A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: The Newport public school system reflects the evolution of American education

By Roger VonStrohe
Special to NKyTribune

Part 37 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

The evolution of public schools in the United States is positively reflected in the history of public education in Newport.

Indeed, for a relatively small city in a traditionally southern state formed out of Virginia, Newport proved pioneering. In fact, the “Newport Academy became the first public school in the Cincinnati area.” (See Paul A. Tenkotte, “Our Rich History: James Taylor V and the first public school in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region”)

The 1850 school building on 4th Street featured a bell tower, which was removed in 1915 after being damaged by a tornado. (Source: Ballou’s Pictorial, December 20, 1856, p. 392.)

The Newport Public School system can trace its origins all the way back to the first schoolhouse built on two acres of land donated by the town’s founder, James Taylor V in 1795 (located near present-day Fourth and Monmouth Streets). The school was called Bellevue Academy, and it was the forerunner of the Newport Academy which, in 1799, was supported by public funds with the endowment of 6,000 acres of land from the state of Kentucky.

For its day, the Newport Academy was considered a “public school,” as it received some government support. However, like many public schools of the era, the Newport Academy charged tuition. Any white male could attend the school as long as they were able to afford the tuition, or had a sponsor pay the tuition on their behalf. In 1815, the original log school was replaced by the first brick school building in Kentucky.

In the early 1800s, there were several attempts to start private schools in the city— the exact locations of these schools remain unclear. For example, there was a school started by a Methodist church in 1805. Five years later, in 1810, Mr. and Mrs. George Fayne established a school in their home, charging $2.00 per quarter for tuition. In 1836, the Beech Grove Academy for Women was opened.

Photos courtesy of the Archives, Newport Independent Schools

By 1836, records indicate that the Newport City Council provided a one-room log house on Cabot Street (present-day Central Avenue) for use as a school. Called Cabot Street School, it educated 63 students at the expense of the city (James L. Cobb, “History of Public Schools of Newport, KY, “University of Cincinnati Master of Education Thesis, 1939, pp. 12-14, 21). This appears to have been the forerunner of Arnold Elementary School.

In 1837, largely because of the sale of public lands, the federal government found itself with a surplus in its treasury. The surplus was returned to all the states. Kentucky was to receive $1,433,757. Kentucky also found that there was support from many areas and groups in the state to fund public education. It was decided that the state could use this surplus money to help start a statewide public school system. During the process of deliberations, the amount was lowered to $1,000,000 and then finally $850,000. In 1838, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the “1838 School Act,” the purpose of which was to set up a system of school districts with local control (R. Kennedy and C Johnson, Kentucky Historic School Survey, The Kentucky Heritage Council, January 2002, pp.16, 17).

By 1840, Newport Academy was allowing both “private” and “public” students to attend. It and other local “Free Schools” were operating, supported largely by local public funds and subscriptions (pledged money from local individuals). In 1841, local records indicate that there were 64 students enrolled in Newport public schools. In 1842, a Newport City ordinance was passed to provide “proper funds” for public education. By the following year, 1843, the bottom two floors of the Newport Academy were being utilized for public education (Cobb pp. 22-25, 27). Hence, Newport became one of the oldest local “school districts” in Kentucky.

Photos courtesy of the Archives, Newport Independent Schools.

By 1850, the city constructed a new three-story brick school building at Fourth and Monmouth Streets, replacing the old 1815 building. The structure housed both the Newport Academy (also referred to as Newport High School) and primary/intermediate grades. Such a combined arrangement was typical of American education, especially since attending high school was neither mandatory nor commonplace at the time. Meanwhile, the Cabot Street School (renamed Arnold School by the 1860s) was located on Central Avenue. By 1859 it was reported that the Newport School system was composed of one High School and three “common schools,” with a total enrollment of 1,404 students, up from 741 in 1853 (Cobb, p. 31).

