To those of us who grew up in Fort Worth during the era of Reddy Kilowatt, Pete the python, and the M&O Subway, the city’s school system has grown into some staggering numbers: eighty-six thousand students distributed over eighty-three elementary schools, twenty-nine middle schools and sixth-grade centers, eighteen high schools, and sixteen other campuses.
Big numbers for a city that did not build a school until its tenth year of incorporation. The city incorporated in 1873 and four years later had grown in population enough to need wards (districts) for municipal political representation. On February 6, 1877, the city council created three wards. Voters in each ward elected an alderman to represent them on the city council. By 1883 the city (which covered essentially the area of today’s downtown) had created a fourth ward. The intersection of Main and 9th streets formed the axis of four quadrants. The northeast quadrant was the First Ward, northwest was Second, southeast was Third, and southwest was Fourth Ward.
John Peter Smith had opened the first school after he arrived in 1853. Other private schools came and went. Although Fort Worth voters in 1877 had approved free (tax-supported) public schools, legal challenges from opponents delayed formation of the school system until 1880. The school system was an arm of the city government and would not become independent of the city until early in the twentieth century. At first classes were held in rented buildings.
In 1882 civic leaders had a city census taken to determine if Fort Worth had enough people to qualify for a school system; 10,000 was the minimum to qualify. B. B Paddock supervised the census. Smith and K. M. Van Zandt funded the wages of the enumerators. Fort Worth’s population was found to be 11,136. So, that year a special election was held, supervised largely by Dr. Carroll Peak. Fort Worth voters approved a tax of .5 percent to finance the public school system. Professor Alexander Hogg was elected first school superintendent. Among the first trustees were J. J. Jarvis and John Hanna.
On October 1, 1882, Fort Worth’s public schools opened with seventeen teachers and about 650 students. The first three schoolhouses were built—one each in the First, Second, and Third Wards. A total of twenty-one teachers taught eight hundred students in 1883.
In the beginning each ward had one school, referred to as the “First Ward School,” the “Second Ward School,” etc. Ward schools were elementary schools, grades one through six or seven. Schools had six to nine rooms, a seating capacity of 250 to 450, and were heated by stoves. In the 1880s high school classes (through only the eleventh grade) were held in a school for boys and a school for girls. In 1891 Fort Worth’s first co-educational high school opened at Jennings and Daggett in the Sixth Ward (near South Side).
By 1888, the city directory boasted, all of the ward schools were enclosed by “neat and substantial picket fences.” By 1899 the city’s population had reached forty-three thousand; public school enrollment was about 3,700. There were now nine wards.
Fort Worth schools have always been in flux: Schools have changed locations or buildings or names; school buildings have changed names or grades; school buildings have burned down, been torn down, been expanded, and new ones built. By 1922 the city would double its wards to eighteen, but this four-part series is a snapshot of the early days of the schools of Fort Worth’s first nine wards.
The 1899 city directory listed the first nine ward schools. Note that each school had two designations. For example, the First Ward School was also called “School No. 1.”
In 1904 ward schools took on a third designation: To encourage students to study history, students were allowed to vote to name their school in honor of a person in Texas history. Thus, for example, the First Ward School/School No. 1 also became known as the “Crockett School.” To further complicate the nomenclature, a school also was sometimes known by the street it was on.
This contemporary map shows where the nine ward schools were in 1899, all south of the Trinity River. Part 2 looks at the early schools of each ward.