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1958-59 LR CRISIS: When schools were closed, a brief dalliance with TV classes

by John Krupa | September 21, 2008 at 3:04 a.m.

— Fifty years ago tomorrow, Central High School teacher Miller King sat at his desk petrified, waiting for the red light on top of the television camera to signal the start of the new school year.

The 8:30 a.m., 11th-grade chemistry course - broadcast live over Little Rock's CBS station - was the first class the 21-year-old King ever taught.

Little Rock's three television stations spent two hours eachthat morning broadcasting science, math, history and English lessons into the homes of more than 3,400 senior high students barred from school grounds by the simmering integration dispute that shuttered the capital city's high schools during the 1958-59 academic year.

The television classes proved to be short-lived. They lasted only about a week before being halted as the result of a federal-court restraining order that prevented the teachers from continuing.

The TV classroom program was little more than a footnote in the 1958-59 school year, but it remains a historical oddity worth noting, said Laura Miller, historian at the Central High School National Historic Site.

"They were trying to be very ahead of their times in responding to their unusual challenge,"Miller said. "It didn't work for them for the whole year, but they were clearly onto something."

In 1958, Little Rock's four highschools - Central, Hall, Technical and the all-black Horace Mann - were set to open Sept. 15, a Monday. But the Friday before, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering immediate integration, Gov. Orval Faubus signed a newly passed legislative act. The act authorized him to close the high schools pending a citywide referendum on integration in Little Rock within 30 days.

The previous year, 2,825 whites and 645 blacks had at-tended Little Rock's four high schools, according to a Sept. 15, 1958, Arkansas Gazette article.

On the day classes would have begun, Dale Alford, a Little Rock School Board member, proposed a novel idea: Students could learn via television while school was closed.

Just 84 percent of all U.S households, or about 42.4 million, had televisions at the time, according to a United Press International article published in the Sept. 16, 1958, Gazette.

However, at the time, school officials estimated that close to 90 percent of the Little Rock School District's students had television sets at home.

The first television station in Arkansas, KRTV, Channel 17 - a UHF station - first signed on in 1953.

By 1958, KRTV had closed, but three replacements had opened: KARK-TV, Channel 4; KATV, Channel 7; and KTHV, Channel 11.

Like other parents, Alford said he was concerned about the senior high school students falling behind in their academic work, according to his 1959 book, The Case of the Sleeping People.

Alford had three children in the Little Rock public schools at the time: L'Moore Fontaine, Dale Jr. and Anne Maury.

Alford described the television classes as a "stopgap" to educate the students until school reopened.

"This plan can be followed until such date as our schools are opened and will not be in violation of any Federal or State orders and will be absolutely equal for all," Alford said.

Little Rock parents were shaken by the school closures, and the television classes were Alford's attempt to "make everyone feel like it was going to be OK," said Elizabeth Jacoway, historian and author of Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation.

"Most people really thought that this was a problem that was going to be resolved in a matter of days, and in the meantime, they ought to keep the kids busy," Jacoway said. "It was not clear at that point to most people that the schools were not going to open."

Immediately, executives with Little Rock's television stations pledged to donate airtime for what the stations later called"TV Classroom."

"I want the schools open but I will be delighted to co-operate wholeheartedly in trying to work out this proposal," B.G. Robertson of KTHV told the Arkansas Democrat on Sept. 15, 1958.

The next day, Wayne Upton, president of the Little Rock School Board, asked his sister-inlaw, a member of the Memphis School Board, to forward information about the use of "educational TV" in Memphis. Upton said at the time that WKNO in Memphis had a "national reputation in the field."

On Wednesday, WKNO Memphis General Manager Ernest C. Ball told the Democrat that he'd sent information about their programs to the Little Rock School Board.

The Memphis station had been offering both "credit and non-credit courses" for at least four months, according to the Sept. 17, 1958, Democrat.

Little Rock's foray into television classes would be the "finest kind of test" for educational television, Ball said.

On Thursday, Little Rock Superintendent Virgil T. Blossom announced that TV classes would begin the following Monday.

