Davenport established kindergarten classes in 1913. Here, an early kindergarten class plays with toys. (PHOTOS SPECIAL TO THE TIMES)

From the beginning, the Davenport School District has set itself apart from others, paving the way for the future of education.

Davenport employed the first female superintendent in the United States in 1874 and started the country’s third teacher training school. When the district formed in 1858, its founder and superintendent, Abraham Kissell, expanded its levels to 12th grade, making it one of the first to establish a publicly funded high school in the nation, according to district records.

“It was very unusual to see these things in a small district,” said Jeffrey Mirel, professor of education and history at the University of Michigan. “Most of the reforms going on at this time started in primarily big cities and moved out from there.”

Davenport school leaders say the district’s history of being at the forefront of education has shaped many of its current-day accomplishments that set it apart from others.

As an urban district with about 16,000 students, its diversity and size allow it to offer students more extensive educational opportunities than most other Iowa districts, officials said. It continues to value music and other fine arts programs, as well as vocational education and extracurricular activities. Many of the teachers helping students build an educational foundation are themselves products of the school district.

“The Davenport School District today is reflective of its past,” said Julio Almanza, Davenport superintendent. “Just like any building, it has a foundation. Those communities that existed here before are part of our foundation.”

In the mid- to late-1800s, large cities such as Chicago and New York were leading the charge to open high schools, expand course offerings beyond the basics and add kindergarten, among other things. They were at the forefront of educational reform, Mirel said.

However, Davenport kept pace with its larger counterparts, for the most part, and even surpassed them in some areas. More specifically, according to records, the district’s efforts included:

* Offering courses to students ages 14 to 17 in 1858. Older

students attended what was at that time called an “intermediate” school. The district opted against naming it a high school because a majority of taxpayers did not support funding high schools. At the time, they were seen by many as a way to subsidize the education of children from wealthy families. High schools didn’t become the norm until the early 1900s, Mirel said.

* Opening a teacher training school in the 1850s. At that time, most schools only required teachers to pass a test to become certified. Davenport’s training school, which remained opened until 1916, provided prospective teachers with an additional year of school before they took the exam.

* Introducing drawing, physical education and music classes in the mid- to late-1800s. A nationwide push to offer these courses didn’t come until the early 1900s, Mirel said.

* Offering German as a foreign language in 1867. Most schools started offering “modern” foreign languages such as German in the early 1900s.

* Establishing kindergarten classes in 1913 and opening its first three junior high schools in 1919. While larger districts were already doing this around that time, it was unusual for smaller districts, Mirel said.

“We were a pioneer district,” said Patt Zamora, current school board president. “We have developed things as we went along and have always been a pioneer. We are the most diverse and largest district, and we have to lead the way, and we expect ourselves to do that.”

Sheena Dooley can be contacted at (563) 383-2363 or sdooley@qctimes.com.

A $500 loan, paid back in full

The Davenport school district got its start when Antoine LeClaire provided a $500 loan to help establish it in 1858. Just months later, the district was able to pay off the loan, and the document showing the repayment is on display at the district’s museum.