Indiana’s first public high school opened in 1853 in New Albany, Indiana. For the first time, teens in Indiana had access to free public education to advance their studies. Though the experiment was short-lived, it marked a milestone in the development of Indiana’s public education system.
Opened in downtown New Albany in October 1853, Scribner High School opened a world of opportunities to local teens. The school was named for the town’s founders, the Scribner Brothers. The free public high school was made possible by an 1852 Indiana law providing for the creation of free schools through a system of local taxation. Capitalizing on this new law, New Albany levied a tax on its residents to start the school.
New Albany might seem like an odd location for Indiana’s first public high school, but in the 1850s, it was the largest city in Indiana. The city boasted over 8,000 residents and was at the center of Indiana’s profitable steamboat operations. New Albany became a major shipping port for Indiana goods, which traveled to the state by steamboat. The goods were then dispersed throughout Indiana. After the 1850s, railroads supplanted steamboats as the preferred mode of transportation and delivery.
Unfortunately, the advent of a public high school was short-lived. Only a year later, in 1854, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that portions of the Indiana Free School Law were unconstitutional, including the tax levy. Left without a way to finance its free tuition, Scribner High School closed its doors.
Between 1854 and 1858, the Scribner High School building was used as a private high school. The school operated on an irregular schedule, holding classes whenever sufficient funds could be collected. During the Civil War years, from 1859 to 1864, no school sessions were held. The building was leased by the United States Government as an Army hospital for Union soldiers.
In 1865, Indiana’s free school law was rewritten to address the deficiencies of the original 1852 law. The revised legislation again included a provision for taxpayer funding. Scribner High School reopened in the fall of 1864, and in 1865 resumed operations as a free public school.
With the passage of Indiana’s revised education law, additional free public high schools began opening across the state. The second public high school to open in Indiana was Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. The school began operations in 1864, more than 10 years after Scribner High School first opened its doors.