Public education is the system in which states and localities own and operate schools. These schools are paid for at public expense and are open to all children in a school district or community. Each district is governed by an elected school board. The school board sets broad policies, appoints a superintendent and other administrators, and provides oversight. Milwaukee County has eighteen geographically-based school districts, Waukesha County has nineteen, Washington County has nine, and Ozaukee County has five.
Public education began in Wisconsin in 1845 when Kenosha (then called Southport) began offering a completely free school. Prior to that year, schools had been supported, at least partially, by tuition. An 1841 law provided for boards of school commissioners at the county and town levels. Counties were responsible for organizing schools until towns and later villages and cities could organize. There were so few schools in these early districts that individual teachers and principals reported directly to the school board. The office of town superintendent was not created by the state legislature until 1848, but it was often not filled until a school district had several schools.
Schools in the 1840s were, with few exceptions, one-room elementary schools that enrolled children from ages 5 to 18. The curriculum was limited to reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and arithmetic. School attendance was not compulsory. If a child started school as a teenager, he or she would learn the same lessons as a younger student who was also beginning school. There was no “graded” structure at that time and no public high schools existed until one was organized in Kenosha in 1849. According to an 1856 law, high schools were only allowed to operate if they did not negatively affect funding of elementary schools. Free public high schools were not funded by the state until 1875. The high school curriculum typically consisted of advanced versions of elementary school classes and specialized courses in biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography, and languages, especially German, Greek, and Latin. Vocational education became an option by 1900.
Most of Milwaukee County’s mid-nineteenth century schools were located in the City of Milwaukee and were subject to the authority of the Milwaukee school board, but rural children attended school too. Each town had its own board of school commissioners and superintendent until 1861, when they were replaced with a single county governance. The state legislature allowed each county to create two school districts, each with its own superintendent. The county-run districts did not include the schools in the City of Milwaukee. The Towns of Franklin, Greenfield, Lake, Oak Creek, and Wauwatosa constituted one district, and the Towns of Granville and Milwaukee constituted the other. Teachers tended to be male until the disruptions of the Civil War drew many into military service. The county consolidated the two school districts into one in 1883 and also opened two high schools—one in Wauwatosa and one in Bay View. The Village of Bay View was annexed by the City of Milwaukee in 1887and the school ceased to be a county responsibility. By 1906, there were eighty-one schools employing 152 teachers, 116 of whom were women. Two of the schools were high schools—one in Wauwatosa that had six teachers and 140 students, and one in South Milwaukee that had four teachers and seventy-eight students. As the City of Milwaukee expanded and as other cities and villages incorporated within the county, the rural county-run school districts became unnecessary, and the schools were transferred to these municipalities. The last county-run schools were absorbed into the City of Greenfield when it incorporated in 1957.
The new school districts did not always fit municipal boundaries. The Oak Creek-Franklin Joint District, for example, consists of the entire City of Oak Creek and some neighborhoods in the eastern part of the City of Franklin. The Whitnall School District encompasses all of the Village of Hales Corners, the northwest portion of Franklin, and part of western Greenfield. Therefore, Franklin children may attend Franklin, Oak Creek, or Whitnall schools, depending on where they live. Likewise, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District includes the entire City of West Allis, the Village of West Milwaukee, one neighborhood in Greenfield, and part of New Berlin in Waukesha County. Students in the Village of West Milwaukee and the eastern part of West Allis attend West Allis Central High School; all other students attend Nathan Hale High School or the district’s small alternative high school. West Milwaukee had its own high school from 1929 until 1992, when it closed due to declining enrollment. It reopened as a middle school for students in West Milwaukee and northeastern West Allis in 1996.
Milwaukee County has one “union high school.” A union high school district is one that receives students from several underlying districts. Nicolet Union High School receives students from the Fox Point-Bayside, Glendale-River Hills, and Maple Dale-Indian Hills Districts. Each of these smaller districts supports two schools for elementary and middle school students, and each has its own school board and administration. The Maple Dale-Indian Hills District includes parts of Bayside, Fox Point, Glendale, and River Hills. Nicolet and its feeder districts have some of the most affluent residents in the State of Wisconsin. As a result, Nicolet teachers have the best salaries in the state: $75,455 in 2014, which was almost $10,000 more than its closest competitor.
