150 Years Strong on a Solid Foundation – Riverside University High School

By: Cynthia Sommer

In 1868, one hundred and fifty years ago, the leaders and citizens of Milwaukee established the first public high school in the City. Riverside University High School is the direct descendant of that institution. Then and now, parents and citizens recognized the importance and need for a good education as a reliable path to an improved life and a better society. Even though the school name changed from “Milwaukee High School (HS)” in 1868 to “East Side HS (1893)” to “East Division HS (1901)” to “Riverside HS (1915)” to “Riverside University HS (1984)”, the institution has continued to provide young people through the years with the academic excellence needed for success.

Tremendous societal changes were occurring in the US and Milwaukee in the last half of the 19th century. In 1868, the country was responding to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War (1865), the abolition of slavery, and the election of Ulysses S. Grant as the 21st President (1868). Major growth occurred in agriculture with the use of steam engines and combines, in transportation with rapid westward expansion of railroads, and in industries with rapid innovations resulting in the demand for an inexhaustible supply of coal, iron and timber, especially from the Midwest. Wisconsin had become a state just 20 years earlier (1848) and Milwaukee had already incorporated as a city two years before that in 1846. The population of Milwaukee in 1868 was around 70,000, and the City was ranked as the 19th largest city in the US.

The early educational scene in Milwaukee was also rapidly evolving and was influenced by several developments. The US Department of Education was first formed in 1867. The rapid increase in population due to immigration created a need for more schools and better teacher training. The “Kalamazoo Decision” by the Supreme Court of Michigan in 1874 legally made the high school a part of the system of continuity from the elementary grades through the university. Teachers in Milwaukee were members of the National Educational Association already in the 1870s. Wisconsin in 1875 allowed women to vote and run for School Board and other elected School offices.

The Wisconsin legislature approved in 1867 an act “to establish a high school in the City of Milwaukee.” The high school opened in January 1868 in an upper floor of a primary school with 100 boys and girls. The allocated budget of $6,000 covered the Principal and two teachers ($3,500), janitor ($400), furniture ($1,000), fuel ($100), supplies ($250) and contingency ($750). Admission to the school required the pupils to be at least 12 years of age and to have satisfactorily passed examinations in “reading, spelling, penmanship, geography, grammar, arithmetic, history of the US and elementary algebra.”

The school year consisted of two sessions from May 1st to November 1st and November 1st until May 1st with 2.5 hours of instruction in both the morning and afternoon. The 3 year High School consisted of Classical (Greek, Latin, Classics, Caesar, Virgil, and History of Antiquities) and General /English (5 semesters of math, English, German or French, science, history/ civics) programs. In 1870, a standardized, higher quality training of teachers resulted when a Normal program was added to the Milwaukee HS curriculum. During this early period in education, teaching at the elementary school level was primarily done by high school trained graduates. Teaching was mainly done by women and if they married, it was cause for dismissal.

Not unexpectedly there were some difficulties in the growth of the school. The large influx of immigrants from various countries created a demand for evening programs, a shift toward “Americanization”, an active discussion on the need to continue teaching German as a language for everyone and stressed budgets due to the need for new school buildings and for more teachers. A “Committee on Teacher Salaries Report” in 1871 compared male and female teacher salaries in Milwaukee and also noted the disparity in male and female teacher salaries to teachers in Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis. Male teachers in Milwaukee earned average salaries of $1,251 per year while female teachers earned a $499 per year average; male and female Milwaukee teachers earned significantly less (25-35%) than teachers in the compared cities.

The development, excellence and confidence in education provided to Milwaukee youth were demonstrated through its award winning exhibit at the International Centennial Exhibit at Philadelphia in 1876. One focus of that World’s Fair was to share information on the workings of educational systems. The Milwaukee educators felt it was important that the “world should know what the western states, with their new and unsolved problems of civilization are doing in the field of education”. Much energy and time was spent in preparing the history of the school system, courses of instruction, and a complete representation of the work done by students. The Milwaukee High School from this early period contributed many Milwaukee leaders, including Vogel, Uihlein, Pfister, Schlesinger, and Kasten.

One can almost feel the energy, excitement, pride and commitment of all who built Milwaukee’s first high school. Today, RUHS is still demanding excellence through its significant number of Advanced Placement courses. To maintain a School of Excellence, RUHS will continue to need dedicated teachers, staff and involved students, along with the active support of City leaders, alumni, parents and community. Congratulations to the RUHS family on your 150th Anniversary!!!