In late 19th-Century America, the demand for urban public education increased further, accompanying a boom in immigration. Keeping up with such growth required practical solutions. Newport’s answer was to set up new schools in recently purchased houses. If that school population continued to grow, then the Board of Education would build a traditional school building at or near that location. This appears to have been the case for York Street School in the 1860s, Southgate Street School in the 1870s, Walnut Street School (replaced by Tenth Street School in 1903), and Harris Street School (succeeded by Ninth Street School in 1904). (Newport Board of Education Minutes, 1862-1890).

As the 19th Century was coming to a close and Newport was entering the 20th, a surge in school age population resulted in the need for more substantial buildings. Park Avenue School was built in 1890 at Seventh and Park. Featuring three floors and an impressive tower, the building was later truncated when a 1940 fire destroyed the third floor and the tower. Rebuilt, it was renamed the Dora Cummins School.

Meanwhile, the Southgate Street School — a segregated facility for the city’s blacks — was rebuilt/enlarged in 1893.

Like many cities nationwide, Newport annexed smaller cities and towns in the early 20th century. These annexations, especially along Newport’s southern boundary, increased district enrollments, bringing with them the operation of small neighborhood schools. Through annexations, the Newport Board of Education acquired Cote Brilliante School (which was located near present-day Newport Pavilion), Clifton school (which is still standing on 19th Street and is currently used as an apartment building), and Grandview School located at Grandview and Main, demolished in the 1980s.

In 1926, a new Arnold School building was constructed on the site of the old structure on Central Avenue. The following year, in 1927, a new high school was erected to replace the old 1872 high school building at Eighth and Columbia Streets. Today, this 1927 building is being used for school district offices and educational programs.

The year 1936 brought a new building for Fourth Street School to replace its antiquated 1850 structure that originally served as the Newport Academy/Newport High School until 1872. The 1936 building also served as Newport Junior High School until the early 1980s.

In the 1950s and 1960s, with the “Baby Boom” and the arrival of new residents from Appalachia, the school age population of Newport grew to its highest number. In 1958, a new addition was added to Arnold Elementary School. In the following year, a new elementary school was built at 11th and York Streets to replace the old York Street School. This new building was named for Anderson D. Owens. Dr. Owens, a graduate of Newport High School, was the longest-serving Superintendent of the Newport School System (1926 to 1964).

In 1960, Mildred Dean Elementary School was built on Grand Avenue at the city’s southern boundary, with a new addition in the 1990s.The year 1980 brought the opening of a brand new high school campus, at the end of East 6th Street. In 1995, a new Middle School was built on the site of the old Ninth Street School. This building now serves as the Newport Intermediate School.

The late 1980s and the 1990s brought about a gradual decrease in population in urban areas throughout the Ohio River valley. This decline continued well into the twenty-first century. As a result, Newport had to take a hard look at its whole school system. A vast restructuring ensued.

Dora Cummins School was closed, and the building sold to Brighton Center in 1980. The Mildred Dean building was sold in 2006 and torn down for a new development. AD Owens School was renamed Newport Primary School. The Middle School was converted into Newport Intermediate School, and the Middle School students were moved to the Sixth Street high school campus after a new addition was added. In 2018, the Fourth Street School was sold and torn down for a new apartment development. Meanwhile, the “old post office building” at Eighth and Washington, which was used for a district central office for the school board was closed, and the central offices were moved into the 1927 “old high school building” at Eighth and Columbia Streets.

Today, Newport Independent School district consists of only one primary school, one intermediate school, and one secondary education building, with a total enrollment of 1,600 students. In other words, its student enrollment is only slightly larger now than it was in 1859, when Newport’s many schools educated 1,404 students.

Roger VonStrohe is a 1966 graduate of Newport High School. He worked for the Newport School System as a teacher and administrator for 36 years and has volunteered since 2007 as the school system archivist.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Photos courtesy of the Archives, Newport Independent Schools.

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