North Omaha has several historic schools. Their past is largely lost though, and few around still celebrate the stories lived in those schools or the communities that grew up around them. This is a history of one of North Omaha’s most historic schools, called the Ponca School.
These pics are all circa 1935 and were shared courtesy of Heather Russell.
The Ponca Hills have always been part of the Florence Township, which has land extending from North 72nd Street to the river, and from the Washington County line to Weber Street. Within this township during the pioneer era, there were only three schools: the Florence School, the Springville School, and eventually, the Ponca School.
In 1871, eight students started attending a one-room log schoolhouse located at the intersection of Ponca Road and what’s now called North 47th Street. According to my research, early students at the school included students Lottie Price Allen, Ted and John Price, Frank Scott, Margaret McNeeley Bridges, and A.E. Lewis. The land for the school was deeded to the Ponca School District, also called District 21, by Thomas and Jeanette Price, who farmed land next to the school. The historic Shipley Farm also abutted the school from the north. Destroyed by fire, by 1890 it was reconstructed and an addition was added. In 1899, that building was sold to J. P. Brown.
For more than a century, the school was the center point of the Ponca Hills neighborhood. At the turn of the century, the school had about 60 students.
The farmers who lived in the area used the building for a lot of purposes, including social events, neighborhood meetings, public sales, and more. Some of the events were sponsored by the school, but many were put on by other neighborhood entities including the neighborhood Farmer’s Union, the Ponca Presbyterian Church, the Ponca Improvement Club, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and more.
For nearly 90 years afterwards, the school had students from every grade level. Destroyed by fire in the early 1880s, the building was replaced soon after. Additions were made in the 1890s, and in 1899 it was replaced entirely. Over the next five decades it was added to several times, and eventually had four rooms. Student performances, teacher conferences, and other school events were regularly featured in the Omaha World-Herald and other papers throughout the years.
In 1908, the newspaper reported that the Ponca School was perhaps the most famous school in the state because teachers would “travel miles to get a chance to teach in that school house.” With more than 100 students and two teachers, some people called it the largest country school in Nebraska. “It is a pretty school house with neat and well kept grounds,” reported the paper that year. However, the beauty and size of the school wasn’t the reason for its popularity. Ponca School was renowned for being a marrying ground for young unmarried teachers who apparently hooked up with the young farmers in the Ponca Hills. After getting married, they settled down in the neighboring farms, had children of their own and sent them to Ponca School. They got “swamped with applications… gets so we have to put a notice in the paper after we hire the teachers stating, ‘Teacher’s [sic] hired for Ponca School’ [to make them stop applying].”
In 1920, the school was the focal point of several newspaper reports and projections from the City of Omaha. The City was considering developing a city-wide boulevard from Bellevue to the school called the River Drive. While it was never completed, it did bring excitement to the school and surrounding neighborhood for a few seasons.
Operating as an independent district for more than 90 years, the Ponca School Board was often low on money. In the 1930s, instructors were fired in great numbers, courses were cut, and instructors’ pay was lowered dramatically because of the Great Depression and its effects on the farming community around it.
In 1951, the media was alive with controversy surrounding the condition of Ponca School. For several weeks, articles about building a new school to relieve the “overcrowded, dreary, unsanitary, obselete” school, which was also called a “firetrap.” However, the district and many people in the neighborhood believed the cost was too great. Within the decade though, the district was gone and soon after, a new building was constructed.
The Omaha School District absorbed the Ponca School in 1959. A court case contested the move in 1960, and after it was resolved the district resolved to build a new school. Identifying a location on Post Road, in 1963 the third school was built and opened as an elementary school for kindergarten through sixth grade. The school was built with 25,000 square feet of space and cost $400,000. Neighborhood students in grades 7 through 9 went to McMillan Junior High and grades 10 through 12 went to North High. When Omaha Public Schools refused to provide bus transportation that year, a major court case was filed by students forced to attend the school from outside its historic area. The district lost and students were bused shortly after.
The new school was built on ten acres at 11707 North Post Road. It continues serving the surrounding neighborhood, and according to OPS, its the smallest school population serving the largest geographic area in the district today.
In 1964, the Omaha school board sold the old Ponca School to the newly formed Ponca Hills Volunteer Fire Department for $5,000. It was used as the station into the 1980s, and then replaced by a cinder block building that’s still in use today.
After a contentious campaign in 2016, the school was approved for a facelift by the Omaha School Board. Now, OPS anticipates its continued use through the coming century.
Today, there is a historic marker where the original school was located; however, it’s for the Shipley Cemetery, not for the old school. Instead, there is no marker for this 150-year-old vestige of North Omaha history.
You Might Like…
- Ponca Hills History
- A History of Schools in North Omaha
- History of Ponca School Omaha Public Schools website