In 150 years, through trials, technological and social revolutions, and consolidations, Franklin County’s schools have shown a steady progress toward better education. However much has changed, though, the kids have stayed the same.
“In the musical ‘Bye-Bye Birdie,’ there is a song the parents sing that says, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today/Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?’ Every generation thinks that the next one has declined; I don’t think that’s the case,” said Susan Geiss. “People always ask if I saw changes in kids, and I said no. Kids are kids.”
An educator in the Ottawa school system from 1977 to 2007, Geiss is part of a long lineage of teachers dating back to 1865, when one Miss Mary F. Ward was hired as the first schoolteacher in the county. According to Ward’s first hand written account, even from the beginning, education was a priority for area residents.
“...On the opening day of school, to my great surprise, there 100 pupils enrolled, ranging in age from 5 years to that of the school m’am,” Ward said. “Some were refugees from the south, wanderers until the [Civil War] should be over. Many were from eastern families living in Ottawa.
“School books of all kinds were brought, because there was no money to buy others.”
The county would see another milestone in 1876. Many decades before a unanimous Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Elijah Tinnon was one of seven parents who petitioned the Ottawa Board of Education to integrate the town’s schools. The board resisted integration until a Franklin County District Court ruling, upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court, forced the board to comply.
In his opinion on the matter, Justice Daniel M. Valentine, a former Ottawan himself, wrote, “At the common schools, where both sexes and all kinds of children mingle together, we have the great world in miniature; there they may learn human nature in all its phases, with all its emotions, passions and feelings, its loves and hates, its hopes and fears, its impulses and sensibilities; there they may learn the secret springs of human actions, and the attractions and repulsions, which lead with irresistible force to particular lines of conduct. But on the other hand, persons by isolation may become strangers even in their own country; and by being strangers, will be of but little benefit either to themselves or to society.”
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, Franklin County would see over 100 schools open and close, most of them one-room school houses serving families within a few-mile radius. Then, in 1963, the Kansas Legislature passed the First Unification Act bill which required each state county to begin unifying all of its existing school districts. Bob Cole, Osawatomie, graduated in one of the last classes out of Lane High School, one of the schools to become consolidated into today’s Central Heights school district.
“It was a small high school, it had a lot of community support, and in a sense, community life revolved around the school,” Cole said. “It was everything – it was most of the entertainment, and everything else.”
A 1961 graduate of the school and longtime educator himself, Cole recalls many advantages to the small-school experience.
“There were 16 in my class,” Cole said. “We were in one building – every grade school teacher knew you, every high school teacher knew you, and because of that they knew what to expect from you. And if you didn’t do well, they were going to come back on you and say, ‘You can do better than this.’”
According to Cole, the smallness of the school also made discipline highly effective.
If you did something wrong at school, the big thing was to try and keep your parents from finding out, but you couldn’t do that because everyone knew everybody,” Cole said, laughing. “You knew that, for example, if you skip school, the principal would know it in five minutes. Someone would call them, because everyone knew you by name.”
To Cole, who has held near every position from teacher and coach to superintendent, today’s consolidated school experience can leave room for some students to fall through the cracks.
“Today, what I’ve noticed in larger schools, if a given student is not doing well, they just get moved back,” Cole said. They don’t expect things from them, they don’t do much with them, and they get lost. I’m tickled to death that I went to a small school. You knew everybody, you knew what was expected of you, they called you by your name, and everybody was pretty much treated the same.”
Despite any disadvantages incurred by consolidation, the 70’s and 80’s saw many positive changes in education including Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which paved the way for girls sports. During her 30 year tenure as an educator in Ottawa schools, Geiss bore witness to the change Title IX brought to the education system.
“One thing I noticed in education is how much more confidence girls had in themselves at the end of my career than in the beginning,” Geiss said. “I’ve always said that part of that was girls sports. They became involved, and they weren’t on the sidelines anymore -- they were part of it. I did notice girls becoming much more confident, which I thought was a wonderful thing.”
Ashley Brannan, Susan Geiss, and Diana Staresinic-Deane contributed to this report.