Each of the small towns around North Omaha once had their own school district, and several of those school districts had high schools they graduated students from. The City of Florence, founded in 1854, was one of those small towns. My research shows the Florence High School existed from at least the 1860s through 1924. This is a history of Florence High School.
We Will Find a Path or Make One.Motto, Florence High School Class of 1913
Opened as early as the 1880s, the Florence High School was part of the Florence School District, once located north of Omaha. The tiny high school was co-located with the Florence Elementary School, which originally included students from kindergarten through the eighth grades. When the second Florence School was built at 8516 North 31st Street in 1890, the Florence High School was located within its walls.
Early high schools were hard to find in the Omaha area. The vast majority of students ended their formal school after graduating from eighth grade. Those who were lucky enough to continue had very few options: Brownell Hall was the first high school in Omaha, offering a private education for privileged students. It was later joined by private Catholic schools like Duchesne Academy and Creighton High School. Public high school was available at Omaha High, but students’ costs were generally paid for out-of-pocket and that was inaccessible to most of the city. When Florence High School opened in the 1880s, it was part of a growing trend to make public high schools freely available to high performing students after the eighth grade.
For over 30 years, Florence High graduated local students and was an important fixture and source of pride in the Florence community.
In 1895, the principal of Florence High was nominated to become the elected superintendent of all the schools in Douglas County. Eric Bodwell had been principal at Florence for three years, and before that had taught in Nebraska since 1888. He graduated as a teacher from a normal school in Vermont in 1884, and from Dartmouth in 1888. Mr. Bodwell didn’t win election through, and stayed in Florence for a few more years.
“Florence people should feel proud of the product of its high school, and while the class is small, every effort should be made to see that a larger class is graduated every year.”The Florence Tribute, June 11, 1909
1907 was a watershed year for Florence High. That year, the Florence School Board expanded the school year and add to the high school building. A new large retaining wall marked off the grounds, and two rooms were redone with new furniture. They also hired additional teachers for the school in anticipation of expanding. Perhaps the most important news of the year was that Florence High was added to a list of schools from around the state where students with Florence High School diplomas could attend the University of Nebraska without taking an entrance exam.
For more than a decade in the 1910s, the superintendent of the Florence School District was J.F. McClane, also called Professor McClane. The high school principal was Julia Krisl, and each of the graduating classes from the high school had between four and ten students. By the end of the decade Miss Krisl was the district superintendent. Florence High School had 26 students in 1910.
While the sizes of the graduating classes were small during the 1910s though, the graduation ceremonies were large civic affairs that attracted a lot of people. Throughout the years graduation ceremonies were held in a variety of locations in Florence, including Cole’s Hall, Pascale’s Hall, and the Fontenelle Hall. Audiences of 350 and 400 were reported for more than 20 years. The classes also had celebrations specifically at Pearl Memorial Methodist Church, which was the closest Methodist church to the school towards the final decades.
In 1917, the City of Florence was annexed into the City of Omaha. That year its school became part of the Omaha school district. When the new Omaha North High School opened its doors in 1924, students from the tiny Florence High were sent to North and their school was closed permanently. The building continued to be used for more than 30 years after as the Florence Elementary School.
There are no signs left today for the Florence High School, and nobody is alive who would have attended it. However, some of the the original steps to the building are still intact on the hill along North 31st Street between Willit and Tucker.
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