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The first schools in Western Virginia emerged in the Eastern Panhandle, Greenbrier Valley, and the South Branch region. A 1748 survey team, with young George Washington as a member, mentioned ‘‘the School House’’ in the Moorefield area, suggesting the site of one of our state’s earliest schools. Records of 1753 reveal schoolmasters employed in Romney and in a Greenbrier settlement. Shepherdstown had both German and English schools in 1762. Most early schools were staffed by itinerant schoolmasters who varied in their effectiveness and training. Known as ‘‘private subscription schools’’ since parents paid tuition, these schools—located in private homes, barns, and other available spaces— still left large expanses of present West Virginia without schools of any kind.

With the demise of the established church after the Revolution, the state of Virginia assumed responsibility for educating poor farmers’ children. An alderman system, authorized in 1796, provided for the dividing of counties into districts, with schools to be established in each district.

In the northwestern region, children of the wealthiest families attended secondary private academies. Many of these academies offered upper-level courses in classical languages, theology, philosophy, science, grammar, and declamation, preparing graduates for college. In 1778, Brooke Academy opened, making it the earliest institution of its kind in trans-Allegheny Virginia. Randolph Academy in Clarksburg, the earliest regularly incorporated secondary school, counted among its first trustees Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Patrick Henry. Other early academies included the Potomac Academy in Romney, Northwestern Academy at Clarksburg, and Lewisburg Academy. Marshall Academy, later Marshall College and now Marshall University, was established in present Huntington in 1837. Linsly Institute in Wheeling, which continues as a private school today, was founded in 1814 under a bequest from Noah Linsly.

Virginia established a ‘‘Literary Fund’’ for the support of education in 1810, but funds were not reliably available to meet educational needs. In 1818, money was earmarked to pay tuition for poor white children to attend schools. Since parents were reluctant to be labeled as paupers, these funds were often left unused.

Governor Thomas Jefferson had proposed to the state legislature in 1779 a statewide system of free public schools, but eastern and western sections disagreed on the plan’s implementation. Most of the eastern upper class believed it necessary to train an intellectual elite for leadership and therefore favored higher education, while western leaders, placing a premium on practical skills, supported a program of free elementary education. The east prevailed. Virginia established a fine university in 1819 but provided little for schools at the primary and secondary level.

The 1840 Census revealed that illiteracy among Virginians was increasing regardless of place of residence. Aroused by Governor Campbell, conferences met statewide to examine educational issues. The first of these, held at Clarksburg in September 1841, was a pivotal event. Henry Ruffner proposed the establishment of free schools ‘‘good enough for the rich . . . [and] fit for the poor.’’ Contentiousness between eastern and western counties grew, with westerners critical of the University of Virginia, which they believed to be populated by sons of wealthy landowners at the expense of other citizens. Few Western Virginia residents attended college at all, and those who did typically enrolled in institutions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. The education of western leaders outside Virginia weakened allegiances and contributed to the eventual division of the state.

Legislation in 1846 authorized school commissioners to use local taxes to supplement state aid for the poor. Under this system schools arose in Kanawha, Ohio, and Jefferson counties, the only counties in present West Virginia providing free public schooling before the Civil War. Marshall and Mason counties, while approving the plan, did not have functioning schools until after the war. Funds continued to support the poor attending ‘‘old field’’ schools where the academic emphasis was basic—reading, writing, and arithmetic. By 1850, Western Virginia had 1,300 primary schools.

By 1860, Western Virginia had only one institution of higher learning, Bethany College, founded by Alexander Campbell and chartered in 1840. Baptist-affiliated Rector College had opened in 1839 but was destroyed by fire in 1855. Weston College, chartered in 1858, was sold at public auction in 1859. Allegheny College at Blue Sulphur Springs opened in 1860 but suspended operation later that year, and its buildings were burned by Union troops in 1864. Marshall College was established from Marshall Academy in 1858 but achieved true collegiate status only after its reorganization in 1867.

In 1863, the first constitution of West Virginia established a public free school system. Counties were to be subdivided into townships and townships into sub districts where school affairs were to be handled in mass meetings. Locally controlled one-room schoolhouses soon dotted the state.

Rev. William Ryland White, a Methodist minister and principal of Fairmont Male and Female Seminary, became the first state superintendent of schools (1864–65). The legislature authorized a state levy for schools and required townships having more than 30 eligible Negro children to educate them in buildings separate from white children. A private school for black children, opened in Parkersburg in 1862, was converted to a public school in 1866, and a year later one opened in Clarksburg. The U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau established over a dozen private schools, most of which later became public schools. Storer College was founded in Harpers Ferry in 1867 by Freewill Baptists from the North. Its purpose was to educate former slaves.

The average school term, 2.7 months in 1865–66, increased to 4.1 months in 1869–70. In 1870, 2,405 teachers (including 641 women) staffed 2,257 schools. Two hundred sixty of the 495 new school buildings constructed in 1869–70 were log structures.

The constitution of 1872 expanded support of public education while continuing the segregation of white and black students. The state superintendent was named a member of the executive branch of government, making the office political. Even during the earliest years of statehood, inequalities in taxable wealth caused great variations in educational opportunities among the counties.

By 1910, West Virginia schools had fallen behind national averages. That year, the average school term in West Virginia was 125 days, compared to 150.3 days nationally, and the average teacher’s monthly salary in the state was $36.70, versus $47.08 in the United States.

