OLDEST SCHOOL: Rightsell in Little Rock.

Do 21st century Arkansas kids still attend classes in 19th century school buildings?
A recently completed survey of Arkansas’s school facilities says the answer is yes, but it appears that the number of children that do is very small. Still, the same report lists dozens of nearly-as-old school buildings throughout the state, including a number of pre-war — as in pre-WWI — schools right here in the Little Rock School District.
For educators attempting to teach in these historic piles, the school day can be challenging for more than academic reasons.
The report, compiled for the legislature’s Joint Committee on Educational Facilities, is a comprehensive audit of the state’s 6,569 school buildings, with information on condition, age and cost of continuing maintenance. While more than 5,800 of those buildings were built after 1950, structures dating from far before WWII are scattered on school campuses all across Arkansas.
The report lists seven buildings built in 1900 or earlier (though only one of these, a 1900 band and music room on the campus of the Lead Hill High School, is apparently still used for classroom space), and another 54 constructed prior to 1920. At least 15 among that number are still used for classroom space.
Richard Shelby is the deputy superintendent of Paragould School District. In addition to riding herd on the district’s grounds and transportation, Shelby’s duties include overseeing maintenance on Paragould’s school buildings, which include a few WPA-era structures and Woodrow Wilson Elementary, built in 1911 as a high school building and still used as classroom space for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Keeping the older buildings up and running is a daily challenge for maintenance. In the last two or three years, Shelby said, his district has spent close to $12 million on renovations to Wilson and other buildings in the district. In addition to many of the older buildings being not very energy efficient, with high ceilings and some drafty windows, Shelby said a few of the schools outside the Paragould city limits have heating systems fueled by propane, which costs more than natural gas.
It’s a set of problems that are well known to Riverside School District superintendent Larry Nowlin. Though Riverside’s 1919 main building was renovated extensively in the late 1940s, he still deals with the hassles of maintaining the school’s flat roofs and single-pane windows. Many of his headaches in recent years have centered on how to put 21st century technology into a building that was wired for a simpler era.
“The need in 1970 wasn’t as great for outlets as it is now. We used the chalkboards,” Nowlin said. “We didn’t have the computers and the smartboards, and all the different things to use. It wasn’t that big a deal. Nowadays there’s so much that you need up-to-date electrical.” Such problems were even worse, Nowlin said, during his 19-year tenure as coach and then principal of Earle School District. Their World War I-era main building, Nowlin said, was heated by steam radiators, and most of the classrooms lacked air conditioning as late as his departure in 1989. At Earle, as with many of the older buildings in the state, Nowlin said it was all but impossible to add things like modern ductwork.
“The floors were solid concrete,” Nowlin said. “The building was sturdy, probably a lot more sturdy than what they build now. Concrete slab floors and things like that. The problem was there wasn’t any initial infrastructure for [modern conveniences]. It’s hard to retrofit that kind of thing.”
The Little Rock School District has some of the oldest school buildings in the state, with an average age that approaches 50 years old. Rightsell Elementary, built in 1906, is the oldest operating elementary school in the state.
The principal of Rightsell, Eunice Thrasher, said the district has done a good job of keeping up the school, adding that teaching in a building that old has both its benefits and its challenges. Though Thrasher looks forward to getting rid of the school’s antiquated heating and cooling systems when Rightsell comes up for renovations next year, she said that teachers enjoy the space it provides. “Many of the teachers here love the large classrooms,” Thrasher said. “In the new structures, the classrooms aren’t as large, and we have lots of windows and lots of light.”
Close behind Rightsell, though currently in limbo while the Little Rock School Board figures out how much money it wants to spend on it, is Mitchell Elementary, built in 1908. With Mitchell’s students currently bused across town to attend classes at Badgett Elementary near the airport, the board recently allocated $2.2 million to fix problems like mold, water damage, and cracking plaster. District spokesperson Sue Ellen Vann said estimates show that it will take another $1 million on top of that to get students back in the classroom.
“That’s a decision point,” Vann said. “That information has just been shared with the board, and they have to make a decision. Are they willing to put more than $3 million into that building and still not have an adequate building for today’s needs? Is there a better way to make use of those funds?” Even after the renovation, she noted, “You’ve still got an old building,” Vann said. “You’ve made a three-million-dollar-plus patch, compared to using this fund in some other way that will benefit us better in the long term.”