The Milford Museum’s new exhibit, ‘When the School Bell Rings’, tells the history of the Milford School District. Open to the public Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 3:30pm and Sunday 1 to 3:30pm, the exhibit portrays the long and complex record of education in Milford. There have been schools for the youngest scholars just learning the alphabet and for ambitious young men hoping to enter college, there have been schools for white children and schools for black children, there have been both private and public schools and there have been schools on both sides of the Mispillion River.
“There is so much discussion right now about the Milford school system in respect to the demolition of the Middle School and the construction of a new building,” commented Claudia Leister, Executive Director of the Milford Museum. “The exhibit will show people that the educational system in Milford has always been a complex system.”
Education in the earliest days was for the privileged few. Early schools were usually conducted in the home led by a maiden lady or widow who would teach the basics. Milford’s earliest known school was organized in 1777 by the Rev. Alex Huston, pastor of the Three Runs Presbyterian Meeting House on King’s Highway. He conducted a “Select School”. Teaching was a normal way for ministers to increase their salary. It was not until 1796 that the Delaware Constitution made a provision “for establishing schools and promoting the arts and sciences.” Funds received from marriage and tavern licenses were applied to a fund for public schools by 1820.
Milford’s most famous private school was The Academy operating from 1803 to 1846. The local Masonic Lodge constructed a brick building to house their meeting site and a school. Many of the State’s prominent leaders including John M. Clayton, George Fisher, and John Lofland received their early education here. In 1846, the private Academy and the public school in North Milford consolidated. At the same time a free school opened on Washington Street in South Milford, while another free school at the point of North and Church Streets served Kent County Milfordians.
By the year 1860, at least four schools were offering some kind of education to Milford citizens. One private school enrolled more than 450 pupils in its ten year existence in the John Steward home on Northwest Front Street. It was the first to bear the name Milford High School and was conducted by Reverend John Leighton McKim, rector of Christ Church. Tuition was $10 for the thirteen week term.
In 1868, North Milford was divided into three school districts, the third one included the first school built for African American children. It was the forerunner of the present Benjamin Banneker School, built in the 1920’s, whose funding was through Delaware philanthropist Pierre S. duPont. The greater Milford area also contained numerous country schools. Almost half of all Milford High School students received their primary, grades 1 through 8, education in the rural school network.
The Classical Academy opened on September 24, 1883 with 34 students. It was located on Southeast Front Street between South Walnut and Washington Streets. This school was so successful that they decided to construct their own building on Church Street. The Classical Academy operated here from 1885 until 1898 after which the Milford New Century Club bought the building.
The administration of Milford schools were consolidated by an act of the State legislature in 1877, however another act was necessary in 1899 to have an elected school board composed of twelve members from both sides of the river. Unity was finally reached when the old Academy building on Northwest Second and North Streets was chosen as the site for the new combination North and South Milford High School in 1904.
In 1954, Milford High School received worldwide attention as the first school to attempt integration in Delaware. Unfortunately, undue outside pressure only allowed these pioneering eleven African-American students to be in attendance for 28 days. It wasn’t until 1965 that the first African-American students officially graduated from Milford High School. The last high school class to graduate from this building was in 1970. It then became Lakeview Middle School, housing the district’s fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades. In 1962 a large tract of land at Northeast Tenth and Walnut Streets was purchased to become the site of a new junior high school. However, in 1969 after the District continued to grow, the structure was further expanded to become the current Milford High School. Today, the Milford Buccaneers proudly call this school and its expanded campus home.
The long story of education and schools in Milford is not yet over. In 2013, the hard decision was made to close Milford Middle School on Lakeview Avenue. Time has taken its toll on the old building, and it is slated to be torn down in the near future. Decisions are still being made about the future of this site. As the Milford population continues to grow, the district hopes to see a new school in this location in the near future.
The ‘When The School Bell Rings’ exhibit on the Milford School District is open to the public at the Milford Museum during regular business hours, Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 3:30pm and Sunday 1 to 3:30pm. For more information on the museum’s collections and exhibits, individuals can visit http://www.milforddemuseum.org/.