06/29/2011 01:46 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2011

When the School Came to Town

A couple of years ago, I was working on the renovation of a historic high school in the District of Columbia. The school had been built in 1923 as a part of a new community designed and constructed by African Americans for African Americans.

As a part of the design process, we researched the history of the school. We met with alumni as far back as we could find, and talked with administrators and faculty. We even found a school janitor who had worked at the school for 35 years.

It did not take us long to learn that the oldest surviving teacher lived within blocks of the building.

Ms. Newberg had taught in the school for almost 25 years. She cared for her students, tutoring them after hours, mentoring them after graduation and even making sure that they returned and volunteered at the school.

She was an amazing woman. Alumni spoke fondly of her, remembering how she would walk to their homes and meet with their parents if their grades "slipped." Many proudly relayed tales of how she would enthusiastically celebrate their accomplishments individually.

We had to get this on tape. Interviews were set up, groups of four and five alumni gathered in living rooms and basements and we let the camera roll. We had to schedule and reschedule our time with Ms. Newberg because, at the spry old age of 104, she was a very busy woman. Her various activities made it difficult to find two or three contiguous hours, but we finally sat down and talked about her students and her school. She loved that high school community and her life as a teacher. There was no way that we were going to limit her air time. Whatever she wanted to talk about, we wanted to hear.

After about an hour, she told us a story of when "the school came to town." Ms. Newberg was raised in rural South Carolina in the early 1900s. This very agricultural, very segregated community did not have much in the way of amenities. They were the definition of "dirt poor." So the idea of a school, much less one that they could help pay for, was unimaginable. But here it was -- through the center of their dirt road community came the wagons carrying the material for their new school house.

She did not remember many of the specifics of the school, but we can be fairly certain that it was more than one building. The school probably came with a teacher's house, outhouse and the school house. This last structure was probably two classrooms, designed either on a North/South or East/West axis. It was heated by wood stoves, had real desks, took great advantage of the natural sunlight and, in a surprising number of cases, might still be standing.

The school that she remembers coming to town was a Rosenwald School -- one of over five thousand constructed between Maryland and Texas from 1915 to 1934. I wrote about the Rosenwald Schools in this space last March.

Imagine building 5,357 schools in 12 states in 19 years. Now imagine that these schools weren't just four walls and a roof, but innovative facilities focused on daylighting, proper ventilation, flexibility, community use, child safety and comfort.

This accomplishment is inspiring enough, but now remember that this all took place in a time where 17 states still mandated that school populations be segregated. In this era, the disparity between the "white" schools and "colored" schools was obvious, apparent and embarrassing.

The building of more than 5,000 schools can be credited to one man: Julius Rosenwald. He was a brilliant businessman who is crediting with saving the Sears and Roebuck Company, rising from part owner to President and, ultimately, to Chairman of the Board. In the early 1900s, Mr. Rosenwald, and his friend Paul J. Sachs came to the conclusion that the plight of the African Americans was of paramount importance. Mr. Sachs introduced Mr. Rosenwald to two prominent educators, William Baldwin and Booker T. Washington. These introductions led to a position on the board of directors of the Tuskegee Institute. In 1913, this group constructed six small schools in rural Alabama. Mr. Rosenwald provided the funds, Tuskegee provided the design and oversight and Mr. Washington provided the educational model.

In 1917, Mr. Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund that contributed matching funds towards the construction of these 5,357 schools. Remember the story told by Ms. Newberg, and now imagine it playing out in thousands of communities across the country.

The requirement was that the funds had to be raised collaboratively between white and black citizens. Public funds and private donations had to be committed. And in a time when the populations legally had to remain separate, they had to come together to fund the local and private component.

Through Ms. Newberg's recollection we could all see the wondrous carnival bring the new school to town. It should tell us something about the drive for education and the impact that our schools have on our community, teachers and students. Remember the last school that "came to your town"? Was it accompanied by the fanfare and jubilation that I can only imagine came with Ms. Newberg's Rosenwald School?