The other school districts in Milwaukee County follow municipal boundaries and usually include one high school, one middle school, and several elementary schools. Cudahy, Greendale, Greenfield, Shorewood, South Milwaukee, and Whitefish Bay follow that model. St. Francis tweaks the model a bit with only three schools—a primary school (kindergarten through grade 3), an intermediate school (grades 4-8), and a high school. Brown Deer operates just two schools—an elementary school and a combined middle and high school (grades 7-12).
Other than Milwaukee and West Allis-West Milwaukee, Wauwatosa is the only other school district in Milwaukee County to operate more than one high school. Wauwatosa built its first high school in 1871. As the community grew, larger buildings replaced the original high school until the present East High School opened in 1931. Its moniker was simply “Wauwatosa High School” until 1961, when West High School opened in what is now Whitman Middle School. Wauwatosa also operates one other middle school and nearly a dozen elementary schools.
Waukesha County’s first school opened in 1837, but it was not completely tax-supported. In 1850, a new school district was organized for the Village of Waukesha (the City of Waukesha after 1896), and the first truly public school in the county opened. The district rented space in what had been a private school until it purchased a former Episcopal church in 1851 and modified it for school use. Construction of a new building was completed in 1855. The building expanded over the years and became Waukesha High School in 1889. Elementary students meanwhile attended school at several locations. As in other parts of the state, students in rural parts of the county attended county-run schools beginning in 1861. A report from 1879 indicates that there were 118 schools in Waukesha County. They were primitive by modern standards. Seventy-seven of these schools were “properly ventilated,” ninety-three had “outhouses in good condition,” and forty-five schools were “well enclosed.”
A new high school opened near downtown Waukesha in 1919. A second building was added to the campus in 1927 for seventh and eighth grade students. A third building was constructed in 1937 and then razed in 1993. These three interconnected buildings served as the district’s only high school until the South Campus (now Waukesha South High School) opened in 1957 to accommodate the city’s growing population. The old building then became the Central Campus. Juniors and seniors attended classes at the South Campus while the Central Campus held grades 7-10. The Central Campus was also the site of the Waukesha Vocational School (now the Waukesha County Technical College) from 1920 until 1923. The district’s first middle school opened in 1966, Waukesha North High School opened in 1975, and Waukesha West High School opened in 1993. As populations changed and new schools opened, Central Campus became a middle school and was renamed Les Paul Middle School-Central Campus in 2014 in honor of its famous alumnus. The City of Waukesha had three high schools, three middle schools, thirteen elementary schools, an early childhood center, and six charter schools in 2016. One of the charter schools, the eAchieve Academy, is a completely online high school that enrolls students from all over Wisconsin.
The Villages of Oconomowoc and Pewaukee also operated their own schools in the late nineteenth century. Oconomowoc rented spaces for public schools in the 1840s and opened its own building in 1854. The village grew as roads were extended from Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Pewaukee. A new school that accommodated ten grades, including high school grades, opened in 1877. The school had one male principal teacher, five female assistant teachers, and a little more than three hundred students in 1879. Oconomowoc built a separate high school between 1922 and 1923. The building is no longer used as a school but is on the National Register of Historic Places. Pewaukee’s school moved out of its temporary quarters in 1848. It also operated a high school in the 1870s. The high school had one teacher and eighty-nine students, one of whom was older than age twenty. The average daily attendance was only thirty-three. Oconomowoc currently operates one high school, two middle schools, and five elementary schools, whereas Pewaukee has one high school, one middle school, and two elementary schools.
