How Rochelle’s school system grew and changed

Tom McDermott
Posted 12/27/21

It was in 1840 that Ms. Miranda Weeks called the first elementary school class to order.

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How Rochelle’s school system grew and changed


It was in 1840 that Ms. Miranda Weeks called the first elementary school class to order.

The school was located in a log cabin just north of Kyte Creek and east of today’s Main Street. A small group of children met when they could and when household chores did not require their attention.

A few years passed and the arrival of the railroad brought more families to the area. A new school was needed and construction began on a larger log school house south of Kyte Creek and on the west side of the Indian trail (Main Street).

The log school house was one block south of Kyte Creek and served until 1854. At this time a new school house was opened on North Sixth Street. The new school sat on the west side and about mid-block of the 400 block of Sixth Street. After a mere four years, a larger building was needed.

The Sixth Street school became a grist mill and again a new school was constructed. Rochelle’s fourth school was a two-story wooden frame building near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street, today’s Central School location.

Erected in 1858, the fourth school served the community of Lane. The name change to Rochelle was still seven years away. On April 7, 1869 a catastrophe struck and fire consumed the school. The newspaper article was short and none too complimentary of the fire department.

“School on 400 block of Eighth Street destroyed by fire, our heretofore unconquerable fire department, consisting of one worthless engine, and two worthless squirt guns, was entirely inadequate to the occasion.”

The cost of construction in 1858 was $10,000. Bonds were sold and a new school was planned. While the new school was being constructed, first and second grades were held at the Methodist Church, high school was in the Shockley building at the corner of Cherry Avenue and Lincoln Highway and the rest of the classes met in the Peter Unger Building on Cherry Avenue.

By 1871, the fifth school building was ready for students. Located on the ashes of the burned down wood frame, the new three-story brick building rose like a phoenix. It was a monument to Rochelle’s commitment to education. 1872 saw an enrollment of 314 students. 1874 witnessed a graduating class of three. By 1878, the school saw 21 students graduating from high school.

Education saw many changes. In the 1880s a teacher only needed an eighth-grade education to teach through the elementary grades. With a budget that did not exceed $11,000 in any year before 1900, teachers were poorly paid and individually made $300-600 a year.

The school system took a major leap ahead in the period from 1893 to 1903. Superintendent C.F. Philbrook implemented a curriculum that established Rochelle as an accredited learning establishment. The opening of the Northern Illinois Normal School in DeKalb raised the quality of the instructors to match the new improved requirements for graduation.

Conflicts between the school board and Mr. Philbrook caused a parting of ways. Philbrook left in 1903 and several teachers followed him to Arizona. Rochelle High School moved to its own building on North Seventh Street in 1921. The Seventh Street high school saw major additions in 1942, 1954, and 1970.

A new high school was constructed on Flagg Road and the old school was demolished in 2005. As the community grew, schools were added. The south side school was erected in 1909. The name was changed to Lincoln School in 1915. The old Lincoln School was closed and a new Lincoln School was opened at 1450 20th St. in 2013. In 1937, the three-story brick Central School was demolished. In 1938, a new Central School was built at 444 N. Eighth St. Tilton School came online in 1950 at 1059 N. Ninth St. May School was constructed in 1959 at 1038 N. Second St. Rochelle Middle School began taking students in 1964 at 111 School Ave.

Over the years there have been many additions and improvements to the schools of Rochelle. One thing has never changed, the commitment of the community to provide the opportunity for a first-class education.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle city councilman.