Watauga Underwent Educational Revolution In 1950s

The year 1950 found Watauga County behind, and falling back farther, in education. Even compared to its neighbors, Watauga County had some major problems. While Ashe County, for example, was already consolidating its high schools, Watauga had no less than 28 schools in operation. Of these, 12 had less than 50 students; 20 had fewer than 100. The largest enrollment was at Boone Demonstration School with 551 students; the lowest, Penley, with 7.

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Watauga Underwent Educational Revolution In 1950sThere were other problems as well. Hiring was done on a "good old boy" (and girl) basis, and teachers were hired to teach areas for which they were not certified. School buildings were decaying, especially the smaller ones. Blowing Rock Elementary School was bad enough that the town threatened to secede into Caldwell County for a time.

A lot of what happened never made the public record, but the problems seemed to have started at the top. Dr. B.B. Dougherty had served as school superintendent from 1899 to 1914, and proved a success, as did Smith Hagaman, who held the post from 1915 to 1934. Then came W.H. Walker.

Other than having to deal with inherited problems of small, aging schools, Walker seems to have done an adequate job through the 1930s. During World War II, he received a leave of absence and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. S.F. Horton filled in back home.

After Walker came back home, serious problems began to surface. In 1948, Walker was arrested and convicted for drunk driving. Three years later, it happened again. While we are sometimes told what a permissive, "anything goes" age this is, Walker managed to remain the leader of the schools in spite of these convictions.

Walker had some powerful friends. The board of education supported him, and the Watauga County Democratic Party's executive committee, apparently for political reasons, backed their view. Walker seemed entrenched. Seemed is the operative word.

A groundswell of opposition, spawned by Walker's personal problems and the condition of the schools, swept the county. Citizens opposed to Walker hired an attorney, William McElwee of North Wilkesboro, to represent them. As it turned out, they had some friends in higher places than Walker.

On July 7, 1955, the North Carolina Board of Education landed like a ton of bricks in Watauga County. Exercising some rarely used authority, the State Board dismissed the entire Watauga County Board of Education. They then appointed a new board, chaired by Dr. Charles Davant Jr. of Blowing Rock. The other members were Dr. W.G. Whitener, an Appalachian State professor, and W.H. Mast Jr. of Valle Crucis.

Walker was gone immediately. In his place, the board hired W. Guy Angell as superintendent. The new leaders worked to improve the schools, forcing uncertified teachers to go back to school and beginning things like fire drills.

While this political war raged in Watauga, a battle of another kind was underway in Washington. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruled segregated schools were inherently unequal and this unconstitutional. Within a few years, the Boone Colored High and Colored Elementary schools faded into memory.

Progress was slow but steady in Watauga schools - and then, one night, a bright light passed over the mountains. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting space satellite. The appearance of Sputnik, with its technological, scientific and military implications, startled the United States education system into action. In 1958, Congress overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Education Act, and federal money started, for the first time, to pour into local schools.

Meanwhile, Watauga County's educational reformers, led by Davant and Angell, were starting to take a hard look at the county's schools. What they found was frightening: even the best schools were woefully behind in both physical plant and courses offered. In the succeeding decade, they would work together to give Watauga County a desperately needed major leap forward in education.

In case you were wondering, here is a list of the 28 schools open in Watauga County in 1950 (schools in italics had less than 50 students; those with over 200 students are bolded): Appalachian High; Boone Demonstration; Howard's Creek; Rich Mountain; Rutherwood; Bamboo; Green Valley; Winebarger; Deep Gap; Stoney Fork; Mount Paron; Elk; Lower Elk; Blowing Rock High and Elementary; Penley; Bradshaw; Valle Crucis; Grandfather; Cool Springs; Cove Creek High; Cove Creek Elementary; Rominger; Presnell; Windy Gap; Bethel High and Elementary; Pottertown; Boone Colored High and Elementary.

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