The newly elected superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools had a rough first week on the job. A disastrous court decision a few years earlier had depleted the district’s fragile finances. The high school had been shuttered for four years, and the only book in IPS’s “library” was a battered Webster’s dictionary. And while Abram Shortridge knew he was facing these challenges when he reluctantly accepted the position in the summer of 1863, the task ahead became even more daunting when he was stricken with blindness a few days later.
Although he eventually regained partial eyesight, the view was so dim that according to Shortridge, “I appear to live in continual moonlight.” But his physical limitations did not limit his vision for public education in Indianapolis. During the decade that Abram Shortridge served as the first superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools, enrollment grew from 900 students to 9,345. The high school was reopened, the school year expanded from four months to nine months, and the once-pitiful library was stocked with almost 19,000 books. As a result of his tireless efforts 150 years ago, the first public high school in Indiana was renamed in his honor and Shortridge is still widely regarded as “the father of the Indianapolis Public Schools.”
Abram Crum Shortridge grew up on a farm in Henry County, Indiana. By the time he was 18, he’d had only 18 months of formal schooling, in three-month spurts spread out over six years. He longed for a real education, so he sold his horse and raised enough funds to attend a five-month term at the Fairview Academy in Rush County.
After a few teaching stints in eastern Indiana, Shortridge was asked by Dr. Allen Benton, the former head of Fairview Academy, to come to Indianapolis and lead the preparatory department of Northwestern Christian University. Benton was president of the college, which was barely a decade old when Shortridge joined the faculty.
The Indianapolis Public School system was also in its infancy when Shortridge arrived in Indianapolis in 1861. The new state constitution of 1851 required the legislature to provide by law for a general and uniform system of common schools that would be free from tuition and equally open to all. Under an enabling statute passed by the 1852 General Assembly, Indianapolis established a city-wide school system, with Calvin Fletcher, Henry Coburn and H.F. West as its first trustees. IPS flourished for a few years, but then was struck a near fatal blow in 1858 when the Indiana Supreme Court banned the use of local property taxes to pay for public school tuition.
The meagre amount of funding flowing from the state — approximately $2 per pupil –was insufficient to keep the schools open, so the entire IPS system was shut down in 1859. School buildings were rented out to former teachers who reopened them as private schools. In each of the next two years, the district was only able to scrape together enough money to provide a small number of students with 18 free weeks of education. No attempt was made, however, to reopen the high school.
Thanks to an increase in state funding, IPS was slowly beginning to rebound when Shortridge took the helm in 1863. He hired a promising female teacher, Nebraska Cropsey, to take charge of the primary grades, a post she would hold for the next 40 years. He then turned his attention to reopening the high school.
The Indianapolis High School opened in September 1864 in the old First Ward School on the corner of Vermont and New Jersey. William Bell, the sole male teacher in the IPS system, was named principal. Unfortunately, none of the 28 pupils were found to be ready to pursue high school education, so a year of remediation was required before high school instruction began. Five students – four boys and a girl – comprised the first graduating class in 1869.
Meanwhile, the school board purchased the old Second Presbyterian Church on the Circle for temporary use as a high school. Enrollment continued to grow, and in 1871, the high school was moved to a larger building on the northeast corner of Michigan and Pennsylvania. The building had originally been constructed in the 1830s as the home of Robert Underhill, a wealthy manufacturer of steam engines, stoves and plows. He lost his fortune in the bank panic of 1855, and sold his home to the Baptist Church, which remodeled the building for use as a female seminary. By the late 1860s, the seminary also folded, unable to compete with the now-flourishing Indianapolis Public Schools.
IPS occupied the old seminary until 1884, when it was demolished and replaced with the first high school building in Indianapolis specifically constructed for that purpose.
By 1874, the demands of his work had taken a toll on Shortridge’s health, so he stepped down as IPS superintendent to take an easier job – the presidency of Purdue University. He retired from Purdue in 1876, and moved to a small farm in Irvington. In 1897, the school board renamed the Indianapolis High School in his honor.
During Abram Shortridge’s 11 years as the first superintendent of IPS, enrollment in the Indianapolis Public Schools increased ten-fold while the number of students attending private schools dropped by nearly 50%. Further, almost 10% of the children attending IPS were black, a remarkable change from the bleak years immediately following the Civil War, when state law prohibited public schools from providing a free public education to black children.
Both Shortridge and the IPS board strongly believed a high quality public education should be available to all students, regardless of race. Shortridge worked for a change in state law that would allow IPS to open its doors to black students. In May 1869, in a special session of the legislature, an act was passed providing for separate public schools for black children. By September, IPS had rented buildings, hired teachers and was ready to serve all black children who applied.
Within a couple of years, several black children had advanced enough in their education to take high school level classes. However, the law required separate schools for black and white children, and a high school for fewer than a dozen children was not feasible. A committee of black community leaders approached Shortridge in 1872 with the idea of bringing a lawsuit to allow white-only high schools to serve black children if a separate school was not available. Shortridge suggested that a better plan would be for IPS to just go ahead and admit a black student to the Indianapolis High School, and challenge anyone to object.
Mary Alice Rann showed up at IPS on the first day of school in 1872 and expressed a wish to enter high school. Shortridge walked her to the principal’s office, and without any explanation or request, said, “Mr. Brown, here is a student who wishes to enter high school.” Rann attended the high school for four years and became the first of many black children to graduate from Indianapolis High School before Crispus Attucks High School opened in 1927.
Near-blind, Abram Shortridge largely retired from public life after he left Purdue in 1876. His first wife died, and a brief second marriage to a woman 25 years his junior ended after she sued him for divorce, alleging that he forced her to do manual labor on their farm. In 1906, he was run over by a trolley car and lost his right leg. More than 1,200 people turned out for a benefit concert to help Shortridge with his expenses in the wake of the accident.
In a lengthy interview published by The Indianapolis Star a few days before the benefit, Shortridge was reported to be cheerful, robust and in splendid health, which he credited to his strict absention from alcohol and tobacco. Shortridge died in 1919 at age 86 and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.
2013 marks 150 years since Abram Shortridge was named superintendent of the still fledgling Indianapolis Public Schools. Last month, a renewed Shortridge High School graduated its first class since 1981. Last week, the IPS Board selected a new superintendent with a proven track record of turning around low-performing schools.
Dr. Lewis Ferebee’s appointment as IPS’s next superintendent has been positively received by a broad spectrum of stakeholders, although one prominent member of the local media has mistakenly called him the youngest superintendent in IPS’s history. Just for the record, it appears that Abram Shortridge already holds that title. Dr. Ferebee is 39. When Abram Shortridge became IPS’s first superintendent in 1863, he was only 29 years old.