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School on a Hill: A children’s garden

Beloved kindergarten teacher Sylvia Yarger began her teaching career in Morris in the late 1950s. She is pictured here near her retirement from the district in 1987. 1 / 2
Superintendent Frank Fox lobbied to put a new wing on the school building in 1950. This addition included, among other features, new kindergarten classrooms. This photo is from the 1951 Iwakta, the high school yearbook. 2 / 2

MORRIS – When discussing significant advancements of education in Morris, the importance of kindergarten cannot be overlooked. Many developments in Morris schools flowed from an emphasis on early-childhood education and the need to continue modernizing and improving the school.

Sylvia Yarger is a retired kindergarten teacher who taught at Morris from 1956–1987. The Sun sat down with her to hear her memories of teaching kindergarten in those early years.

“Kindergarten was the best!” she exclaimed. “The other grades were good too, but I was real happy to teach kindergarten.”

Before coming to Morris, Yarger taught grades 1-7 at a rural school.

“In the one year I taught at rural school, I gained a lot of respect for those teachers,” she said. “I had to teach all the grades, and I was not really prepared for that. I didn’t go to rural school as a kid so it was different. I didn’t envy those teachers. I take my hat off to them because so many grades required a lot of preparation.”

After coming to Morris, kindergarten became her calling—one she followed for 30 years. Before she joined the staff, however, the story of kindergarten in larger society played out in the Morris school, leading to the establishment of a modern form of early-childhood education.

Kindergarten developed in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th century. Meaning in German “child’s garden,” kindergarten’s goal was to provide to young children socialization and basic concepts as preparation for the coming grades.

Between roughly 1946 and 1964, some 76 million American babies were born in the United States. In addition, by the early ‘60s, all schools were required to integrate country schools into single school districts. School integration and the influx of baby boomers inundated Morris school with students.

In response to the cramped quarters, the newly-appointed superintendent of Morris schools, Frank Fox, fought to pass a bond providing funds for a new wing. Fox served as superintendent of the district from 1947–1956.

Fox was the subject of the previous article in the “School on a Hill” series.

In April 1948, the school board passed a $300,000 bond to expand the overcrowded school. Voters approved the measure, 660 to 89, once again showing the tremendous community support for adequate school facilities in Morris.

The construction of the 1949-50 wing enabled the Morris public school to introduce full-term kindergarten and a hot lunch program.

“While dad was in charge, they added a couple additions to the building,” said Jo Solvie, class of 1954 graduate and daughter of Fox. “He worked with the bonds at the time it got overcrowded and kindergarten teachers were having class at the library or at churches. Of the new additions, dad was proudest of the state-of-the-art kindergarten rooms,” Solvie said.

Within ten years, the Morris school population had outgrown facilities once again. A second bond issue pursued by Fox added another wing in 1956. That addition updated and expanded the kindergarten rooms, adding bathrooms and more advanced play areas. Yarger began teaching in this updated addition during her second year at Morris.

“Mr. Fox hired me. I don’t know how he heard about me. He just came to me and asked if I was interested. The next year he left,” Yarger said. “When he told me I’d spend my first year teaching in a church, I felt worried. But then he said ‘oh, don’t worry, you can do it,’ and we were able to.

“There were only two of us. We had 30 kids in the morning and 30 in the afternoon. We didn’t have the things you have today for teaching, but I learned that you can teach in any kind of building not just a kindergarten classroom. We taught in a house and we taught in a church room and they did very well.”

Like many teachers, Yarger continued her education throughout her career to keep up on modern methods and developments in teaching. During her first year, Yarger taught on permission with the understanding that she’d take courses and become certified in kindergarten.

“I spent some time at Moorhead State taking kindergarten courses,” She said. “I would drive up after school to take night courses and then drive back. I also spent two summers on campus. I like going to school.”

By 1957, the updated kindergarten rooms had finally been completed. “The rooms were renovated for kindergarten!” Yarger exclaimed. “We had our own bathroom, a play house, toys the kids could push around the floor, and toys you could build with.”

Yarger said that kindergarten is important because it provides students with the opportunity to grow socially and learn to make friends. She said she always marveled at the progress her young students showed in the course of one year.

“You really see progress between the first day of school and the last day,” she said. “At first they wouldn’t accept everybody. Many kids had just their friends or were alone hiding in the corner. But by the end of the year they had more independence and liked everybody. Kids that young are honest. They accepted each other very well and were, as a rule, well-mannered to each other and to me. They were kind.”

Yarger commented that kindergarten changed a great deal from the time she started teaching in the late 50s to the time she retired in 1987.

“It really progressed by the time I resigned,” she said. “We started out with half-days with more play and colors and such. When I retired, we had full-day kindergarten and were teaching beginning reading and beginning math. I haven’t been back to a classroom since 1987, so I am sure it’s changed a lot now with new technology.”

Yarger says she misses the camaraderie of her colleagues and their efforts to support the students.

“The teachers got along, and kids accepted other teachers too.” Yarger said. “I was very fortunate to get good teaching partners every year. I always felt that way. I found it important to have kids and teachers and parents working together.”

Solvie said she’s watched the demolition of the Morris school from her kitchen window with mixed feelings.

“It made me sad to see my old classroom go down, where I taught for so many years. I liked the school and thought it was a very nice school to teach in.

“Looking back I miss the kids the most. You had different types of kids and you got to know them all. I also miss my fellowship with my colleagues, too. We still get together and have been friends for many years.”

More than half a century ago something as simple as kindergarten was a new and progressive concept. At first, kindergarten was squeezed into the corners. Over time, though, the value of kindergarten began to show and steps were taken to make it a central part of the public school experience.

Morris was no exception in this international movement, and again the synergy of hard-working and dedicated educators provided the foundation for the modern vision of kindergarten we enjoy today.