The Model School

Charles Hovey
Charles Hovey

When Illinois State Normal University was founded in 1857, President Charles Hovey established the “model school” to demonstrate teaching and observation; he served as the first principal.

On November 2, 1857, the “Model School” was opened in Major’s Hall in Bloomington. Majors Hall was made famous in history as the site of Lincoln’s lost speech.

Majors Hall

Several years later, in 1862, the first high school classes began in the model school. Hovey chose Mary Brooks, one of the first teachers he had trained, to be the first teacher in the Model School.

Mary Brooks

Mary Brooks was the first teacher. Her seven students paid 50 cents per week in tuition. Four “Normal” students assisted her.

By the second term, her classroom was full, and 50 students had to be turned away1. Mary Brooks retired at the end of three years to get married.

1 Keith, John A., “Semi-Centennial History of the Illinois State Normal University, 1857-1907

Civil War

Old Main

In 1861, the high school, along with the university, moved into the Old Main Building, built at an exorbitant cost of $187,000. The first classes were held in 4 rooms in the basement.

During its early years, the Model School was considered to be its own entity which needed to fund itself; as such, students were charged a large tuition fee until 1931.

The Battle of Jackson

During the Civil War, 15 boys from U-High served in the Union Forces. William A. Pearce was killed at the Battle of Jackson, Mississippi. Joseph G. Powell, the second principal of the Model School, was killed at the Battle of Pittsburgh landing on February 15, 1862.

Richard Edwards

In 1865, the first graduates received their diplomas. President Richard Edwards developed a school that became one of the best prep schools in the country, with its graduates being accepted at Harvard and Yale.

A state-wide school

Old Main building
Old Main

In the fall of 1866, the high school sat for the first time alone in the northwest corner of the main floor of Old Main in room 12; there were 63 students. For one brief year the combined enrollment of the grammar grades and the high school exceeded that of the Normal department.

Standing firm in the face of prejudice

During this time, a number of students of color attended the model school, attracting attacks from some white students and parents, including a group of boys who threatened to leave if a “colored pupil” remained.

“Very well,” said Principal J. W. Cook. “Just as you please. The black man will remain.”

The Daily Pantagraph

In 1870-71, Miss Mary Horton served as principal; she later became the first professor of Greek at Wellesley College.

The Weekly Pantagraph, Sep. 8, 1871

In 1872, ISNU established the right of all youth, regardless of race or creed, to attend.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf

Thomas Metcalf assumed supervision of the teacher college students at the Model School in 1874. He was an extremely exacting supervisor who had been teaching since age 16.

1876 coursework

79 students attended the high school as of 1874.

During these years, the high school enjoyed the advantages of university equipment, the library, and most importantly, its faculty. “To supply the ordinary public high school or academy with such instruction…would require a payroll between $15-25 thousand dollars.”

The high school recruited students statewide, and by 1882 had become highly selective. “It was a great school…and was doing a more advanced grade of work than nine-tenths of the colleges in the United States,” said an early graduate.

Highly-regarded graduates

Old tailor
Bolles Tailors

By 1892, Bloomington-Normal was the home of hatters and high-quality tailors, and the Pantagraph was a major company in town.

The Pantagraph
The Pantagraph

Meanwhile at the high school, tuition was up to $39 per year, payable by terms, in advance.

Examinations for admission were held on the first day of each term, and on the Saturday following the close of the Spring term.

The senior class that year featured 16 seniors, including Grace Chandler from Galena, Enid Gibson from Mazon, John Cleveland from Yorkville, Herbert Hicks from Rockford, and Walter Scott from Fletcher.

Graduating students were so highly regarded that by 1892 they were admitted without examination to the Universities of Illinois and Michigan, Dartmouth, Williams, Vassar and Wellesley.

Dartmouth, Michigan, Illinois, Williams, Vassar, Wellesley.

Of 236 graduates before 1896 there were 7 farmers, 19 lawyers, 11 doctors, 3 preachers, 2 foreign missionaries, 1 editor, 27 authors and 100 teachers.


Governor Altgeld
Governor John Peter Altgeld

In 1895, it appeared U-High might die before it was old enough to celebrate its semi-centennial.

On June 1 of that year, Governor John Peter Altgeld wrote a letter to ISNU President John Cook ordering that the high school be closed.

“It is not the business of the state to run neighborhood high schools,” said Altgeld, insisting that in the future ISNU should only have men and women who will agree to teach, and only those children necessary to establish model schools.

At a time when U-High had reached an enrollment of 215 students, and was widely considered to be one of the very best schools in the Mississippi Valley, the ISNU Board voted 7-6 to close it.

Students decided to take action. On the night before commencement, 50 students dressed in black shrouds and masks stopped at the south end of Old Main. To the muffled beat of a drum, they delivered a eulogy to the “end” of University High School, and then dug a shallow grave and buried a wooden coffin. As townspeople gathered, the students quickly dispersed into the shadows.



Charles Capen
Charles L. Capen, Class of 1865

At age 12, Capen attended the founding meeting of the Illinois Republican Party where he heard Lincoln’s Lost Speech of 1856. After attending Harvard, he practiced law in Bloomington for many years. ISU’s Capen Auditorium was named after him.

Walter Dill Scott
Walter Dill Scott
Walter Dill Scott, ’92

Became the President of Northwestern College. Constructed the system used by the United States Army in World War 1 to classify and assign 3 million men.

Edmund James
Edmund J. James, Class of 1873

James, son of a pioneer Methodist minister, got into mischief occasionally while being educated in the lab schools.

Years later, when he was the distinguished president of the University Of Illinois (1904-1920), he recalled the boyhood incidents that required discipline from the Model School principals of his time, John Cook and Joseph Carter.

Said James, “Even when Mr. Cook threatened to cowhide me, and Mr. Carter nearly shook the life out of me, I felt that they had to a certain extent, justice on their side, though I did not altogether approve of the expression which they gave it.”

Rachel Crothers
Rachel Crothers, Class of 1891

Rachel Crothers, ‘1891, got her start as a dramatist during her high school years. The Weekly Pantagraph reported that on May 28, 1889, Ms. Crothers “gave a humorous reading (at the Christian Church) that was very good and well-recited”. In March of that same year, she performed a reading at an event in Hudson. “She shows a great deal of dramatic power,” said the Pantagraph, “but it was thought she was a little the best in her juvenile impersonations”.

After graduating from U-High at the age of 13, she went on to be one of the most successful woman dramatists of the first part of the twentieth century. Her plays often dealt with feminist themes, and one of her most famous plays was “Susan and God” (1937) that was made into a film by MGM. -Wikipedia