As Milwaukee residents migrated to the eastern Waukesha suburbs, new school districts were organized and the county district became unnecessary. The new district boundaries reflected settlement patterns which did not always correspond to municipal boundaries. Children in New Berlin, for example, may attend school in New Berlin, Brookfield, Muskego, or West Allis. This is because the New Berlin district did not exist until 1960. It was the result of a consolidation of nine elementary school districts. At the time, children in some neighborhoods already attended schools in adjacent communities and the district lines were drawn to reflect that fact. New Berlin operates two middle/high schools (grades 7-12) and four elementary schools. The Elmbrook school district serves students in the City and Town of Brookfield, the Village of Elm Grove, and a small portion of the City of New Berlin. It was created in 1964 when voters in Brookfield and Elm Grove approved a referendum that consolidated several elementary school districts and a jointly operated high school. The Elmbook district has two high schools, two middle schools, five elementary schools, and one school for students with special needs. Finally, the Muskego-Norway district operates Muskego High School, two middle schools, and five elementary schools.
The School District of Menomonee Falls and the Hamilton School District also do not correspond to municipal boundaries. Most Menomonee Falls students attend school in Menomonee Falls but a few go to school in the Hamilton District. Hamilton also serves the communities of Butler, Lannon, Sussex, and portions of Pewaukee and Lisbon. It was created in 1959 as a union high school among several different communities. The underlying districts eventually merged with the high school district. It is named after Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton operates a high school, a middle school, four elementary schools, and a separate four-year-old kindergarten.
Like Milwaukee County, Waukesha has a union school district. Arrowhead Union High School receives students from the Hartland-Lakeside J3, Lake Country, Merton Community, North Lake, Richmond, Stone Bank, and Swallow districts, each of which runs its own schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. The high school is divided into a north campus for freshmen and sophomores and a south campus for juniors and seniors. The two campuses sit on 117 acres of land.
Finally, there are three other districts in Waukesha County. The Mukwonago Area School District was created in 1971, when the Vernon and Mukwonago school districts merged. It currently has one high school, one middle school, and six elementary schools. The Norris School District, which is also in Mukwonago but operates independently, has one middle/high school for young men in need of alcohol, drug, mental health, and behavior treatment programs. Lastly, the Kettle Moraine School District covers ninety square miles of western Waukesha and includes City of Delafield, the Villages of Dousman, North Prairie, Summit, and Wales, and the Towns of Delafield, Eagle, Genesee, Ottawa, and Sullivan (which is in Jefferson County). The district has five elementary schools, one middle school, four high schools in one building, one alternative school, and one community center. The high school was built in 1965. Three of the schools inside it are charter schools.
Washington County became responsible for rural schools after state law changed in 1861. The county employed 143 teachers, seventy-six of whom were women, in 1880. Most of those teachers worked in one-room schoolhouses, but there were also four high schools in Farmington, Hartford, Kewaskum, and Schleisingerville (now Slinger) at that time. The Village of West Bend also ran its own high school that was not part of the county school system.
The West Bend School District is the most populous district in Washington County and includes the City of West Bend, the Villages of Jackson and Newburg, and some of the surrounding towns. The district has five elementary schools, one intermediate school (grades 5 and 6), one middle school (grades 7 and 8), a charter high school, and two regular high schools in one building. East and West High Schools opened in 1970, replacing an older single-high school facility. The schools share a single administration and fine arts and physical education facilities, but they have separate athletic teams when possible. Some elective classes are also shared between the two schools. If the two high schools merge in the future, they would become the largest high school in Wisconsin.
Like Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties, Washington County has a union high school. Hartford Union High School has seven underlying districts. The first schools were opened in Hartford in the 1840s. These early schools had elementary and high school grades under one roof. A separate high school was not built until 1914. The underlying districts unified with Hartford between 1949 and 1954 so that they might share school costs. The Erin, Friess Lake, Hartford J1, and Richfield J1 districts are in Washington County, but the Herman #22, Neosho J3, and Rubicon J6 districts are in Dodge County. The City of Hartford straddles the two counties, and the high school has a population of both suburban and rural students. The present building was constructed in 1958 on fifty-five acres of land. It underwent a major renovation in 1997 that included a new field house, remodeled music rooms, ten more classrooms, and a redesigned school entrance. Later renovations included upgrades to athletic fields and an expanded technology education department.
