By Johnna Pinholster
VALDOSTA — Though schools have been in Lowndes County for hundreds of years, the first official record of public schools in the county was taken in December of 1826.
Through the years, the county and city has held various schools. From those held in homes and churches to the segregated schools that sometimes bore the same name, schools have played an integral role in the changing face of Lowndes County and Valdosta.
In November of 1864, it was reported to the state that Lowndes County had 15 county schools, 14 teachers and 450 white students.
The report also stated that 1,064 white school-age children lived in the county, but less than half actually attended.
Information concerning the history of the Lowndes County School System has been compiled by Ron Irwin, with the help of other community members into a book, “Our Noble Quest: Three Centuries of Educational Excellence.”
The operation of public schools under county boards of education was determined in 1868.
The first black school of record, the Freed Colored School, was opened on April 16, 1868, in the Dasher community, which was opened with the help of the Freedman’s Bureau and operated by Jacob D. Enos.
The name of the school was changed a year later to the West Chester School, with the enrollment of students reaching 111, but the school would close at the end of the 1869 term.
In 1872 the state of Georgia determined that county boards of education would organize separate schools for white and black children and provide teachers for instruction in basic reading, writing and arithmetic, and tax citizens to support the schools.
During this time Clyattville had five white and two black schools, Valdosta had four white and four black schools, Hahira had seven white and four black schools, Naylor had six white and two black schools and Ousley had two white and one black school.
In 1875 the school districts were abolished and the county was divided into two districts, with Valdosta being placed in the southern district.
The erection of modern school buildings began in the 1900s when the school board obtained title to all school property.
In 1918 the board recommended to the county commissioners that a local tax of three mills be levied on the county for school purposes.
During the Great Depression the school term of 1929-1930 was cut to three months.
Accreditation issues in the early 20th century resulted in some families sending high school-age children to Valdosta High School. A contract between Valdosta City schools and Lowndes County Schools in the 1950s stipulated conditions on which students could cross district lines to attend schools. By the late 60s, movement between the school systems would be prohibited by the state.
Also during the 50s all Lowndes County schools moved to 12 grades and a 180-day school year.
School consolidation was a topic of conversation as early as 1951. A January board meeting record with several options of grouping schools together included: “Consolidate the Lowndes County and Valdosta High School system into one system with one board of education with equal representatives from the city and the county.”
Lowndes County High School opened in 1959 with an enrollment of 671 students. In 1961 students from the black high schools, Lowndes County Training School and Webb-Miller consolidated into Westside High School.
The system became a one high school county in the fall of 1969, as Weststide High School merged into Lowndes High School. The system was considered a unified school district in 1970.
The first minority members of the Lowndes County Board of Education were elected in 1992, with Tondra Close being appointed to District 4 and James Council Jr. appointed to District 7.
Valdosta City School System
Many of the first buildings purchased for the Valdosta City School System were private schools built in the mid-1800s.
Both The Valdosta Institute (white school) and the Lee Street Academy (black school) were private schools transferred to what was then the Valdosta Public School System.
The first high school was located on the corner of Central Avenue and Oak Street and was constructed in 1905 for white students. In 1968, when the school was closed, it was sold to First Baptist Church, who rented it to Valwood School before building an activity building on the site.
The Magnolia School served black students of all ages before Dasher High School was built in 1929.
Dasher High School became J.L. Lomax Junior High in 1956, when high school students moved to Pinevale High School. The school was named after professor J.L. Lomax, a longtime teacher and principal in the system.
Though many schools in the Valdosta City School System are named after educational leaders in the community — W.G. Nunn, Sallas-Mahone, J.L. Lomax — in the mid-1960s the board of education declared that all new schools would be named by location rather than individuals.
With integration, all Grade 10-12 students went to Valdosta High School, while Pinevale became a ninth grade academy. In 1973 Pinevale became Lomax-Pinevale Elementary and the ninth grade students moved to the high school on Forrest Street.
The Impact of Desegregation
The Valdosta City School System is still feeling the effects of desegregation more than 50 years later.
The system is currently under court jurisdiction to proportion minority faculty and certified staff at each school within a 15 percent of the ratio district-wide average by the 2010-2011 school year.
United States of America v. The Board of Education of Valdosta City, Georgia, et al. places the system under a consent decree to fulfill the outlined obligations.
As of July 2008, the system has achieved partial unitary status in the areas of student assignment, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.
A 2007 study from the Georgia Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights reports that 74 school districts in Georgia remain under court jurisdiction in regards to desegregation.
The Lowndes County School System has achieved unitary status according to the committee’s study.
Desegregation in the Valdosta City and Lowndes County schools began in 1968, 14 years after segregated schools had been found unconstitutional in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Both schools would grapple with desegregation for years after the complaint in 1968 by black parents that the schools were unequal.
Information provided by Dr. Mark George, assistant professor of Sociology at Valdosta State University and education chairperson for the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, outline the desegregation and closing of all black schools.
“The feds come in ‘68 and say, Fix this or lose all your money from us,” George said. “Both schools drug their feet, they didn’t have a physical plan, white folks didn’t want to send their kids to black schools, etc.”
George said there was conflict during this time in the community regarding desegregation, with student walkouts and other protests, but most conversation and work on the issue was docile when compared to events in the rest of the country.
Months of deliberation on the issue and how to consolidate white and black schools resulted in the Lowndes County School System losing more than $340,000 in federal funds and both school systems agreeing to comply with federal law.
“Valdosta got on board a lot earlier than Lowndes County,” George said.
When desegregation began, the black schools within both systems were shut down and no black schools or administrators transferred into the new unified school systems, he said.
“Desegregation is not integration,” George said. “It was really about assimilation.”
The school upheaval during this time is a direct reflection on the racial makeup of the school systems now, he said.
In 1970, white students made up 64 percent of the Valdosta City School System population, with blacks making up 46 percent. In 2009, white students comprise 17.67 percent of the population in the Valdosta City School System, with black students making up 76.88 percent of the student body.
Conversely more than half of Lowndes County’s student population is white, with 6,889 of 10,123 students being white.
Ron Irwin’s “Our Noble Quest: Three Centuries of Educational Excellence” will be available for purchase on the Lowndes County School System’s Web site (www.lowndes.k12.ga.us) the first week in December. All proceeds from the book will benefit the Lowndes Educational Improvement Foundation (LEIF), which provides incentive grants to teachers.