History of Commerce ISD
Commerce school history predates city
The following was published with permission from the Commerce Journal in 2008. The original article was first published by the Journal in March 1984. Information was compiled and the article was written by Frances Hyatt, a participant in the school district's volunteer program. Mrs. Hyatt and her husband, Carl Hyatt, and Bill Latson were co-owners of the Commerce Journal from 1951-1966. She was employed for eight years by East Texas State University as a newswriter in Communication Services and as an editor of vocational curriculum materials. All photos are courtesy of the Commerce Public Library.
From a two-room cabin in 1872, the Commerce public school system has grown into a multi-million dollar conglomerate in 1984 with an annual budget of $3,565.225. (The 2007-2008 CISD budget is over $15 million.)
However, a public school system involves much more than the physical plant, and a true history requires more than a mere chronological journal. Merely for organization, this informal account drawn from a number of sources that are regarded as reliable will be arranged in relation to the terms of the various superintendents.
And while the superintendent usually is the primary influence in a school sytem, many others must be considered--prevailing economic conditions, tax base, local attitude toward learning, politics, demographics, technological developments and state and federal assistance.
Commerce is located in an area that has experienced no rapid growth, no influx of people, and has never had the benefit of wealth such as oil and gas or large industries. The area has been dependent on agriculture, the railroads, and the local university. Not until recent years has industry of any significant size added to the tax base.
It also is almost impossible to tabulate a true picture of enrollment because in more than 100 years the number of grades has increased at intervals and no statistics until the 1960s have included the school in the Norris community.
The Early Years
The earliest school mentioned in local history was conducted in the home of Mrs. Walden, who listed 27 students in her subscription school. The first public school in 1872, part pay and part free, was a 20x 30 building located near what is now the corner of Ash and Pecan streets (probably facing Pecan). The next information available notes that in 1879 the Hunt County Superintendent officially authorized organization of the first public school in Commerce. By 1886, a better building as needed, and Greely Harris donated two acres from the northwest corner of his farm for the new school. This is the site of the present A. L. Day Elementary School on Church Street (presently in use as a storage facility).
Money and labor were donated by the citizens of Commerce for a two-story frame building that had one room on each floor. The first superintendent, Professor Melton, was soon succeeded by Will Whitfield. The six-month school term operated three months free and three months with pay. Approximately 100 students were enrolled, according to one historian.
The next superintendent, J. W. McCleod, who remained until 1889, evidently appreciated the fine arts because a separate music building was provided, and music classes were added in addition to the regular studies. When the railroad arrived, the number of pupils grew and two rooms were added to the building.
When H.P. Eastman became head of the school in 1889, the school had four teachers and ran for nine months, with students still required to pay for three months. Children in thre lower grades studied the traditional "three Rs," but the high school subjects included Latin, geometry, ancient history, chemistry, algebra and trigonometry.
Fire destroyed the frame building and it was replaced by a red brick building in 1898 when a $7500 bond issue was approved. S. E. Watson was superintendent, and he had just replaced C.J. Debenport who had served from 1894 until 1898. The two-story building had one classroom, an office and an auditorium that could be divided into three rooms on the first floor and four classrooms on the upper floor. Further additions were necessary later. This building was torn down in 1936 and was replaced by the A.L. Day building.
While the names of at least six or seven superintendents can be found before 1900, during the past 84 years only three have served more than a few years. They were A. L. Day, Frank Morgan and Norris Tanton. Since the retirement of Day in 1935, those superintendents who remained for only a short time often made significant contributions to the school system, and usually moved on to larger schools or other jobs.
When A. L. Day took over direction of the school in 1900, the 300 pupils were being taught by five teachers. Day's 35 years were to encompass the development of the railroad as a division point, the growth of East Texas State Teachers College, World War I, the Great Depression, the invention of the radio, improved roads that were mandated by the availability and use of the passenger car. However, no vast technological advances occurred that would make curriculum expansion necessary.
By 1909, the school had expanded to 12 teachers and 600 students. To better serve the community, Day was responsible for building West Ward in 1910 on land donated by Dr. W. J. Wheeler at Live Oak and Earl, and North Ward in 1912 on Neal Street.
