When one hears the letters P- T- A (an acronym for Parent-Teacher Association), music fans of a certain age may immediately start singing the words to East Kentuckian Tom T. Hall’s hit song Harper Valley PTA. Hall’s vividly described story, from growing up in Olive Hill, Kentucky, painted an unflattering picture of local politics and clashes between members of a PTA group in the mid-20th century. Jeannie C. Riley brought new life to the song with her gritty vocal interpretation of Hall’s lyrics which led to a Grammy win in 1969, among other liberating, life-changing events for her.
But have you ever heard the story of the Constance (Kentucky) PTA?
In early 2020, BCPL’s Local History Department received a donation of some simple but rough-looking old notebooks. The donor was anonymous; the items came in by way of BCPL’s Book Cellar. At first glance, these mundane-looking items, containing meeting minutes of some kind, did not appear to offer much in the way of intriguing, or thought-provoking, information. As a rule, the words “meeting minutes” do not typically inspire or induce excitement among, well, anyone.
But historians, archivists, and other researchers know that these seemingly boring records can, at times, offer a wealth of insights into the past. They often list details not captured elsewhere. The Constance (KY) PTA Meeting Minute Books, 1930-1957, do just that. They consist of four notebooks, made of various styles and bindings, along with one small black and white photograph, membership lists, news clippings, loose notes, and ephemera. The information revealed in these meeting minute books, dutifully kept over two-and-a-half decades by various PTA secretaries, helps paint a picture of the history of one particular rural grade school in Boone County.
The Constance School was located in northern Boone County, in the riverfront community of Constance, Ky. The Constance PTA was formed in the mid-1920s and a primary function was to oversee the school’s lunch room. The group hired and paid a lunch room manager ($6 per week in 1937), who worked with a parent volunteer to see that hot school lunches were provided to the students.
The PTA met monthly during the school year in the basement of the building where the kitchen was located. They held an annual oyster supper fundraiser and membership drive in the fall, an annual Christmas party, and a PTA Founder’s Day celebration in February. Membership levels varied over time, as did the secretaries, and their quality and precision of hand-writing. Mr. & Mrs. Ralph V. Lents, the two teachers at the Constance school, regularly attended the meetings. (In their retirement years, Mr. Ralph V. and Mrs. Mollie Newman Lents would donate land for the construction of a library branch in Hebron, which opened in 1998 and named in their honor.)
The PTA helped fund a whole host of school improvements. Health, water quality, and outdoor versus indoor plumbing were among many of the issues discussed at the meetings over time. Improvements included purchasing books, playground equipment, a piano, window screens and a screen door, and everyday supplies like a medicine cabinet, pencil sharpeners, and paper products.
During the difficult years of the Great Depression, and into the early 1940s, the group collected books, magazines, and small donations (pennies, nickels, and dimes) for Kentucky’s Pack Horse Library, to help the children and families in the eastern Appalachian part of the state. Feeding local children in need became a priority– in April 1932, the lunch room was recorded as giving “420 free meals this past winter.” During World War II, local draftees enlisted in the basement of the school building. By the fall of 1946, the school and PTA were considering applying for the new government lunch program.
On several occasions, a Red Cross nurse and a county home demonstration agent visited to discuss health, nutrition, and water quality issues. In later years, the PTA lobbied the school board and superintendent, Herbert N. Ockerman, for help on various concerns. In May-June 1949, a few PTA parents protested the decision by the school board to move 6th, 7th and 8th grade students from Constance to the Hebron School.
In 1951-52, the Constance PTA helped fund the purchase and installation of a telephone pole and telephone for the school. By 1953-1954, PTA members proposed, and later purchased, a new film projector and screen for the school, spending in the range of $300-325. Motion-picture films were still a fairly new technology in education at the time; the Eastman Company was cited as the likely vendor. Also purchased were new window shades to block out the sun while the projector was in use. In 1956, the group bought a world globe for the school.
Reading through The Constance (KY) PTA Meeting Minute Books, 1930-1957, one is reminded of the countless, incremental changes that took place in public education in the early to middle 20th century, to centralize, standardize and modernize public education. As students head back to school this fall, still navigating with their families the challenges of the pandemic of 2020-2021, maybe we all could use another reminder of how previous generations worked – diligently and methodically – to provide better schools and educations for their children.
Tracey Howerton is a Local History Librarian at Boone County Public Library.