It was, the Life magazine story began, “the frantic fraction of the morning when 2,003 boys and girls swarm about the Davenport High School and funnel themselves inside to be exposed to what eager adults who await them term secondary education.” The story, “U.S. Public High School,” appeared in the magazine’s December 14, 1953, issue, the inaugural article in a series on the American high school—then, as now, a subject of concern—and it had chosen Davenport to represent what had become the most characteristic of these institutions: the comprehensive high school, where students could study the traditional liberal arts curriculum but also make use of nonacademic offerings ranging from vocational training to commercial and business courses. “The students still get classics,” Life wrote, “but their courses are no longer confined to subjects given mainly for those going to college. . . . Into Davenport High each day come students with different backgrounds, racial, religious and economic, each with his own problem of how to fit into a changing society and each with his own prospects and aspirations for the future.”
Davenport High exemplified the comprehensive high school, starting with its size. (Two of its silent study-hall periods accommodated 389 students each.) It offered classes in 127 subjects, “from algebra to zoology,” and while students had to take some English, math, science, and history, they could, through electives, study a broad range of noncollege-track material. Two student report cards illustrated the variety of options. A senior, Lon Fagner, who hoped to study dentistry at Northwestern University, was taking Grammar, American Government, Algebra III, Chemistry I, and Phys. Ed. A sophomore, James M. Jones, took English I, Biology I, Electricity I, Machine Shop I, Phys. Ed., and Occupations, a required course that included vocational testing. Life’s well-illustrated story—the opening shot, showing a crowd of teenagers moving toward Davenport High’s large sandstone structure, would resonate with anyone who ever attended a large or midsize American public high school—pictured students working on everything from advanced mathematics and science labs to music and dressmaking. A senior, Carol Jasper, stood on a desk while her fellow students checked her hemline. The young woman, hoping to find office work when she graduated, wanted to learn how to make some of her own clothes to save money.
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