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A Look at History Sheds Some Light on The Present
A Look at History Sheds Some Light on The Present
Mike Ward
Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The Illini Central school district was fortunate to have recently been given a copy of the 1931 “Handbook of the Mason City Community School” that was published by that district.  The 45-page booklet contains an educational history of school, a directory of graduates, school procedures, and course listings. It provides a fascinating look at how things have changed and how they have remained the same.

The 95% requirement to earn a letter grade of “A” is gone.  Classes in Shorthand (I and II), French, Latin, Music Theory are no longer offered,  and they have been replaced today by technology courses and Spanish. Students in 1931 did not have the option of taking chemistry. The Modern History course focused on Napoleon and the reunification of Germany and ended with a study of the World War.  This class was reported to focus on the concept of international brotherhood.  World War II was still 8 years off, and the United States was referred to as an emerging “power of consequence in international developments.” Of the telephone located in the building, educators said, it “is an asset, only so long as it does not become a nuisance.” We can only imagine what the educators of that time would think about today’s curriculum and course offerings, let alone what they would say about the phones our students carry in their pockets.

The handbook spells out the mission of the district which focused on character, citizenship, care of health, command of abilities and powers, and correct use of leisure time.  It seems that school in 1931 aimed to produce well-rounded, healthy adults. We have not really veered from that purpose in 2019. Today, the district’s mission state is:

  • “lllini Central School District #189 promotes a cooperative, positive, and safe learning environment which ensures that the education of each child is the heart of the school operation through partnerships with family and community,
  • District #189 enables students to become responsible citizens who are productive members of the global community, committed to excellence and lifelong learning

Our educational ancestors also attempted to define the essence of education. They believed that the virtues of education went beyond the content of classes and the attainment of a diploma. They clearly stated that they could not find the words to describe the growth that students show over time, the relationships that are formed between students and staff, and the feelings that one gets when students succeed. Nor could they find the right words to express how students develop their personalities, build character, and show school spirit.  They correctly concluded that “the fruits of school life are both immeasurable and indescribable.”  

Recently, much attention has been given to the district’s desire to build an addition to the existing campus.  After a number of community informational meetings and school board meetings, discussion has centered on the need for the space, the construction of a gymnasium, and the cost of the project. Valid questions have been raised, and the district has worked to provide clear and reasonable answers.    

The 1931 handbook speaks directly to the debate that we are having now. The school district can provide fact based answers and talk about the potential opportunities.  Opponents of the addition can be concerned about the process, cost, and point out that the current situation has worked for years. Yet, what we cannot accurately predict nor adequately criticize are “immeasurable and indescribable” benefits that this addition provides.  Just as in 1931, we cannot state how much this space will change instructional practices, motivate students, ignite curiosity, or improve access; however, we know that these things must happen to continue to develop students who are ready to be contributing members of a global economy. Just as a review of the 1931 handbook shows how education has evolved from that time to the present, we know we must continue to make decisions that allow our district to progress and to prepare for the next evolution.

The handbook illustrates a number of changes in the way schools operate today.  Still, the mission of schools has not fundamentally changed. While the details may differ, the spirit of school is still the same. The responsibilities of all stakeholders is equally unchanged. The handbook refers to the duty of faculty and staff to meet the obligations of service to students.  It also refers to the duty of parents and stakeholders to take an interest in building up the school. Lloyd Ellsbury, a member of the Class of 1903 provides a brief history of the school which is included in the 1931 handbook. In that history he writes that the community “has always supported its school system; has provided for the children and youth of the community the best equipment and educational facilities.”  The building addition project provides the school board, the staff, and the community with a unique opportunity to carry out their collective duties to provide the best resources for students. The handbook is evidence that education was the gift that the community wanted to give to its children. Our community has an opportunity now to live up to this legacy of commitment to education and to be prepared for the future.