Each channel would offer 30-minute courses in English, math, history and science, with each station focusing on one gradelevel. The students would be on an honor system to watch, Blossom said, and there would be no homework or credit given.

That Friday, Blossom spoke about the difficulty of the venture.

"We're putting on educational TV in a few days time while it has taken some educational programs years to be worked out before they are offered," he told the Democrat on Sept. 19, 1958.

On Saturday, KATV piloted an hour of educational television, broadcasting four 15-minute Encyclopaedia Britannica films.


The television courses received prominent coverage on the front pages of the state's two largest newspapers. But the extent of that coverage varied significantly.

The Democrat ran seven front-page stories, accompanied by four front-page photographs, on the television courses during September 1958.

The Gazette ran three frontpage stories and no front-page photographs during that time.

A large part of the Gazette's Sept. 22, 1958, story - which marked the opening of television classes - was devoted to comments from Franklin Dunham of the U.S. Office of Education, who was dubious about Little Rock's foray into educational television.

"[Television] does not take the place of the classroom," Dunham said.

With the city watching, some of the teachers did receive minimal training before going on air.

Joe Myers of KATV told theteachers at a training session to expect to be "nervous as all get out."

"You might as well face it," Myers said, according to a Sept. 21, 1958, Democrat article. "Your hands will perspire, and you'll wonder how and why this ever happened to you, of all people. But you're not alone in feeling that way. Anybody who's worth anything at all on television feels the same way. You concentrate on the lesson, we'll concentrate on the camera and we'll both hope the pupils will be watching."

King, the youthful chemistry teacher who was a fresh graduate of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, had outlined his lesson ahead of time and practiced delivering it three times in the mirror.

But no pep talk could steady his nerves that first day.

When he arrived in the studio, which was about the size of his living room, he found a teacher's desk, a chair and a chalkboard.

But cameramen stood where the students should have been.

This was a frightening concept for King, who had never taught a class outside of student teaching in college. Now he was going to deliver his first lesson ever on television.

"That first episode was not fun for a little country boy right out of school," said King, now 71. "I was scared out of my damn britches."

The stations tried to make the teachers feel at home. All three studios provided desks, chalkboards, chalk, erasers, maps, graphs, charts and textbooks as props, according to the Democrat.

The studio at KTHV used three cameras to broadcast the lesson live, said Jerry Don Burch, one of the station's cameramen at the time.

KTHV used a lighting system that had to be adjusted by hand, Burch said, and the cameras panned to charts or maps propped on easels whenever relevant.

There were no computer-generated graphics back then.

The teachers applied their own makeup and were forbidden from wearing white clothing, which glared on the black-and-white screens at home, Burch said.

"It was like kindergarten compared to what they have now," Burch said. "It seems like another lifetime."

During class that first day, a student called KTHV and asked the camera to pan back to the blackboard during an English lesson, according to a Sept. 22, 1958, Democrat article. She said she needed more time to copy the outline on the board.

The cameraman duly panned back to the blackboard while the teacher continued the lecture.

Alford, the School Board member, told the Democrat that the first day was a great success.

"I have one regret, that I don't have time to take the courses myself," he said. "I think that those students who will apply themselves and follow the class assignments will benefit."

Jo Ann Royster was a math teacher at Central who started teaching television classes later in the week.

Her department chairman at Central, Christine Poindexter, asked her to go on TV.

Royster remembers being excited about the chance. Television teaching didn't seem as foreign to her as it did King.

"Teachers are performers, you know. That's what we do. It's like being onstage every day," she said. "You have to learn your part, and learn it well, and then stand up in front of people and give a speech. You have to be able to keep their attention and get your facts right."


Reaction to the television classes from students was mixed.

"I can't wait to get back to school," Cindy Collums, 14, said in an October 1958 U.S. News and World Report article. "The TV programs are fine, but I wish there was some way to have class discussions."

Irving Spitzberg, a former Hall High School student, said he watched every lesson that aired but the classes didn't benefit him.

"It was insignificant," Spitzberg said. "It was watching some teachers talk on TV. It was the most modest form of educational experience."

