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Centre College AcademyCentre College Academy

The minutes of July 2, 1918 for the Executive Committee of Centre's Board of Trustees state: "Owing to the election of Professor Bosley as Superintendent of the Graded Schools of the City of Danville, and his resignation as the Principal of the Academy of Centre College, on motion it was decided to discontinue the Academy." Today, few remember that such an academy ever existed, but in fact, Centre ran a preparatory school for nearly 100 years. With the exception of some catalogues in the college archives, few traces remain of the Centre College Academy, and even its location is unknown to most. In 1820 when the College began classes and Old Centre was opened, it also housed a grammar school which the College soon took over. In 1831 the Board of Trustees recommended moving the prep department out of Old Centre suggesting the old church or any of the dormitories, but it is not clear where classes were held. However, we do know that by 1851 the school had been moved to the old Blackburn house. Beginning in 1868 and for its last 52 years the school was housed in its own building which was erected at the corner of Walnut Street and College Street. In 1916 this site was sold to the Danville Board of Education, and the academy classes moved to Breckinridge Hall. The old academy building was razed , and in its place, Danville constructed its first high school building. To complete the cycle, Centre reacquired this site from the Danville Board of Education in 1961 as part of the KCW swap and later razed the high school building in order to build the Regional Arts Center.

From its very beginning, the history of Centre College was intertwined with that of the preparatory school. At this time there was no real system of education in the U.S. where one went from elementary school to secondary school to college. Lines between grammar schools, academies, colleges, and universities were all blurred. Particularly in Kentucky there was little public schooling offered, and what public schooling there was usually concentrated on the three R's with some attention given to common schools (usually this meant through grade 8). It was vital for colleges to have reliable sources for students, and although there were a number of excellent tutors, private schools and academies in Kentucky, Centre college determined in its earliest days that it needed its own preparatory school - a common practice for colleges at the time. In such a school, students could be educated in the precise classical curriculum including the preferred Latin and Greek books that were required for admission to Centre. In these days before the SAT and ACT exams, it was normal for each college to devise its own unique entrance exam, and unless a college had a close relationship with a particular teacher or school, it was normal for students to have to pass this examination before they could be admitted. So it is not at all surprising that Centre College allowed a grammar school to occupy space in its first building - Old Centre - and then quickly took over the management of the grammar school and incorporated it as an integral part of the College.

The school went under various names: grammar school, preparatory department or school, classical school, the Centre College Academy. The curriculum was altered from time to time, the functions of the school was added to, the number of years offered was changed, but no matter what the name or organization, the school persisted. Usually all of the teachers at Prep were Centre men - Normally there was a rather permanent principal assisted by two Centre upperclassmen or recent graduates who would stay for a year or two. Many of these teachers went on to have outstanding careers including John J. Bullock, Kentucky's first superintendent of public instruction; Fred Vincent, a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Richard Dunlap, one of Centre's first Rhodes scholars.

Especially in its early days, there were a great many students who came to Centre who were not ready for college work. There seemed to be two options for such students. A number of students were classified as irregulars, these were young men who were not interested in the regular classical curriculum or, more likely, were not ready for it. Some of the less-than-fully-prepared students were sent to the preparatory department to bring them up to full admissions standards. Later a separate status was established for these students - the Sub-Freshman class - to distinguish them from the younger boys who were embarked on the normal grammar school course. For the purposes of this paper the sub-freshmen will be considered as part of the academy. So the academy had both a preparation and a remedial function. The graduates of the Centre Academy were a prime source of students for the College and at times the academy had more students than the College proper.

Another theme relating to the Centre College Academy from its earliest days was an uneasiness about its status. Did it really belong as a part of Centre College? This uncertainty about the status and desirability of a secondary school at Centre was expressed as early as 1822 when it was decided that the grammar school would not be under the trustees. Throughout its 98 year existence this uncertainty about the preparatory school surfaced time and again, but in one form or another, the school survived.

