A High School for Laramie takes shape—in 1876

Hopes for formal education were high in Laramie in 1869. That it was a high priority is evident by the fact that just one year after the town’s founding, citizens had voluntarily raised enough money to open a small school at the corner of Third and Grand, now occupied by the Connor Hotel.

The little school had its ups and downs. Due to lack of donations, the school closed later in the year. In 1870, however, the Territorial Legislative Assembly passed a law allowing counties to use tax levies to support schools. From then on, Laramie always had a school of one type or another.

The Baptist Church sporadically operated a private “high school” for a few years in the early 1870’s.  But an Albany County public high school as we know it today would only be implemented in small steps.

The first of these happened in 1876. The Laramie Sentinel reported on July 10, 1876 that two girls, Maggie Carroll and Mary Godat, were finishing the first year of “high school” which was approved earlier in the year by the school district.  They completed the final year of the two-year course in June 1877. Both immediately went on to be teachers.

The next step was taken in 1879 when it was announced that the high school had been expanded to three grades, nine, ten and eleven. By that time classes were being held in the newly constructed East Side School, a big improvement over the earlier building. That 1878 building was expanded upon many times and is still in use today as part of the Laramie Plains Civic Center. The original walls cannot be seen as they are inside of the building.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no record of the curriculum required of the early high school students and very few students were enrolled. A photo of those attending in 1886 shows three girls and five boys.

That year also saw the creation of the University of Wyoming. When a UW preparatory school opened the next year, Laramie students had the opportunity to take high school courses there. Attendance was free and the instructors highly qualified.

While some students did move on to the preparatory school, the public schools continued to offer high school classes. And, the number of school years they counted as “high school” varied from year to year; only two years were offered in 1900 and 1906.

The first formal ceremony for high school graduates took place in June 1890. The Laramie Sentinel wrote on July 3, 1890 in an article titled “First Annual Graduating Exercise” that a ceremony was held the previous week, which featured musical performances and recitations.

The paper doesn’t say how many graduates there were, but singles out three female graduates, May Deane, Alice Collins and Anna Thobro.  They gave speeches to the assembled crowd and were highly praised by those attending, according to the paper. No mention was made of any male graduates.

However, that same year high school was almost eliminated in the public schools. On September 6 the local weekly paper stated that the school district had decided that students who wanted to further their education beyond grade eight should enroll in the UW preparatory school. “Prep” allowed students at age 15 to attend high school classes.

But a combination of parents and teachers resisted the move effectively. The district backpedaled and that same week announced that high school classes would continue at the public school. 

Its curriculum was extensive. High school students were required to take algebra, geometry, geography, American history and government, commercial arithmetic (including the metric system), English composition, zoology and botany.

The curriculum was rigorous enough that students who completed it were allowed to enter UW without any further examination.

It was not until 1909 that any high school in Wyoming would offer grade 12. Laramie public schools recognized this trend and the following year began construction of a separate high school. Washington School would serve that purpose for many years before being converted to an elementary school.

By Kim Viner

Caption:  This undated photo from after 1890 shows the substantial brick East Side School of Laramie, built in 1878.  It became the High School, as the caption to the postcard shows--the words “Laramie High School” are also in the semi-circle at the top of the center block.  The one story section on the left are the bathrooms, added in 1890. The school, encircled by newer additions including auditorium and gymnasiums, still exists as the center core of the Laramie Civic Center, though minus the cupola. Photo courtesy of Laramie Plains Museum.