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History Minute: Arch Ford's contributions to education in Arkansas

by Bradly Gill | September 20, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

"The mind once enlightened can never again become dark," wrote Thomas Paine generations ago. Progress in education has been an important feature of the development of the United States as it steadily moved to become an economic and scientific leader.

Arkansas faced a difficult transition as it attempted to develop its school system in the twentieth century. One of the key leaders in Arkansas education was Arch Ford, the former state education commissioner.

Archibald Washington Ford was born in the small Faulkner County community of Wooster in 1906. The importance of education was emphasized to him at an early age. His father, the Rev. Thomas Noah Ford, was a Baptist minister, farmer and a leader in public education in Faulkner County in the early 1900s. He served on the Wooster School Board and later on the Faulkner County Board of Education.

In the early 1900s, most Arkansas communities had schools of some type. However, the quality differed widely among the hundreds of school districts spread across the state's 75 counties. In 1900, there were still no compulsory school attendance laws, few standards for teachers or what was taught, school terms in many districts were only four months and many communities only had one-room schools educating children of all ages at different grade levels because of a lack of resources. Most school districts did not offer any education past the eighth grade. Many children may only have a couple years of education if they had any at all.

Though Arkansas was an agricultural state, and the labor of children was seen as necessary on the farms, the education system in Arkansas was far behind other farming states. In addition, schools were segregated, increasing costs for districts.

As a child, Ford was sent to a local two-room school that had only a six-month term so students would be able to help on their family farms. The family moved briefly to Oklahoma when Ford was 13, where he was able to attend a full nine-month term. The family returned to Wooster when he was 15, and he had to attend the high school ten miles away in Conway, as that was the only high school in Faulkner County at the time. In the meantime, his father worked on the county school board to consolidate the patchwork of dozens upon dozens of school districts in the county down to just seven.

Upon graduation, Ford attended Arkansas State Teachers School in Conway (the modern University of Central Arkansas). Upon his graduation in 1928, he attended the University of Arkansas where he received a masters degree in vocational education. He spent the next several years as a teacher.

In 1935, he began working with the Civilian Conservation Corps developing and advising the education programs offered to its participants. He began working for the Arkansas Department of Education in 1941, supervising vocational education and business education programs.

In 1953, Ford became the state commissioner, supervising education programs and teacher training for all districts. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Ford recognized that this would completely change education in Arkansas, and he began quietly crafting policies to comply. Ford, however, was limited as to what he could do as desegregation faced volatile opposition in many communities.

Many districts were later placed under supervision of the federal courts for their resistance to desegregation. Nevertheless, he assisted districts in adjusting to their constitutional responsibilities regarding equality, providing policy and training input.

His efforts went far beyond the traditional student. He began programs to provide education to disabled students, starting with an experimental program in Conway in 1959 that spread throughout the entire state by the late 1970s. He worked with legislators and campaigned for a constitutional amendment to allow state educational funds to allow five-year-olds (for kindergarten) and residents over 18 greater access to educational programs by 1968.

Ford's efforts were helped by many legislators, teachers and governors in his long career who shared his passion for educating the next generation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, recognizing that many students needed job skills beyond high school, he worked with legislators to create 23 vocational schools across the state, offering such programs as welding, carpentry, automotive repair, and even nursing. Many of these vocational education programs have since been absorbed by local community colleges, who now provide these opportunities for skilled trades and workforce training in their communities. He further advocated teacher pay raises and funding for education television.

In 1969, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller had one of the newly refurbished buildings in the Capitol complex renamed for Ford in honor of his work for Arkansas schools. The building, down the hill from the Capitol, had originally been erected in the 1930s under the administration of Gov. Carl Bailey to house state administrative offices. The Arch Ford Annex houses many state educational offices today.

In 1978, at the age of 72, he stepped down from his position after 25 years as state education commissioner. Ford retired to Conway.

He died in 1987 at the age of 81, lauded by educators across the state for his service. He was further honored with the dedication of the Arch Ford Education Service Cooperative in Plumerville to aid in teacher training.

He became synonymous with public education in Arkansas in a long and distinguished career, and thousands of students forever had their lives improved in part through his efforts.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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