Progress was evident in some areas, however. Alexander L. Wade, superintendent of Monongalia County, devised a graduating system with set criteria of grades, promotions, and graduation. The system was used as a model nationally and made compulsory statewide in West Virginia in 1891. Teachers’ associations, institutes, and journals became important in training teachers.

A normal school, whose purpose was to train school teachers, was established in 1867 at Marshall College, renamed the State Normal School, and in 1869 the Fairmont State Regency Normal was renamed the Fairmont Branch Normal (now Fairmont State University). Normal schools soon opened in West Liberty, Athens, Glenville, and Shepherdstown. Provisions were made for the training of African-American teachers with the opening of West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University) in 1892, and Bluefield Colored Institute (now Bluefield State University) in 1895.

Changes were also made in teacher preparation and certification. The 1893 legislature provided for two levels of teacher certificates. The legislature enacted a uniform teachers’ examination law in 1903, ending corruption in the granting of certificates by local boards.

School finance and geographic inequity continued to be a problem. When the state property levy was eliminated in 1907, the minimum district levy rates were reduced with a local option to increase their levy. West Virginia adopted a minimum salary law for teachers in 1882, believed to be the first in the country. Unequal school terms and pay scales existed across the state, however, with discrepancies even within counties.

High schools gained importance during this time. With only 12 fully accredited high schools in 1910, State Superintendent Morris P. Shawkey created a high school division in the state Department of Education, highlighting the need for improved secondary education and increasing curriculum requirements. By 1925, the number of high schools burgeoned to 233, and the old academies had all but ceased to function. The number of junior high schools also increased dramatically.

Not surprisingly, public education suffered during the Depression. Schools closed, school terms were cut, and teachers sometimes went unpaid. A 1932 constitutional amendment cut tax rates on real property, reducing local school funding. Legislation approved in 1933 created the county unit plan, replacing 398 local school districts with 55 county systems, each administered by a five-member board. State aid increased substantially. By 1939, all counties had a nine-month term.

The 1940s and 1950s brought free textbooks for elementary students and the non-partisan election of school boards. The legislature created a nine-member non-partisan state Board of Education in 1947, vesting it with control over public schools and state colleges, with the exception of West Virginia University and its branch, Potomac State School (now Potomac State College). The state superintendent of schools became a state Board of Education appointee in 1958, retaining membership on the budget-making state entity, the Board of Public Works.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education brought changes to West Virginia as elsewhere. Governor William Marland ordered full compliance, and the integration of West Virginia schools soon began. Twelve counties integrated their schools during the 1954–55 school year, 13 partially integrated, 18 waited for more instructions, 11 had no black students, and one rescinded an integration order when residents protested it.

As the state’s population dropped after 1950, so did school enrollment. Between 1950 and 1970, there was a 22 percent decline in elementary school enrollment. Public kindergartens, mandated in 1973, helped balance the overall loss, as did lower drop-out rates in high schools.

Federal programs and shifting educational philosophies dramatically affected schools in the 1960s and 1970s. Important federal programs included Head Start, for preschool children from low-income families; Upward Bound, a college-type summer experience for economically disadvantaged youth; remedial reading and math programs; Title IX, banning sexual discrimination in schools; and the placement of teacher aides in classrooms. Ungraded primary school classrooms, open classrooms, and more freedom and responsibility for high school students all contributed to the changing character of schools.

In 1969 the legislature created two governing bodies for education. The Board of Education continued as the governing body for elementary and secondary schools, and the Board of Regents was established to govern the state’s colleges and universities. The state superintendent was an ex officio member of the Board of Regents, and the Board of Regents chancellor was an ex officio member of the state Board of Education.

As schools changed, public support varied. The 1974 Kanawha County textbook controversy, at times violent, called attention to citizens’ clashing viewpoints. Reform efforts in West Virginia, spurred by a back to the basics movement and the publication of ‘‘A Nation at Risk,’’ a federal report criticizing the nation’s schools, triggered increased graduation standards, testing programs for teachers, and more comprehensive student testing. Church-related and nondenominational private schools, some founded before the state itself, continued to grow in size and numbers. School consolidation, with roots in the 1930s, continued into the 21st century. The 4,551 one-room schools in 1930–31 decreased to one, located in Auburn, Ritchie County, by 1978–79. The School Building Authority, created in 1989 by Governor Caperton, provided a strong impetus to consolidation with policies favoring the creation of large schools. In 2004 Governor Wise indicated that the state would reconsider consolidation.

The West Virginia Education Association, founded in 1865 at the behest of the state superintendent, evolved into a forceful union, winning large gains in the strike of 1990. Politicians opposed to WVEA proposals were targeted for defeat, often successfully. The West Virginia Federation of Teachers, a rival group, gained a solid foothold.

Judge Arthur M. Recht handed down a major decision in 1982 attempting to narrow the financial gap among school districts. The results were mixed and after more than 20 years, the court ended its oversight of the public school system. Statistics for the 2008-2009 school year reveal that 281,908 preschool through grade 12 students attend West Virginia’s approximately 740 public schools and are taught by about 19,700 teachers. Nearly 11,200 additional children attend 118 private schools.

This Article was written by Debra K. Sullivan

Last Revised on June 27, 2022


Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.

Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Ambler, Charles H. A History of Education in West Virginia: From Early Colonial Times to 1949. Huntington: Standard Printing & Publishing, 1951.

Cite This Article

Sullivan, Debra K. "Education." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 27 June 2022. Web. 05 June 2023.


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