District 61 had one school, and it was located in the town of East Omaha. Never very big but filled with pride and possibilities, Pershing School was demolished just 50 years after it opened. Today, the history of this building is lost. This article summarizes some of it.
Built in 1892, the school district had a small one-room schoolhouse. Built for the children of the workers at the East Omaha Factory District and in the surrounding truck farms, it stood until the early 1920s.
In 1926, the Pershing School was opened for almost 200 students. Named after noted World War I Army General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, students were the ones who named the building through a popular vote.
The building had two floors and a full basement, a large play yard, and several classrooms, as well as an auditorium and library. Located south of the airport, the school was at North 28th Avenue East and Perkins Street. The new Pershing School opened the same year as the Omaha Municipal Airport, later renamed for Omaha hotel magnate and philanthropist Eugene Eppley.
Through the 1930s, students at Pershing School generally stopped their formal education when they graduated there from the eighth grade. Large ceremonies were held for these “rural students” at the Douglas County Courthouse in downtown Omaha. Students who did go onto high school at that point and for years afterward took the streetcar up Locust to either Technical High or North High.
During the 1930s, the Omaha World-Herald made an interesting note that Pershing School was the only rural school starting after the annual Labor Day holiday, and every other school district started before that date. The reason they offered was that Pershing was in a “labor district,” implying the influence and affect of the laborers kept students from schools for the day.
District 61 and the Pershing School had an interesting relationship with local residents. Districts have to levy taxes against homeowners and others in order to keep schools running. However, with constant calls to lower taxes, the people of East Omaha damned their own schools’ existence. As early as 1946, school officials were warning of teacher layoffs and closure threats to the building.
After East Omaha residents voted to reduce their tax burden by lowering the school levy supporting District 61 in 1952, by 1956 the school became insoluble. By late 1958, the City of Omaha annexed East Omaha and District 61 was absorbed into the Omaha Public Schools district, or OPS.
Located near the south end of the first runway at the airport, Pershing School had many planes fly directly overhead on takeoff and landing. Starting in the 1950s, noise from jet airliners at the airport routinely halted class work. In the 1960s, a second runway was opened that diverted the heaviest traffic, and landing lights were installed on the roof of the school.
After a large drop in the local population after severe flooding in the 1950s, according to OPS during the 1960s the school’s attendance couldn’t support maintaining the building. In 1970 there were 300 students in the building. Despite that, Pershing School was closed permanently in 1976, and students were transferred to nearby Sherman Elementary School.
The building was demolished in 1977 to make room for airport expansion. Today, there are no remnants, plaques, markers or memorials for Pershing School. It’s more of the lost history of East Omaha.