As students, we walk into school every morning across Montgomery County, passing through halls and sitting in classrooms for seven hours, five days a week. Yet many of us remain oblivious to the fascinating stories of those who passed through those halls and sat in those classrooms before us, and how our schools came to be.
On November 10, historian and author Ralph Buglass gave a presentation in conjunction with Peerless Rockville on the history of public education in Rockville. The talk took place at Richard Montgomery High School, the first public high school built in Montgomery County.
According to Mr. Buglass, the first school in the county was a private school established in 1805. Known as Rockville Academy, it cost $10 per year and housed seven grades. Public schools later came around in the 1840s, teaching only reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers could use the rod to whip their students, and there were two or three recesses a day so the one teacher in the school would have time to teach all seven grades.
As the demand for education progressed, Montgomery High School (often referred to as Rockville High School) was created as the first public high school in the county, teaching grades eight through ten. It was later renamed “Richard Montgomery” to differentiate it from the colored school (Lincoln High School) that would come around in 1876.
During this period, there was a clear gap in spending between white and colored schools. White schools grew increasingly bigger and more luxurious–for instance, Bethesda Chevy Chase High School was the largest high school in Maryland when it was created. Meanwhile, more colored schools were being built to alleviate overcrowding, but conditions were not improving beyond two-room buildings and secondhand supplies.
During this time period Thurgood Marshall was beginning his career as a lawyer right here in Montgomery County. With the help of a lawsuit filed by colored teacher William Gibbs, Marshall fought his way through the courts and significantly reduced the spending gap to virtually nothing.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 further contributed to the equality of MCPS by calling for desegregation, though Montgomery County was not completely desegregated until 1961. Though this was a full seven years after the court ruling, it was considered to be relatively fast. In comparison, Prince George’s County only reached desegregation in 1973.
Around the same time, the effects of World War II had reached Rockville. As well as air raid sirens being placed on school rooftops, the baby boom stressed the need for additional schools. From 1945 to 1965, MCPS student numbers increased from 17,000 to 107,000, and 100 new classrooms were built each year from 1948-1951.
Wootton was the last high school in the county to be founded when it was built in 1970, quickly followed by Frost and Fallsmead a couple years later, the last middle and elementary schools, respectively. And in the past months, the Board of Education has approved funding to move forward with the construction of a second middle school to feed into Bethesda-Chevy Chase HS. All in all, Montgomery County Public Schools is still going strong, more than 150 years after it all began in Rockville.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Irene Park of Richard Montgomery High School