballot. This time, the issue passed by 186 votes.

high school

Several sites for the new high school were considered. One site was in Devou Park. This site was favored by the people of the west end who wanted to keep the high school near their neighborhood. The other site, which was eventually chosen, was the Holmesdale property near Latonia. The cornerstone of the new building was laid on November 27, 1916. The new high school, which was named Holmes High School, was occupied in January 1919.

The construction of the new high school left the old building at 12th and Russell vacant. The school board made a decision to remodel the building for use as a junior high school. The building was officially opened for use as a junior high in 1919. The school was named John J. Carlisle Junior High School.

Classes continued to be held in this building until a new John G. Carlisle Elementary and Junior High School building was constructed in 1937. The old building was then demolished.

David Schroeder is director of the Kentucky County Public Library.

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