With lower grades also in the red brick school building, then called Central, the schools were evently distributed in thw town. In 1914, finances forced a cut-back from a nine-month to an eight-month term because parents refused to pay for the extra month.
Following World War I, one source reported that the school had 900 students, with 305 listed for the high school.
In 1923, a new high school building was erected on Sycamore Street at a cost of $125,000. This high school, evidently grades 8 through 11, had 14 teachers--three each for mathematics and English, two for history, and one each for science, Spanish, domestic science, Latin and commercial subjects.
In 1935, it seems that a change in administration was feasible, and Day retired.
Frank Morgan was elected to succeed Day, and he remained until 1946.
In spite of the disastrous depression and the effects of World War II, Morgan was able to introduce a number of changes that seem innovative for that time. Due to hard economic times, school enrollment had dropped and as an economic measure both North and West Wards were closed. However, a new building to replace the red brick on Church Street was constructed in 1936, financed by Works Progress Administration funds. This one building could accommodate all of the elementary grades in the district because the demonstration school at ETSTC had absorbed about 200 of the scholastics.
In addition to a new building, the school now provided school bus routes. A frame bus garage with a band hall above was constructed behind the high school, and the first band was organized in 1939. A 12th grade was added in 1941. Again with the help of WPA funds, a gymnasium was built in 1942. In addition to the band, the curriculum now included industrial arts, vocational agriculture, vocational home economics, and health and physical education. In the lower grades, social studies, language arts, public school music and art were added, and a 33-piece elementary band was organized.
Morgan resigned to become Registrar at West Texas State Teachers College, and he was replaced by R. E. Slayton , who was in Commerce three years.
Under Slayton, further progress was made. The first cafeteria was opened in the high school building in a room that had been occupied by a Pre-Flight class during World War II. Fixtures for the cafeteria were furnished by the War Assets Administration, which distributed war surplus materials, and the shop students and vocational agriculture students did a great deal of the work. Students from Central Ward were brought to the high school at noon.
In addition to the four rural bus routes that brought pupils from the South Sulphur, Branom, Jardin and Fairlie communities, a city bus route was provided and 325 bus riders were noted.
Consolidation of small rural common school districts occurred during this time and these included Pecan, Prairie View, Willow Oak, Lebanon, Century, Charity, Fairview, Riley Grove, Columbia and Fairlie. However, Fairlie kept its grade school for several years more.
Central Ward now had 14 teachers and 350 students. In 1947, five new classrooms and a 22 x 40 library addition were authorized.
The physical plant in Commerce Independent School District was to be further taxed when the university's Training School was closed in the summer of 1948 and the 200 students returned to the city school system. The growing university needed the space occupied by these students. Since 125 of the transfers were at the grade school level, the decision was made to reopen West Ward. In October 1948, the total school enrollment was 890.
Another significant event of 1948 was the separation of the public schools from city control to enable annexation for the purpose of consolidation of school districts, thus making possible the expansion of the CISD to encompass 60 square miles.
When Slayton resigned to accept a position as superintendent of the larger school system at Alice, Avery R. Downing, Commerce High School principal, was named to succeed him in July 1949. Downing's successor as high school principal was W. B. Drummond.
When the refurbished West Ward school was reopened in 1950, the name was changed to W. J. Wheeler Elementary as a tribute to the physician who had given the land for West Ward. This expansion provided six classrooms, a gymnasium, an office and clinic space.
The 1950 graduating class was the smallest since 1933, with only 50 graduates. However, in 1951 the senior class had 72 students. The first mention of Special Education was in 1949, when a class was provided at A. L. Day. However, in 1945 a 30-minute class in remedial speech and speech correction was provided.
The first annual, The Sregit, (Tigers spelled backward) was issued in 1950 and sold for $3.
In the fall of 1950, Norris Tanton joined the faculty of A.L. Day as director of boys' play and social studies teacher. He had returned home after seven years and 11 months in the U.S. Navy.
Downing resigned after two years to become superintendent of Waco public schools and Drummond was elevated to superintendent in 1951. That fall, a course in Bible, authorized by Texas Education Agency, was added as an elective, and a strings program was added to the music curriculum. A new piano for the auditorium , purchased at a cost of approximately $500, was made possible by Parent-Teacher projects and by donations. Tennis had become a major sport and new tennis courts were built on Park Street. In the fall of 1952, 448 students were enrolled in grades 7 through 12 in the high school building.