There are three other school districts in Washington County—Germantown, Kewaskum, and Slinger. Each district serves its village and the surrounding towns, and each district has a high school, a middle school, and three or four elementary schools. Slinger opened its first public school inside in 1854, and as in many other communities, the school existed in temporary quarters, including a church and Slinger City Hall for several years. Slinger built its first high school in 1910, which eliminated the need to send students to Hartford. The original high school was replaced with a new building in 1964 and has expanded over the years.
The Ozaukee County school system was organized in 1862. The Village of Port Washington, which was the county seat, also had its own schools in 1880. There were no county or village-run high schools at that time.
The Mequon-Thiensville district is the largest school district in Ozaukee County. At one time, the Town of Mequon and the Village of Thiensville had fourteen independent school districts. The districts combined over the years until there were three districts in the 1950s and one district in 1972. For most of their history, the two communities had no high school. Students who desired a high school diploma had to obtain it from Cedarburg, Nicolet, or Shorewood until Homestead High School opened in 1959. The school expanded a number of times, adding additional academic wings, a new library, a lecture hall, an administrative wing, a new music department, an auditorium, a swimming pool, and a field house. The field house opened in 2000. The district also has two middle schools, three elementary schools, and an early-childhood center.
There are four other school districts in Ozaukee County. Cedarburg, Grafton, and Port Washington-Saukville each have a high school, a middle school, and three elementary schools. Cedarburg also has an early-childhood center. The Northern Ozaukee school district covers the rural northern end of the county and has one building that houses all grade levels.
The Milwaukee metropolitan area is known to be one of the most racially segregated areas in the United States. In 1976, the State of Wisconsin created the Chapter 220 program to encourage voluntary integration by busing students into and out of the City of Milwaukee. The program did attract some African American students to the suburbs but brought few white students into Milwaukee. In 1984, the Milwaukee school board voted to seek legal action against twenty-four suburban districts to force them into six new districts, each of which would contain a piece of the city and would be racially balanced. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.
In 1997, the state passed Act 27, more commonly known as the “open enrollment law,” which allows students to attend school in any district in Wisconsin as long as the district is willing to take them. Many suburban districts have used this law to take Milwaukee students and the additional per-pupil state funding they bring. In the 2011-12 school year, about 6,700 Milwaukee students used the law to leave Milwaukee Public Schools. Sixty-six percent of the students were white. All the suburban districts are majority white except Brown Deer.
- ^ Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “School District Directory,” https://apps4.dpi.wi.gov/ SchoolDirectory/Search/PublicDistrictsSearch last accessed August 13, 2016, now available at https://apps4.dpi.wi.gov/SchoolDirectory/Search/PublicDistrictsSearch, last accessed July 18, 2017. This entry was first posted on September 8, 2018 and corrected on May 24, 2019.
- ^ Lloyd P. Jorgenson, The Founding of Public Education in Wisconsin (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1956), 6-7; Conrad E. Patzer, Public Education in Wisconsin (Madison, WI: The State Superintendent, 1924), 9; J.W. Stearns, “General Sketch of Educational History,” in The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin, ed. J.W. Stearns (Milwaukee: Evening Wisconsin Company, 1893), 13-16.
- ^ Patrick Donnelly, “The Milwaukee Public Schools,” in The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin, ed. J.W. Stearns (Milwaukee: Evening Wisconsin Company, 1893), 436-443; Jorgenson, The Founding of Public Education in Wisconsin, 46-47, 95-96, 104, 178-179; Patzer, Public Education in Wisconsin, 45-46, 51-53, 434.
- ^ Patzer, Public Education in Wisconsin, 79-90.
- ^ Jerome A. Watrous, Memoirs of Milwaukee County (Madison, WI: Western Historical Association, 1909), 420-423.
- ^ Wisconsin Historical Society, Property record of 3550 S. 51st St., Architecture and History Inventory, last accessed August 13, 2016.
