The early stages of Rochelle’s education system

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After attending my 50-year high school reunion, I began to wonder, when did Rochelle actually begin having a true high school?

We all know the beauty of opinions, everybody has one, let me share mine. In 1840, the first school was opened in a log cabin on what is today South Main Street. Located on the east side of the street just north of Kyte Creek, education became a community endeavor. In 1858, the number of students had increased to the point where the citizens demanded a true school.  

Ten thousand dollars of bonds were sold and the first Central School was constructed. A two-story wooden structure was erected. The school housed all grades from first through high school. With a student population of less than 300 students, Central School was more than sufficient.

In 1869, Central School was struck by fire. “Our heretofore unconquerable fire department, consisting of one worthless engine and two worthless squirt guns, was entirely inadequate to the occasion.”

Yes, the school burned to the ground. For the next two years, high school classes were held at the corner of Lincoln Highway and Cherry Avenue on the second floor of the Shockley Building. Rochelle once again sold bonds to construct a new school.

Forty thousand dollars and two years later (1871), a new Central School stood on the corner of 5th Avenue and 8th Street. In 1876, the Ogle County school system was featured at the Philadelphia Exposition. Ogle County was awarded the Centennial Medal for education, the only school system to be awarded. Seven bound volumes of Rochelle’s monthly exams were an integral part of the county’s presentation.

Let’s take a moment to look at what we had, through the lens of 1800s education, instead of 2021 education. As late as the 1880s, a teacher only needed an eighth-grade education to teach elementary school. High school education could be anywhere from one year to two years.

Teachers were minimally trained and standards were non-existent in many school systems. Students stayed in schools until they felt they had learned what they could. Business colleges would take students straight from elementary school and teach specific topics from typing to bookkeeping with a college certificate upon completion.

To attend a university, a Rochelle High School graduate was required to be tested to see if they were actually qualified. It was in 1893 that C.F. Philbrook became superintendent of schools and changed Rochelle High School from that day forward.

Mr. Philbrook established the four-year high school curricula, he established mandatory credits, and necessary courses of study. The result of these changes was immediate. The University of Illinois accredited the Rochelle Community High School program. This meant that a graduate from Rochelle was automatically accepted at the University of Illinois.

In 1906, North Central Association accredited Rochelle and by 1915, several additional universities also accepted Rochelle High School degrees. I believe 1893 was the moment when Rochelle made the leap from a local school system to an accepted quality program.

Rochelle Community High School outgrew the Central School location and a new school was built on North Seventh Street in 1922. A new school district was formed to include the whole of Flagg Township, thus the name change, from Rochelle Community High School to Rochelle Township High School or RTHS.

C.F. Philbrook left in 1915 and Superintendents Joiner and Mahoney continued to improve on the high school’s programs. Industrial arts, latin, algebra, geometry and additional sports were added. Graduation requirements went from 34 credits to 48 credits. RTHS has always been a source of pride for our community. 55 years after I left those hallowed halls I am ever so indebted to C.F. Philbrook and all of those leaders and educators that ensured my time at RTHS would afford me an education and memories for a lifetime.

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