Prep was described in an interview with Julian Gentry, who lived in Danville and was graduated from Prep in 1915 and from Centre in 1919. Gentry recalled the rather spartan conditions at the two story Prep building that contained no indoor plumbing. The principal taught in the large room on the second floor while the two assistants usually occupied rooms on the ground floor. Prep was virtually a projection of the principal, and Gentry's principal was Leslie Bosley ('91) who has been described in McDowell's book "Iron Baby Angel". McDowell and Gentry both describe him as a disciplinarian who was not wont to use the razor strap: "Yes, he worked us over thoroughly but we loved the man; we would have followed him into the jaws of hell. But that was school in those days, nowadays if you tried to discipline anybody you go to jail". But these were not perceived as harsh times by Gentry. One of the assistants during his time was Herbert (Pitt) Green whom he remembered as the first carnival king and a wonderful athlete. "He loved to chew tobacco, and we had these big old drum stoves and they would heat and also serve as a spittoon. So trying to stay on the good side of Pitt, we bought chewing tobacco from him and I think all the rest of us took it up too. Well, looking back on it from the standpoint of these days, you know, it was a wonderful experience. It may have been the happiest times I will ever know".

There seem to be certain themes that run throughout the century that Centre had a preparatory school:

  1. The school was to be run as cheaply as possible and with no cost to the College if at all possible.
  2. The faculty and/or the Board of Trustees wanted to retain ultimate control of the school no matter what its relationship to the College.
  3. There were numerous attempts to alter the school and make it more attractive to its perspective clients.
  4. The academy was usually in competition with other schools in the area, and although its draw was national, even international on occasion, the bulk of its students came from Boyle County.
  5. The normal state of affairs was to staff the school with a principal and one (and occasionally two) assistants who invariably were recent graduates (or advanced students) of Centre and stayed in the position for a year or sometimes two before moving on.
  6. A great deal depended upon personalities - the personalities of the teachers of the prep, of the faculty, of the president, and the Board of Trustees.
  7. There was a good deal of stability in the school emanating from the principal. Note the longevity of the following men who served as principals:
    • Graham 1835-1848 (13 years)
    • DeSoto 1847-1854 (7 years)
    • Ralston 1863-1877 (14 years)
    • Walton 1877-1894 (17 years)
    • Bosley 1895-1918 (23 years)

While Prep was quite useful to Centre, it tended to impede the growth of the public schools in Danville. Danville has always been known as an education town, but the schools in Danville tended to be private ones, and even by Kentucky standards Danville was rather late in developing a public school system. It was 1910 before there was a small high school department opened for county and city students; 1911 before Danville voted for a separate, independent graded school district; and 1918 before Danville High School opened in its own building. Prep was part of the reason for this delay. In the period from 1875-1890 nearly 90% of the students in Prep proper were from Danville and Boyle County. Not all boys who attended Prep went on to Centre, but if you lived in Danville and wanted a secondary education or also wanted to attend Centre or some other college, you most likely went to Prep and not to the public schools. According to Gentry, attending the public schools was not a real option in his day. Public schools were seen as a step down, and one went there as a last resort if money could not be raised to go to a private school. Because Prep and the preparatory department of Caldwell College were available, public education did not prosper in Danville.

But even though Centre and Prep were largely responsible for stifling the growth of public education in Danville, they did aid in the growth of the other schools both directly and indirectly. There was a long history of Centre men teaching after they left Centre. Many men who taught at Prep became key teachers in Danville. In 1856 a private institution called Danville High School was established by Heman H. Allen (class of '55 ) and another man - Allen had taught at Prep. In 1877 Ralston ('64 ) left Prep and became the principal of the Danville English and Classical School with Frank J. Cheek ( '76 ) being the other chief teacher. In 1889 the Hogsett Academy was established in Danville by John J. Hogsett ( '72 ) with his brother Samuel ( '86 ) also on the faculty. W. C. Grinstead, who taught for 5 years at Prep and was the first principal of the "new" Broadway School which was built in 1891, is credited by some as the originator of the Danville public school system. The Prep building was sold to the Danville School System in 1916, and in 1918 when Leslie Bosley ('91 ) resigned as the principal of Prep to become the new Danville superintendent of schools, Centre ceased the operation of Prep. Bosley brought Herbert ( Pitt ) Green (1904) with him, with Green becoming principal of the new high school to replace Robert Tate (1912).

