School History

Academy of Holy Child of Jesus (1886), Cheyenne, Laramie Co.
Academy of Holy Child of Jesus (1886),
Cheyenne, Laramie Co.

Photo: Wyoming State Archives, Department of State
Parks and Cultural Resources, Photographer: J.E.
Stimson, 1906


The American educational system was well established by the time Wyoming became a territory. The founding fathers based the new Republic on the concept of an educated citizenry, with Thomas Jefferson as one of the strongest advocates. He argued that the citizens of a republic must understand the workings of their government and the responsibilities of citizenship, and be informed enough to elect good leaders. With the passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785, public lands were set aside for the support of public education. Starting with Ohio in 1803, all new states admitted to the Union were granted one section of each township (section 16, often referred to as the “school section”) to be used for the benefit of public education. When California entered the Union in 1850, Congress doubled the school grant to two sections per township (sections 16 and 36).
Stone School (1885), Lander, Fremont Co.
Stone School (1885), Lander, Fremont Co.
Photo: Mary Humstone, 2007
The notion of the “common school,” where children of different backgrounds and economic status would come together and learn common values and a common body of knowledge, was developed by educational reformers of the mid-19th century. Control of schools and school financing was vested in local boards elected by the people. Common schools were free, and paid for by property taxes, so that the entire community had a stake in the education of its children, not just their parents. These early common schools were only loosely regulated by state governments. States eventually began to exert more control, however, and by the 1860s most states had a superintendent of instruction charged with administering educational laws, setting standards, collecting statistics from local districts, and promoting educational reforms. Aside from its role in helping to fund education through land grants and requiring each state to adopt a system of free public education, the federal government played a limited role in public education until the early 20th century. However, the federal government was directly involved in building, funding and controlling schools on military posts, Indian reservations and, during World War II, internment camps. In addition, private and parochial schools continued to play a limited role in American education, although their importance was reduced as the public school movement grew.

School and Buses at Midwest Oil Field, Natrona Co., 1931
School and Buses at Midwest Oil Field,
Natrona Co., 1931

Photo:Wyoming State Archives, Department of State
Parks and Cultural Resources,
Photographer: Thomas Carrigen
By the time Wyoming became a territory and organized its first educational system, a pattern of local school districts with state oversight had been firmly established. Both federal government and private schools were also in existence before Wyoming became a state. Wyoming's earliest schools were held in buildings constructed by the federal government or by private individuals at Wyoming's early frontier forts. As the region was settled and Wyoming became a territory, citizens in the nascent towns formed de facto school districts to build small frame schools. The First Territorial Legislature in 1869 initiated the system of public education that still exists, in modified form, today. Ranching and mining communities established rural schools in bunkhouses, homestead shanties and the back rooms of saloons. Rudimentary log and frame one-room schoolhouses eventually appeared as the territory’s earliest dedicated school buildings. These were replaced incrementally in the early 1900s by frame buildings with heating, patented desks, and free textbooks. Meanwhile, in Wyoming’s cities and towns, handsome elementary, junior high and high schools of brick and stone were constructed to house the growing population of students. These schools were definitive statements of the communities’ belief in the education of their children and the future of Wyoming.

By the late 1910s, rural schools were undergoing standardization to provide a better and more consistent education for Wyoming students. As roads were improved and funding for bus transportation was provided by the state, students were encouraged to attend schools in the larger towns, and rural school districts were encouraged to build “consolidated schools” to replace the scattered one- and two-room schoolhouses. By the Post-World War II period, most of Wyoming's students were attending schools in the larger communities that served the rural areas, and Wyoming's landscape was dotted with the abandoned one-room and standardized schools of its earlier years.

Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources