El Paso Times -
Gutsiness and unflappable religious fervor launched El Paso’s first schools.
Visions of a more genteel Southwestern society kept them going when setbacks such as mere survival, boy scouts, bordellos and booze were on many minds in those early years.
It wasn’t until 1867 that book-learnin’ made a big enough impact here to be recorded. Two persons began teaching then – a lawyer who taught at his Main and Mesa office when business lagged and a judge’s wife who gave lessons around the kitchen table.
After their educational breakthrough, some even pitched tents for classrooms.
The Rev. Joseph Wilkins Tays started a mission school in 1870 for 10 American boys and girls and several Mexican children. Mary Dowell, daughter of El Paso’s first mayor who learned to read in the lawyer’s office, taught at the mission school.
Teaching Ysleta-area children began about this time too.
One of the earliest schools was on a ranch about 3 miles from Ysleta.
But Mexican parents boycotted it, saying the classes violated Christian doctrine and spending time with books robbed children of valuable time in the fields.
Parents eventually lifted the boycott and the fledgling desert schools limped along for about a decade until Catholicism entered the classrooms.
It began with the arrival of five Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, a religious order whose nuns seemed fearless of the Southwest’s hardships in teaching Spanish-speaking children in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
The Sisters arrived in San Elizario in 1879 and opened St. Joseph’s Academy in the convent that fall. It was not the most conducive place for learning: an adobe house with dirt floors and windows of glazed muslin, not glass. Malaria weakened both teachers’ and students’ ranks.
“It seemed we had reached God’s forsaken part of the world,” one Sister wrote.
But their faith did not waver. They replaced the dirt floor with wooden slats, planted gardens and trees and added buildings to the convent grounds.
Their reputation grew and the Sisters soon recognized their boarders needed a high school.
A sick pupil who needed doctor’s care eventually led them to El Paso, where they opened St. Joseph’s Academy for Girls in 1892.
They packed five wagons, loaded with parlor furniture, two pianos, mattresses and other furnishings for the new academy. The 22-mile trek from San Elizario to El Paso took five to six hours by wagon; the horses trudging through ruts of sand sometimes a foot deep.
St. Joseph’s – the forerunner of today’s Loretto Academy – opened on North El Paso Street in September 1892. A month later, the Sisters opened Sacred Heart School at 610 S. Oregon for elementary-age children.
By this time, non-church schools began struggling for acceptance in El Paso and Ysleta. As more people rode the rails to El Paso, parents began supporting education. However, they sent their boys and girls to private schools, such as D.W. McKay’s two-room “Select School for Males and Females.”
Free, public education for all required constant prodding and patience that could have turned lesser visionary persons to drink.
A three-member school commission hired Ella Nunn to teach the county-run school on South Ochoa Street. When school started in 1881 with 42 pupils, it appeared public education was well on its way.
But the landlord kicked Miss Nunn and her students out in December. Some say he didn’t think the $10-a-month rent was enough and got a better deal by turning the building into a house of pleasure.
Christmas vacation that year stretched into February when Miss Nunn returned to a makeshift classroom in a tent. El Paso’s winds and heat were too much to ignore, and the city’s leaders realized the necessity of a permanent school and a school board.
This was 1882. Nothing materialized until the next year, however, much to the chagrin of the newspapers in town. Frequent editorials chided El Pasoans for their lax attitude toward educating their children.
Finally, in 1883, a two-room school building rose at Myrtle and Campbell streets, site of the old Mountain Bell Telephone office. It was the first public school building in town.
It opened with 53 children, enrollment doubled by March and teachers turned away 25 children because there wasn’t enough room for them.
A better-built, permanent school – Central School – replaced it in 1884. The first high school opened the next year on the two-story building‘s top floor. Total enrollment for elementary and high school that year: 400.
Public schooling in Ysleta was soon to follow.
There were two private schools – one for boys, one for girls – during the early 1800s for most of Ysleta’s school bound youngsters. Other children were taught in homes.
Even though the town’s population leveled off during El Paso’s boom days, Lower Valley leaders foresaw the importance of opening schools for all.