- ^ Paul Gores, “Official Says School Closing ‘Inevitable’,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 7, 1996, Neighbors-Southwest, 3; Oak Creek-Franklin School District, “About Us,” last accessed August 13, 2016; Dan Parks, “West Milwaukee High School May Close,” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 8, 1991, part 1, p. 8; Betsy Thatcher, “1,300 Say Goodbye to West Milwaukee High,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 18, 1992, 4A; West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, “School Attendance Areas,” http://www.wawm.k12.wi.us/ district/district_information/school_attendance_areas, last accessed August 13, 2016, now available at http://www.wawm.k12.wi.us/cms/one.aspx?portalId=1212733&pageId=5702034, last accessed July 18, 2017; Whitnall School District, “About Whitnall,” http://www.whitnall.com/apps/pages/ index.jsp?uREC_ID=171547&type=d, last accessed August 13, 2016, now available at http://www.whitnall.com/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=171547&type=d, last accessed July 18, 2017.
- ^ Fox Point-Bayside School District, “About Our District,” last accessed August 13, 2016; Glendale-River Hills School District, last accessed August 13, 2016; Maple Dale-Indian Hills School District, “About the District,” http://www.mapledale.k12.wi.us/ pages/DistrictHome/District_Information/About_the_District, last accessed August 13, 2016, now available at http://www.mapledale.k12.wi.us/about-us, last accessed July 18, 2017; and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “Wisconsin Union High School (UHS) System,” http://dpi.wi.gov/sfs/statistical/ basic-facts/uhs-system, last accessed August 13, 2016, now available at https://dpi.wi.gov/sfs/statistical/basic-facts/uhs-system, last accessed July 18, 2017.
- ^ Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “School Staff: Salary, Position & Demographic Reports,” last accessed August 14, 2016.
- ^ The Greendale School District, “Greendale Schools,” last accessed August 14, 2016; St. Francis School District, “Schools Home,” last accessed August 14, 2016; School District of Brown Deer, “Schools Home,” http://www.browndeerschools.org/ schools, last accessed August 14, 2016, now available at http://www.browndeerschools.org/, last accessed July 18, 2017; School District of Cudahy, “Schools Home,” http://www.cudahy.k12.wi.us/ schools, last accessed August 14, 2016, now available at http://www.cudahy.k12.wi.us/, last accessed July 18, 2017; School District of Greenfield, last accessed August 16, 2016; School District of South Milwaukee, “Schools Home,” http://www.sdsm.k12.wi.us/ schools/index.cfm, last accessed August 14, 2016, now available at http://www.sdsm.k12.wi.us/, last accessed July 18, 2017; School District of Whitefish Bay, “Our Schools,” last accessed August 14, 2016; and Shorewood School District, “Our Schools,” last accessed August 14, 2016.
- ^ Wauwatosa Historical Society, Wauwatosa (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 61-62, 65, 68.
- ^ Theron W. Haight, “Waukesha Public School History,” in The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin, ed. J.W. Stearns (Milwaukee: The Evening Wisconsin Company, 1893), 547-553.
- ^ The History of Waukesha County (Chicago, IL: Western Historical Company, 1881), 450-454.
- ^ Les Paul Middle School, last accessed August 13, 2016; Obituary of Francis J. Vaughan, Waukesha Freeman, November 8, 2005; School District of Waukesha, “Our Schools Are Great Schools,” http://www.waukesha.k12.wi.us/Schools.aspx, last accessed August 18, 2016, now available at https://sdw.waukesha.k12.wi.us/, last accessed July 18, 2017; and Waukesha County Technical College, “WCTC Celebrates 90-Year Anniversary,” last accessed August 13, 2016.
- ^ “Academic Excellence…A Timeless Tradition: Pewaukee Public Schools since 1840,” (Pewaukee: Pewaukee School District, n.d.); The History of Waukesha County, 453, 702-705, 782; Oconomowoc Area School District, “Schools,” last accessed August 18, 2016; “Oconomowoc High School Placed on Historic Register,” Oconomowoc NOW, August 21, 2013; and Pewaukee School District, last accessed August 18, 2016.
