As students hoist backpacks filled with sharpened pencils and shiny folders and climb aboard yellow buses, schools in Fort Mill open their doors for the start of a new year. The first day of school is filled with promise and anticipation. When I was growing up, I had my new outfit chosen right down to the sparkling white tennis shoes that I wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing before that appointed day. All my friends did the same. The school looked like an advertisement for Nike and smelled like a shoe store. There is a bit more diversity in fashion today, but the sentiment remains the same. Everyone puts their best foot forward on the first day of school.
I don’t know what they wore when the first public school in Fort Mill opened in 1854. There aren’t a lot of details about that school, but in 1871 the Fort Mill Academy opened as a private preparatory institution for boys only. Students studied the basics plus Latin and Greek. Tuition was $20 for a 20-week session and students could board in town for an additional $9 per month. The Academy later became the town’s first public school, although it was only open to white students. Eventually, the building was given as a school for African American children, which they attended until a new school was built for them in 1924. This school, called George Fish in honor of the man who spearheaded the effort to build a quality facility, graduated its last class in 1968.
Many local residents recall attending Fort Mill Grammar School, which was later called Carothers School. It initially housed grades 1 through 11. Students graduated at the end of 11th grade in those days. The first Fort Mill High School was built in 1930 and was located on Tom Hall Street where the post office is today. In 1952, a new high school opened on Banks Street. The building on Tom Hall Street became Central Middle School and was later renamed in honor of longtime educator and school superintendent A. O. Jones. Interestingly, many older people still refer to the Banks Street building as the “new” high school, though it was replaced by the current Fort Mill High facility in 1986. The Banks Street school was demolished in 2014 and many former students claimed bricks as mementos.
In the years that have followed the initial small start of what is now the award-winning school district, multiple elementary and middle schools have been added as well as a second high school. Even now, construction continues on a fifth middle school and plans for a third high school are already on the agenda.
It’s unlikely Professor A.R. Banks would recognize the school system that grew from his Fort Mill Academy, but it was the genesis of a legacy that continues to grow and collect accolades. Generations of scholars have marked the beginning of more than a hundred years of “first days” with shiny new shoes or whatever the custom of the day happened to be. This week, the tradition continues. Welcome back students—class is in session.