They go their chance after El Paso replaced Ysleta as county seat in 1883.
Ysleta had been the hub of government for 12 years. When El Paso took over, the vacated stone courthouse seemed perfect for a school. Trustees rented the courthouse until 1887 when they bought it for $1,000 and proudly proclaimed Ysleta’s first permanent school building. It stood where Ysleta Elementary School is today.
Educators overlooked black and most Mexican children until the late 1800s.
The first school for blacks opened in a Southside church in 1885 with 16 students.
After moving twice in two years, Douglass School – named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass – opened at Fourth and Kansas streets in 1891 for blacks only. (A new Douglass at South Eucalyptus Street opened in 1921 for all blacks, kindergarten through high school, in the county. Douglass for-blacks-only continued until 1955 when the U.S. Supreme court outlawed all segregated schools.)
The star of teaching poor children of Mexican families arrived in 1887 with a Spaniard who called himself O.V. Aoy arrived her in 1887.
He had been a Jesuit priest, had translated the Book of Mormon into Spanish and had published a newspaper in Silver City, N.M. He set up his school – providing the books, blackboards and chairs himself, plus $5-a-month rent – behind an assay office on San Francisco Street.
For three years, no one but his pupils’ parents knew of the little school. In 1890, Aoy’s classroom came to light after he fell, and the doctor who treated him brought it to the board’s attention. When Aoy broke his leg, he was penniless, sleeping on a bench with a coat for a pillow and only owned the clothes on his back and completely out of food.
The school board put him on the payroll as principal of the “Mexican Preparatory School” until his death in 1895. His name lives on at Aoy School, 901 S. Campbell, the first section built in 1899.
At the turn of the century, El Paso’s public school system supported 48 teachers in seven schools for whites and one for blacks.
A new high school – El Paso High – opened in 1902 at North Kansas and Arizona streets. “From here to the University of Texas” was inscribed in Latin over the auditorium stage.
Like El Paso, Ysleta’s school-age population flourished. A new, four-room grade school replaced the Old Stone Courthouse School in 1915.
Parochial Schools of various denominations also came to El Paso during this time.
The Sisters of Loretto opened another school, St. Mary’s Catholic School at 912 Myrtle Ave., in 1903. It prospered until the 1960s when lack of money and a changing neighborhood forced its closing. It was one of several Catholic schools to start in this period.
The Baptist started the short-lived Anglo-Mexican Institute at Stanton and Fifth streets in 1907.
The Methodists also came to South El Paso, starting Lydia Patterson Institute in 1913 to teach English to Spanish-speakers.
Mexican Jesuits fled their country during Pancho Villa’s uprising and established a seminary near Tigua in 1914. The exiled priests taught at Ysleta College until the 1940s and 1950s, when they returned to their homeland. The college became Jesuit High School in 1958. A lack of money and teachers closed the school in 1972.
Perhaps the city’s most unique school started in 1910 when wealthy ranchers wanted their daughters to get educated in an exclusive school but without having to send them back East.
It was 1910 and the start of the El Paso School for Girls.
Four small buildings in the Sunset Heights area housed 18 girls from the area’s finer families.
The school moved to its present Austin Terrace site at the corner of Radford and Hastings in 1918. Owned and operated by stockholders, the school was the first of its kind in the Southwest. It taught kindergarten through 12th grade girls.
The school’s name changed to the Radford School for Girls in 1931 after the Radford family in Missouri bailed out the financially-hurting school with a large endowment; the name changed again in 1976 – to Radford School – when boys started going there.
Lucinda de Leftwich Templin, principal from 1927 to 1968, embodied much of Radford’s educational philosophy. Before her death in 1969, she was like a cornerstone in the school’s tradition.
A sticker for discipline, and described as one of El Paso’s first liberated women, Dr. Templin lectured throughout the country in the 1950s.
“It is futile to attempt to make education easy and pleasant for all,” she said. ‘There is no easy way to become an educated and disciplined person. It requires work, stamina, courage and vision.”