- High schools in the US have changed dramatically since the late 19th century.
- During the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, social and political reform sparked increasing rates of high-school enrollment.
- In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
- Since then, activists have continued to combat racial inequalities in education and beyond.
- Vintage photos of high schools also show how much gym classes, school buses, and more have changed.
Until the 20th century, high schools were typically attended only by the children of middle- and upper-class families.
During the early 1900s, the country entered a period of significant social and political reform, which sparked increasing rates of high-school enrollment.
Since then, secondary education in the US has seen numerous dramatic changes, particularly following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education, which made segregation in public schools illegal.
Below, see 14 fascinating vintage photos that show how much high schools have evolved over the past two centuries.
Until the early 20th century, high schools were typically attended only by the children of middle- and upper-class families.
In 1870, there were only about 500 public high schools with 50,000 students in the US, according to the US Department of Education. Four decades later, high-school attendance was still low, with only about 10% of American youth enrolled.
During this period, secondary schools were largely reserved for the children of wealthy parents who could afford to spend their days in the classroom instead of working to support their families.
Certain forms of physical education — like a wall-climbing apparatus from the late 1890s — are unrecognizable today.
According to the Library of Congress, Progressive Era reformers introduced physical education programs “on a wide scale” in the 1890s.
Students rode horse-drawn coaches to get to school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These early school “buses” were known as “school hacks” or “kid hacks.”
The early 1900s saw a dramatic increase in the number of high schools built and student enrollment.
A period of significant social and political reform, the Progressive Era changed the way Americans viewed education. School became a place where children could find their role in society and become a productive citizen.
During this period, students from working-class families typically learned skilled trades in high school while more privileged students studied academic subjects in preparation for college.
In 1918, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education declared that the primary purposes of high schools were “health, citizenship, and worthy home-membership and, only secondarily, command of fundamental processes.”
By the 1930s, motorised school buses had become common.
According to The National Museum of American History, there were 63,000 school buses on the road by 1932.
Photos of gym classes from the 1930s show unfamiliar exercise equipment, including what looks like a human-sized hamster wheel.
In 1940, for the first time in US history, about half of all students finished high school.
The high-school graduation rate in 1940 was 50.8%, according to the US Department of Education.
Photos of high schools during the mid-20th century show students listening to radio broadcasts during class.
Speaking to the Associated Press in 1950, Ira Jarrell, then the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, said that the radio broadcasting station at Russell High School in Atlanta, Georgia, was proving to be a “valuable adjunct in classroom work.”
It’s worth mentioning that on-air classes first emerged during the 1920s, alongside the rise of commercial radio broadcasting.
Students also were taught using televisions.
According to the Institute of Progressive Education & Learning, the first documented use of closed-circuit televisions in the classroom was in Los Angeles public schools and at the State University of Iowa in 1939.
After that, the popularity of instructional television rose between 1939 and the 1950s.
The invention of videotapes in 1951 also introduced a then-novel way to teach and engage students.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
By 1956, only 49% of Americans – 61% of Northerners and 15% of Southerners – believed that white and black students should attend the same schools, according to Teaching Tolerance magazine.
In one of the most infamous examples of Southern resistance to integration, nine black students were repeatedly blocked from entering Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, over the course of three weeks in September 1957.
It wasn’t until then-President Dwight Eisenhower intervened that the students – now known as the Little Rock Nine – were able to enter the school on September 25, escorted by a federalized Arkansas National Guard and troops from the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, civil-rights activists continued to combat racial inequalities in education and beyond.
By 1963, 62% of Americans – 73% of Northerners and 31% of Southerners – believed that white and black students should attend the same schools, according to Teaching Tolerance magazine.
One year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and prohibits discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin.
In the 1980s, more schools began to introduce computers into classrooms.
While 18% of schools had computers in 1981, that number had grown to 98% by 1991, according to a 1992 article in “Education Week.”
In the ’90s, educators and software companies created new ways for students to learn using computers.
This decade saw the introduction of interactive content-based software packages, simulations, intelligent tutors, and cognitive-based learning tools in the classroom, according to the Institute of Progressive Education & Learning.
By the end of the 20th century, the use of laptops in the classroom was commonplace.
According to a 2016 article in “Education Week,” one-to-one computing programs were introduced to elementary and secondary schools in the US in the late 1990s.
These initiatives allow each student to use an electronic device to access the internet and digital instructional materials.
- Read more:
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- How schools have changed over the last 80 years
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