Education has been integral to the creation and maintenance of Indianapolis civil society. From the advent of one-room schools during pioneer days in the 19th century to the well-defined system of primary, secondary and higher education in existence today, Indianapolis has always prided itself on the educational opportunities it could offer residents.
In the early years, schooling was a hit-and-miss affair. Marion County in the years just after statehood in 1816 was still primarily agricultural; most residents attended only primary grades. That didn’t change until after mid-century. Nebraska Cropsey, who was responsible for elementary education from the 1870s until World War I, worked to convince the General Assembly to pass compulsory-education legislation. Cropsey and other educational reformers were backed by the city’s growing German population, which placed a high value on education for its children.
The city’s first three high schools reflected the dominant educational philosophies of the 19th century. Indianapolis High School, at Michigan and Pennsylvania streets, was founded in the 1860s and offered a classical curriculum; the school would later be renamed for longtime Indianapolis schools superintendent Abram C. Shortridge and moved to 34th and Meridian streets in the 1920s. Manual Training School was started in 1895 just south of Union Station to educate the city’s growing population of students in manual skills like carpentry; Manual would later move to the south side near Garfield Park. In 1916, a third high school opened, emphasizing such technical skills as typing and shorthand. Arsenal Technical was on a 75-acre plot east of downtown that had been a Civil War arsenal.
Higher education in Indianapolis also dates its founding to the latter half of the 19th century. In 1855, Northwestern Christian University opened at 13th Street and College Avenue. In 1875, the university, by then named in honor of Ovid Butler, the Indianapolis attorney who had written the original school charter, accepted a gift of 25 acres and moved to the suburb of Irvington east of Indianapolis. Butler University would move again, in 1928, to its present campus at what was then called Fairview Park, along the Central Canal at 46th Street.
In 1851, the Sisters of St. Francis began training teachers at their Motherhouse in Oldenburg, about 60 miles southeast of Indianapolis. The teachers’ training program evolved into St. Francis Normal College, and in 1937, the sisters purchased the James A. Allison estate on Cold Spring Road and chartered Marian College.
In 1905, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ established Indiana Central College on an eight-acre campus off Hanna Avenue on the city’s south side. By the 1920s, the college had grown to 60 acres and five buildings, including a modern gymnasium and four large dormitories, and in 1986 was renamed the University of Indianapolis.
Like Butler, Marian and Indiana Central, elementary and secondary education was driven by religious affiliation in the 20th century. The Roman Catholic Church was particularly aggressive in establishing parochial schools for the city’s growing Catholic population. The Diocese of Indianapolis (which had been transferred from Vincennes in 1898 and would become an archdiocese in 1944) was helped in its mission to educate Catholic children by the existence of a growing number of orders of nuns in Indiana and the Midwest who could staff Catholic schools.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, the Sisters of Providence from near Terre Haute, and the Sisters of St. Benedict from Ferdinand staffed schools in the diocese. In 1919, Bishop Joseph Chartrand worked with the Brothers of Holy Cross to establish a Catholic boys high school, Cathedral, at 14th and Meridian streets.
The Episcopal Church was establishing schools for girls as early as the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1902 that the pastor of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church and Fredonia Allen established Tudor Hall School for Girls at 16th and Meridian streets. Allen would later establish Tudor Hall as a non-affiliated private school farther north on Meridian Street; the school would eventually move to a campus on Cold Spring Road. The Brooks School for Boys opened at 16th Street and Central Avenue in 1914 as a Country Day School. It would later move to Cold Spring Road and merge in 1971 with its neighbor to form Park Tudor School on the site of the former Lilly Orchard at 72nd Street and College Avenue.
During the first World War, Indianapolis saw its African-American population swell, as migrants arrived in Indiana to work from the Mississippi Delta and the Appalachian mountains of east Tennessee and North Carolina. Indiana was a stronghold of the reorganized Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, and a segregationist school board in Indianapolis created Crispus Attucks High School mid-decade to house the city’s black students.
Attucks would strike a blow for desegregation of the nation’s schools in March 1955—just months after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its Brown v. Board of Education decision—when it defeated Gary Roosevelt in the state high school boys basketball championship at Hinkle Fieldhouse. At the time, more than 800 high schools were entering teams in the tournament, and Attucks and Roosevelt were two of the three all-black high schools represented.
Desegregation of the city’s public schools would become a judicial reality in the early 1970s when Judge Hugh S. Dillin issued a county-wide busing decree. By that time, the city’s schools had expanded dramatically, a result of the post-war baby boom. The Indianapolis school system comprised schools in Center Township, with each of the surrounding townships operating its own school systems.
The archdiocese had gone on a school-building frenzy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, adding four Catholic co-educational high schools in just five years; the Jesuit order established Brebeuf High School on West 86th Street in the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, the contraction of religious orders in the 1970s resulted in the closure of several all-girl high schools and the restructuring of Cathedral High School into a private high school on East 56th Street along Fall Creek.
Both Indiana and Purdue universities had established extension programs in the Hoosier capital city in the early 20th century. By the late 1960s, it was apparent that demand for a state university education in Indianapolis was not being met; in 1969, the boards of both schools agreed to combine their extension offerings into Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. IUPUI would operate from a major urban campus just northwest of downtown.
That same year of 1969, Region VIII of the Indiana Vocational Technical College (Ivy Tech) was formally chartered. Ivy Tech grew quickly and moved into its new campus on North Meridian Street at Fall Creek Parkway in 1983.
Education changed dramatically in Indianapolis in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Butler University’s appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball title game in 2010 and 2011 gave the school national exposure. Indiana Central College and Marian College achieved university status, and Marian opened the first medical college in the state in decades. IUPUI gained a reputation as one of America’s major urban state universities.
The Indianapolis public school system faced a major loss of students, dropping from an enrollment of 100,000 students in the mid-1970s to 25,000 by 2015. Much of the system’s loss was due to the growth of township and suburban school districts, as well as to the introduction of charter schools and state-supported voucher programs. As the state celebrates its bicentennial in 2016, education initiatives are among the most contentious facing state politicians.•