- ^ School District of New Berlin website, last accessed May 24, 2019; Dave Fidlin, “Elmbrook School District Celebrates Its First 50 Years,” Brookfield NOW, August 25, 2014; Muskego-Norway School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; School District of Elmbrook, “Schools,” last accessed August 16, 2016; School District of New Berlin, “A Look at Our Past,” last accessed August 16, 2016.
- ^ Hamilton School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; School District of Menomonee Falls, last accessed August 18, 2016; and Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, last accessed August 16, 2016.
- ^ Arrowhead Union High School, “The Office of the Superintendent,” http://www.arrowheadschools.org/about/ superintendent.cfm, last accessed August 16, 2016, information now available at http://www.arrowheadschools.org/about/facilities.cfm, last accessed July 18, 2017; Hartland Lakeside School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; Lake Country School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; Merton Community School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; Norris Adolescent Center, last accessed September 24, 2016; North Lake School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; Richmond School, last accessed August 16, 2016; Stone Bank School, last accessed August 16, 2016; Swallow School District, last accessed August 16, 2016; Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “School District Directory.”
- ^ Kettle Moraine School District, last accessed August 18, 2016; Mukwonago Area School District, “History,” last accessed August 18, 2016.
- ^ The History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties (Chicago, IL: Western Historical Company, 1881), 377, 405, 440.
- ^ Kelly Meyerhofer, “West Bend Board to Decide Whether to Keep 2 High Schools in 1 Building,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 3, 2014; West Bend School District, “School List,” last accessed August 15, 2016.
- ^ Erin School District, http://www2.erinschool.org, last accessed August 14, 2016, information now available at http://www.erinschool.org/, last accessed July 18, 2017; Friess Lake School District, last accessed August 14, 2016; Hartford Union High School District, “The History of Hartford Union High School,” last accessed August 15, 2016; Richfield School District, last accessed August 14, 2016; School District of Hartford, http://www.hartfordjt1.k12.wi.us, last accessed August 14, 2016, now available at https://www.hartfordjt1.k12.wi.us/, last accessed July 18, 2017; and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “School District Directory.”
- ^ Germantown School District, “Schools Home,” last accessed August 15, 2016; Kewaskum School District, last accessed August 15, 2016; Slinger Centennial Committee, “School Days,” in Schleisingerville to Slinger, 1869-1969: Historical Album and Centennial Program Book (Slinger, WI: Centennial Committee, 1969); Slinger School District, last accessed August 16, 2016.
- ^ The History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, 489, 507, and 516.
- ^ Bob Blazich, “The Thiensville-Mequon Colts…Almost,” Mequon-Thiensville Historic Times 17, no. 2: 1, 7; Mequon-Thiensville School District, “About Our Schools,” last accessed August 14, 2016.
- ^ Cedarburg School District, “Schools,” last accessed August 14, 2016; Grafton School District, “Schools,” http://www.grafton.k12.wi.us/cms/ One.aspx?portalId=1067477&pageId=1067503, last accessed August 14, 2016, now available at http://www.grafton.k12.wi.us/, last accessed July 18, 2017; Northern Ozaukee School District, “Schools,” last accessed August 14, 2016; and Port Washington-Saukville District Schools, “Our Schools,” http://www.pwssd.k12.wi.us/education/components/ sectionlist/default.php?sectiondetailid=5, last accessed August 14, 2016, now available at https://www.pwssd.k12.wi.us/999, last accessed July 18, 2017.
- ^ James K. Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee: How One City’s History of Segregation and Struggle Shaped Its Schools (Madison WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015), 85-87.
- ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 156-157.
- ^ Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “WISEdash,” last accessed August 18, 2016.
For Further Reading
Jorgenson, Lloyd P. The Founding of Public Education in Wisconsin. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1956.
Patzer, Conrad E. Public Education in Wisconsin. Madison, WI: The State Superintendent, 1924.
Stearns, J.W., ed. The Columbian History of Education in Wisconsin. Milwaukee: Evening Wisconsin Company, 1893.