EDITORIAL — Schools have always provided opportunity

Published 12:07 am Friday, August 16, 2019

The crush of students into Port Arthur Independent School District campuses this week is both joyful and encouraging. Enthusiastic teachers and administrators welcomed young people who are being given every chance to succeed in their education.

It will be much the same elsewhere — Sabine Pass ISD, Nederland ISD, Port Neches Groves ISD — as well as in private and charter schools, where community leaders and many parents are trying their best to give their children every advantage.

It has long been that way in Port Arthur, where the school system is marking 120 years in existence.

William McKissick Timmerman Jr.’s “Early History of Port Arthur, Texas,” suggests as much. In its chapter, “The Schools,” it touches upon those initial years when the fledgling town sought in its first year to provide schooling to its children.

The first, private school was located at the lower end of Houston Avenue the year before Port Arthur became a city. On March 28, 1897, using lumber donated by E.A. Laughlin, carpenters under the direction of Peter Stock commenced on the school’s construction, erecting a frame by midmorning and completing the building by dark, The Port Arthur Evening News reported.

Within three months, a school district was approved in the community of about 100 people and the local Port Arthur Herald newspaper reflected what they saw as community pride:

“Few new towns can show such a record as this and it speaks volumes for the character of the immigration that is building up Port Arthur,” the newspaper wrote.

An influx of population brought yet more students and by October 1898, the system — now 120 years old — had 120 students.

On May 18, 1899, Timmerman wrote, the Texas Legislature made Port Arthur’s school system an independent one. On Sept. 16, Timmerman wrote in his book, “The school system was an established fact.”

It’s important to note that the early years were not easy. The system was racially segregated — black students attended school first at Israel Chapel Methodist Church — and white students, ostensibly more advantaged, attended schools that were so porous they closed during rainy weather and operated on a “two-platoon” system.

Two legendary educators — Superintendent George Sims and William Ellis Sampson, principal of the Port Arthur Colored School — each served for more than 30 years in the first half of the 20th century, dedicated to serving the students in their care. They should not be forgotten this year.

Nor should this be forgotten, as the system’s history is recollected this year: Port Arthur people have always put their faith and good intentions into providing young people with the best education possible. The enthusiasm experienced this week in the public school is likely no greater than that held by students who crowded into the first schoolhouse in 1897.