May 21, 1907: the Des Moines Independendent Community School District is Formed

Iowa’s Largest Provider of Public Education is 105 Years Old

The following article, written for the school district’s centennial in 2007, is a brief history of the formation of Des Moines Public Schools:

It was late in the year of 1846. The leaves were changing colors. The weather was getting cooler. The days were getting shorter. Iowa was about to become a state. And a handful of children began attending the first school in Des Moines.

At that time Des Moines wasn’t really even Des Moines. The post office was known as Raccoon Forks, and it would be another five years before a city was incorporated. But as more and more people settled at the juncture of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, schools were a priority of the earliest residents.

And for more than half a century, dozens of public school districts formed across the new city, in neighborhoods and townships. One for East Des Moines and another for West Des Moines. Capitol Park and Oak Park and Greenwood Park were districts scattered here and there.

By the early 1900s, more than 20 different school districts served the children of Des Moines.

Some forward-looking leaders shared a concern: equity. How could so many different districts best educate all the children of the same city? And so a consolidation was proposed. Combine these districts – some big and some small, some rich and some poor – into one that would serve every student in Des Moines. The initial reaction was split. The East Des Moines school board was the first to endorse the merger while residents on the west-side were worried about higher taxes.

But one of the strongest supporters of consolidation, Drake University President Hill M. Bell, put it into perspective: “It is certainly futile to think of a great city here if one portion of it selfishly ignores another portion; and I submit to you that selfishness is the only consideration that would permit the people of any district to use their influence against consolidation and a Greater Des Moines school system.”

The question was put to the people. While one former school board member wagered “all kinds of hats and cigars that the vote will be heavy,” only 4,000 ballots were cast. But those who did – 3,081 for and 943 against – saw an opportunity for public education in Iowa’s capital city.

On May 21, 1907 the Des Moines Independent Community School District was formed.

Historical Photos of Des Moines Public Schools

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