Last Sunday I joined several hundred people at Riley Elementary School to celebrate their 100th birthday. We were greeted by teachers, staff and students eager to show the continuing success of this early public school. I walked around the kindergarten room, observing the small desks and chairs and remembered how big I once thought that equipment was! In 1939, holding my mother’s hand, I entered Riley for the first time, a scared but eager almost five year old. Kindergarten did not teach me to read, as I had hoped, but taught me the skills and discipline that were needed to be a successful student in public schools in Kansas. Riley continues to provide that first step in education as part of their excellent guidance through grade school.
The library was filled with large posters showing decades of memories. Riley personnel had requested memorabilia from the public to enhance their records and holdings. Barton County Historical Society searched through archives, as did my classmate Meredith Billingsley Ward, to share what had been saved. Former students greeted and exchanged their own memories. Three generations of Riley “graduates” gathered to remember, and a presumed forth were conducting tours around the building that was standing on the site of the original school.
About three decades later, my own children were ready to enter school, but we were living in other states on the east coast. After all that time if you wanted your child to attend school before first grade, you had to arrange for private education at your own expense. The private kindergartens had no criteria, so they ranged from unregulated day care to whatever instruction the source decided to provide. That meant that some children had the advantage of entering the “learning years” much better prepared than others.
Kansas continues to provide all children the opportunity for beginning public education just as we did from the earliest days in Barton County. Our county alone had more than 100 one room schools so that every child had the opportunity to receive the first eight years of their education. And Riley’s site was the first location for a grade school in Great Bend. We need to continue to stand firmly in favor of providing the opportunity for for our young citizens to learn, to achieve, and to have every opportunity to succeed.
Happy Birthday Riley Elementary School and thanks for a wonderful birthday party! Oh, and thanks for the delicious cake as well.
Executive Director, Barton County Historical Society