Other students never tuned in.

Fallon Davis, who had been elected student body president at Central for the 1958-59 year and was quarterback of the football team, said he didn't watch a single lesson.

"I didn't see a need to do that since the schools were going to open, obviously, tomorrow," Davis said. "But tomorrow nevercame."

Even those who watched the television programs struggle to recall the details 50 years later.

Melba Pattillo Beals and Thelma Mothershed, two of the nine black students who integrated Central High School in 1957, were pictured in a photograph published Sept. 21, 1958, in the Democrat taking notes on a televised course in biology.

Beals said in an e-mail message that she doesn't remember much about the television classes other than the fact that they weren't effective.

"The high school television thing was so short-lived, people just don't remember it," said Sandra Hubbard, a Hall High School student in 1958 who later produced a documentary about the experience of the 1958-59 high school closures.

Today, it's a surprise to some that the television courses even happened.

William "Sonny" Walker, a former Horace Mann teacher, hadn't heard of the television classes until this month.

Walker, president of the Little Rock Negro Classroom Teachers Association in 1958, said none of his former students and coworkers at Horace Mann recall the classes.

No Horace Mann teachers were asked to participate in the broadcasts.

"We operated in different worlds back then," Walker said. "Even if it appeared in the media, it was not something that we paid very much attention to. Most of our news came from the Arkansas State Press."

The Arkansas State Press was a weekly newspaper founded by civil-rights leaders L.C. Bates and Daisy Gatson Bates.

The television courses caused English teacher Nancy Popperfuss to realize that gross disparities existed between Little Rock's white and black schools when she originally planned to give an assignment using a text she'd used at Hall High.

"I think [we] saw how things worked," Popperfuss said in University of Central Arkansas professor Sondra Gordy's 1996 dissertation, "Teachers of the Lost Year 1958-59: Little Rock School District."

"Somebody ... took me aside and said, 'Now you can't give that assignment in that book to everybody.' [White students] had different books than Horace Mann did. [Black students] had the old books that the other schools had given them. ... I never had known."

The television classes continued all week. TV listings from the Saturday, Sept. 27, 1958, Gazette also show that an hour of educational television aired thatday too.

In the referendum that same day, Little Rock's voters rejected integration by an almost 3-to-1 margin.

On Monday, television classes returned to the air, while leaders of the Little Rock Private School Corp. started offering contracts to teachers.

The plan was for a newly created private entity to hire the public school staff, lease the high school buildings from the district and reopen them as segregated private institutions.

But 8th U.S. Circuit Judge Joseph W. Woodrough issued a restraining order that night that effectively outlawed the formation of the private schools.

"[The School Board] and Virgil T. Blossom, their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys ... are hereby restrained from taking any further action to transfer possession, control, oroperation, directly or indirectly, of the senior high schools of the Little Rock School District, or from in any way further altering the status quo of such senior high schools insofar as their integrated status is concerned ..."

The public high school teachers, being employees of the school district, were understood to be included in Judge Woodrough's restraining order.

"Therefore," School Board member Alford wrote later in his book, "the next morning the school classes on television ceased. At last all media of learning for my high school children had been closed."

Even if Judge Woodrough's order had expressly let the TV classes go forward, however, it's unlikely that they had much future. Little Rock's broadcasting stations would have had to continue to underwrite the programming, Professor Gordy said, and the school district would have had to devise a way to grade students.

With the television classes billed as a stopgap measure from the beginning, that never happened.

"The wind really went out of [the School Board's] sails at that point," said Jacoway, the historian. "I think they finally began to realize that their schools weren't going to open, and they couldn't provide a real education, a yearlong education, by television."

However, Cooper Burley, the Little Rock schools administrator who directed the fledgling effort, said the project laid the groundwork for the creation of the Arkansas Educational Television Network in 1966.

"The community saw what could be done through technology in teaching and telecasting through television," Burley told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in an Oct. 4, 1998, article commemorating the enterprise's 40th anniversary. "This stimulated the desire for an education television station ..."

Front Section, Pages 1, 18, 19 on 09/21/2008


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