At the death of Jackson Massey , principal of A. L. Day since 1930, Tanton was elevated to principal. His interest in the physical plant became evident through the improvements he initiated at the school. A fund provided by magazine sales and candy, cookie and fruit concession paid for electric water fountains, a 16mm sound projector, and additions to the film library. He also encouraged the students to take pride in the school campus and they set out grass and shrubbery. In 1953, a new heating system was installed.
Television reception became possible in Commerce through the installation of tall antennas, and many homes began buying sets.
The segregated Norris school was in a dilapidated condition. While a new building, which was completed in 1954, was under construction, the Norris pupils attended St. Paul School in Neylandville . The all black school had a 46-member choir that was in demand to sing at many occasions.
Drummond and high school principal J. R. Nelson completed their three-year contracts, and both were replaced in the summer of 1954. Leonard Prewitt was the new superintendent.
A Homemaking Cottage, which had been authorized during Drummond's term, was completed in January 1955 on the northeast corner of the high school campus.
The PTA provided a refrigerated water fountain for the second floor of the high school, and typhoid shots were administered by the Hunt County Health Nurse. A special entrance was provided at A. L. Day for those special education students who were required to use wheel chairs. Three new rooms were added to Wheeler school to accommodate two additional grades; and a 15-space parking area was installed on the north side of the high school campus.
The refurbished West Ward School was reopened in 1950 and the name was changed to W. J. Wheeler Elementary School as a tribute to the physician who had given the land for West Ward.
In April 1955, Salk polio vaccine was administered to all students. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came to Wheeler school to award first prize in a national safety contest, which included $500 in cash, a plaque, and visual aid equipment valued at $1000.
A fire attributed to electrical wiring was quickly extinguished at the high school, and new wiring was installed. A movie projector and filmstrip projector were added at the high school. A new bus was purchased for the South Sulphur route. A teachers' lounge was added at A. L. Day, and the first mention of a school nurse was in 1956.
Trigonometry, physics, Spanish and speech were course additions at the high school.
Other improvements authorized during Prewitt's tenure were a replacement for the 1939-vintage frame bus barn and band "shack," and further additions to A.L. Day. The first National Honor Society was approved for Commerce High School.
Prewitt resigned effective Oc. 31, 1958 to become assistant director of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. (He was later named director, a post he held at the time of his death in 1980.)
Marvin Kirkman, who had been elected high school principal in 1956, was named to succeed Prewitt. Commerce High School had its first student to be named a National Merit Scholar in 1959.
In the fall of 1959, six classrooms, a visual aids room, a library and a central kitchen for the school system were completed at A. L. Day. Improvements also included a covered ramp for the convenience of students who rode the buses.
Reflecting another change in society, the school board issued its first policies concerning married students, classifying them as "Special Students" with academic privileges only. There wre not allowed to attend social functions; and any student who became pregnant was required to leave school immediately.
The school board decreed that four years of English were mandatory, and journalism could no longer be substituted for senior English. The beginnings of a guidance program in 1959 was funded through the National Defense Education Act, and consisted of guidance by teachers during Home Room period. Each teacher was assigned 18 advisees.
U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson spoke at both CHS and Wheeler schools that year.
The 1959 Senior Class reversed a long-standing custom. Instead of climbing the city's water tower to add their name to those of other classes, the class raised the money to buy paint to refurbish the tower and presented a check to the mayor, Dr. L.H. Leberman.
In 1960, the school day was rearranged to include seven periods.
Kirkman resigned to accept another position in the summer of 1963.
Norris Tanton was elevated to superintendent in July 1963, after 13 years with the Commerce school system. His 27-year stint as head of the CISD was to cover a number of historic events, and he gained many physical improvements for the school.
Tanton, with the assistance of Norris Principal, A. C. Williams, displayed outstanding leadership during the turbulent sixties when drastic social changes were being made.
The Supreme Court had become involved in efforts to end segregation in all schools, and in 1964 Dr. James G. Gee, president of East Texas State Teachers College, said the college would admit blacks who would be required to enter with the same academic requirements as those for any college student.