Though Prep began as an institution to prepare students for Centre, and it was fortunate to have a series of principals who were outstanding teachers and had long stays in office thus giving it stability and continuity, Prep's status, function, and curriculum were anything but static. At times there was some tinkering with the classical curriculum in order to broaden the school's appeal. Occasionally Centre professors taught Prep students but usually they did not. At times Prep was almost totally independent of the College, but the Centre's trustees and faculty always exercised control, and several times they examined schemes to change the school. Around 1855 they tried to have it run as an entirely separate institution. In 1877 Centre tried to merge Prep with the Danville Classical and Military Academy; in 1878 the trustees of the Danville schools inquired about establishing a graded school in connection with Prep and the Centre faculty approved the idea; in 1899 Centre looked into merging Prep with the Hogsett Academy. While there is no information available on why these changes did not occur, we know that Prep endured in its traditional ways.

The trend nationally was clearly toward the replacement of private high schools with public ones, and this seemed inevitable in Danville too since the private schools were going out of business one by one. But in the 1890's there were some grand plans made for Prep. In the East a number of important boarding prep schools were being founded at the very time that public schools were gaining general acceptance - schools such as Lawrenceville (1883), Groton (1884), Taft (1890), Hotchkiss (1891), and Choate (1896). In its plans explicit references were made to the prep school at Lawrenceville, and it was intended that new buildings would be constructed and a new curriculum introduced to transform Prep into a national model of a large boarding and training school. But the economic depression of that era and the failure of a large unnamed donor along with the death of President William C. Young who was a Prep graduate ended the plans for a boarding academy along eastern lines. Even if this transformation had been accomplished it is unlikely that the new Prep would have hindered the growth of the public schools in Danville. The new Prep would have gone well beyond Danville and sought to serve a much wider student body.

The final demise of Prep was probably sealed with the strategy adopted by Frederick Hinitt, president of Centre College during the crucial 1904-1914 period. Hinitt decided that Centre should raise its admission requirements from 9 units of course work to 14, effective in the Fall of 1906, and was recognized by the Carnegie Fund as only the second institution in the South to demand such high standards. To successfully implement this new policy and secure sufficient qualified students, Hinitt believed that the number of public high schools in Kentucky had to be increased and greatly improved. More and better high schools would eventually mean more and better feeders for higher education. He worked diligently for public high schools, and in 1908 came one of his notable successes when he helped get the Sullivan Bill passed. This bill required the building of a high school in every county in Kentucky by 1910, and Hinitt was fond of pointing out that Kentucky went from having about 8 fully accredited four-year high schools whose graduates could meet Centre's entrance requirements in 1907 to 84 such schools in 1912. Another of Hinitt's key decisions was that Centre would concentrate only on collegiate education, since distinctions between secondary and collegiate education and between collegiate and university education was now much clearer than in the 19th century. In 1901 Central University in Richmond consolidated with Centre College to form the new Central University of Kentucky, complete with undergraduate college, dental school, law school, medical school, theological seminary, as well as private secondary schools in Elizabethtown, Jackson, and the Prep in Danville. Gradually all of the other parts of the university were dropped, until only the undergraduate college and Prep remained. In 1918 the name of the institution was changed from Central University of Kentucky to Centre College of Kentucky. At the same time the Board of Trustees voted to end Prep after 98 years of service.

Source: Nystrom, Bradley. "The Centre College Academy" (unpublished manuscript)

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