While compiling the 50-Years-Ago items recently, I began finding several articles and pictures about various kindergarten end-of-year activities and graduation ceremonies. They attracted my attention—and found their way into the Yesterdays column—because I realized the children in those pictures were my classmates. We had graduated from kindergarten 50 YEARS AGO!!!

There was no public pre-K or Kindergarten classes in Conway, or for that matter, in Arkansas in 1968. In fact, the Arkansas Constitution at that time only allowed the state to fund education for persons between six and twenty-one. Conway native-son Joe Ford, serving in the Arkansas Senate, actually co-sponsored the 1968 constitutional amendment, Amendment 53, which finally allowed kindergartens to be funded by the state.

So in 1967-68, kindergarten was optional. If parents wanted their children to get a head start on their education, they had to seek out private schools around Conway that usually offered a half-day program.

I attended a half-day morning kindergarten class at First Baptist Church, taught by Betty Courtway. The middle school in eastern Conway, named in 1997 for her husband, Bob Courtway, longtime Hendrix coach and athletic director who also served on the Conway Board of Education, was recently renamed Bob and Betty Courtway Middle School to recognize her contribution to education in Conway. She would be one of Conway’s first public kindergarten teachers. Her enthusiasm for children and learning gave us all a good start.

FBC Kindergarten was just one of several private kindergartens in Conway at the time. Others were Bluebird Kindergarten, which had been run by Mrs. Eva Radley for over 30 years; Second Baptist Church Kindergarten, with morning and afternoon classes taught by Mrs. Wendell Bryant; Jennie Hayden at 1033 Mitchell; Jack and Jill Kindergarten taught by Mrs. Collins Isom; and Good Shepherd Kindergarten on Ingram Street operated by St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Although the constitutional obstacle had been removed in 1968, no state appropriation for public kindergarten was made by the Arkansas legislature until 1972, when it set aside $200,000 for a pilot kindergarten program. Gov. Dale Bumpers would campaign strongly to fund a statewide kindergarten program.

Sen. Joe Ford was one of three senators who introduced a large kindergarten appropriation bill in 1973 and was one of five senators on the Senate Education Committee that gave the bill a “do pass.” The full Senate subsequently passed the bill and sent it to the House, which also approved it. It then became Act 83 of 1973.

Nearly half of all kindergarten-aged Arkansas children were in school for the 1973-74 school year. For the 1974-75 school year, there were 293 half-day programs in the state. Most districts had a half-day program because they didn’t have enough certified teachers. Under this policy, one teacher could, therefore, lead two classes.

By July 1976, more than 80 percent of all eligible five-year-old Arkansas children were registered for kindergarten for the 1976-77 school year. Gov. David Pryor and the legislature continued to increase kindergarten funding throughout the rest of the decade.

Today, Arkansas is one of twelve states that requires districts to offer a full-day kindergarten program. It is also one of sixteen states that has mandatory kindergarten attendance, stating that five-year-olds must attend six hours a day. The state has also been a leader in creating programs to prepare students for kindergarten, creating pre-K programs.

But most of us Conway kindergarten graduates of 1968 feel we got a good start, thanks to the dedicated women who operated those private schools. We also have some pretty fond memories.

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Cindy Beckman is a local freelance history writer. She may be reached at beckman@windstream.net