Integration in the Commerce schools went into effect with only minor problems, while many others were experiencing great difficulties. In the fall of 1965, the top three grades at Norris were removed to Commerce High School, and the students in grades one through nine were given freedom of choice. The following year, full integration was achieved at the same time the Commerce schools absorbed the St. Paul School at Neylandville. Black students from Wolfe City who had been attending St. Paul were not eligible to transfer to Commerce.
The Norris building was then used to house the fifth grade for a year or two and for the sixth grade for several years. Wheeler was converted to a junior high school, with A. C. Williams as principal. (With completion of A. C. Williams Elementary campus in 1981, the Norris building was abandoned as a school and was sold to Mt. Moriah Baptist Church for $20,000.)
Soon after Tanton became superintendent, he initiated plans for a new high school building. After considering two tracts of land, including a site on Monroe Street just south of the ETSU South Dorms, the school board authorized purchase of a 48-acre tract on Culver Street, which was purchased from W.M. Bickley at a cost of $27,000.
The first effort at a bond election failed, but voters approved $1,358,000 for school improvements on March 15, 1966. In addition to a high school building, this money provided repairs at A.L. Day, Norris and Wheeler schools; and also for construction of bus barns on Culver Street, and a building for the superintendent's office and the school tax assessor-collector. The new high school was occupied in 1967, with formal dedication on June 30, 1968.
Another achievement during Tanton's tenure was creation of the Tri -County Cooperative which directs activities for special needs students in Hunt, Delta and Hopkins counties, and a building to house this division was built on the high school campus.
An athletic field and field house were installed just south of the high school building.
A number of administrative positions were added to the school staff during this period, including a curriculum director whose title was later changed to assistant superintendent, a guidance counselor, an athletic director, and assistant principals at both the high school and middle school levels.
In 1964, the tax rate was $1.45 per hundred dollar valuation, the school budget totaled $452,578. Transportation costs were slightly more than 5 cents per mile. It was during Tanton's tenure that tax equalization was attempted, and later equalization was mandated by the state. The school tax office was combined with the city tax office, and then all county taxing entities were combined into a central office at Greenville .
In 1969, dial telephones replaced the old system which involved the services of an operator in reaching a number. As a service to students who were returning to the campus by bus after schools hours, an outdoor pay telephone booth was constructed near the bus barn by the Agriculture III shop class "under the mercury vapor lights." Calling parents had been a problem for some students for years.
The Headstart program, initiated in the early 1960s to give the educationally deprived child a better chance to succeed in school, was the forerunner of the kindergarten program in Commerce schools. Later, kindergarten was offered at A. L. Day on a half-day basis, with classes in both morning and afternoon due to space limitations. Building additions allowed full-day classes in 1980. While kindergarten was not compulsory, most five-year- olds attended before entering first grade.
In addition to dealing with integration and vast building program. Tanton was faced with the "Hippie" and "Me" generations. The school board dealt with such problems as dress codes and length of hair, and resultant discussions of school jurisdiction over such matters. At one time, the length of the girl's dresses created a question of what was considered to be acceptable in terms of modest.
The Computer Age first reached Commerce schools when computers were utilized by the business in 1972. In 1978, computer math was added to the high school curriculum.
A change in the makeup of the school board and differences in academic philosophy led to Tanton's decision to retire. His replacement was Dr. Paul Willis who remained less than a year because the opportunity for the superintendent of a school near Austin, his home, became available.
The next superintendent, Lloyd Treadwell, came in 1981 from Salado . He was responsible for a number of curriculum changes, and he added a program for the gifted and talented students. A guidance counselor for the Middle School and A. C. Williams School and a public information coordinator were added to the administrative staff. Implementation of a volunteer assistance program, designed to involve parents and others in the community in the schools was initiated. Treadwell felt that one of the keys to a successful school is establishing good public relations. He felt some of the current problems in education and some of the criticism directed toward the school could be alleviated through public awareness and involvement.
During 1982-83, microcomputers were brought into the classroom, and the school had 20 of these in use.
The Wheeler building was sold and the site was cleared for commercial construction, leaving the school with four campuses: A. L. Day, kindergarten through second grade; A. C. Williams, grades three, four and five; Middle School, grades six, seven and eight; and High School , grades nine through 12.
Wanted: History buffs interested in contributing to the story of Commerce schools from 1984 to present. Contact Ludonna Smithers.