Schools, like churches, historically serve as the glue that binds a community together. Parents and children are forced to interact; there are teacher conferences, carpools and school functions to attend. Taft is no different, and the schools in Taft symbolize the community they serve.
There is little documented history of schools before 1910. One local resident reflected how he has heard that early on all children, both white and black, attended a school on the west side of town that consisted of one room and was taught by Mrs. Jenny Ivey. However according to “The Public History of Public Education in Orange County” the Taft Black elementary school did not open until 1911, however that same publication does not show Taft Elementary opening leading to the belief that the book is in error. Another story was that the white children attended their own school located on the top floor of a local house. Soon the Sphaler brothers donated land and the citizens built a school at 4th Street and 2nd Avenue for the white children. Money for the school had been raised through special tax districts. The black children remained at their school. The first principal was a Mr. William Hansel and he earned a monthly salary of $75, while a teacher at the school received $50 a month. Reflecting the times, a teacher in the “colored” school received $30. The new school was the envy of Orange County; it was state of the art and could seat 500 students if needed. It was the third largest in the County, classes were held for grades one to eight. It soon was recognized as one of the best in Orange County. In1917 John and Dorcus Langley became Principal and primary teacher at the school. This was the year that required new students from outlying areas to be quarantined for two weeks as a safeguard from the infantile paralysis that was spreading through the country. That was also the year the school went from a six-month term to an eight-month term. Orange County schools would close its schools the following year because of the national influenza. Children were rewarded for good behavior with the honor of ringing the school bell in the morning. Early on, reflecting the nature of the area, some children rode horses to school. The school had an assembly room that was utilized for plays, parties and meetings. Later on this room was used to show movies. Plumbing was added in 1933. W.J. Brown was a teaching principal in 1934. Mytrle Cumbie Harley, Dorothy Jones, Francis Dollar, Charles Ford, Mrs. Shoup, and Mrs. Bohsancurts all taught at the first school. Ethel Encinosa served as the secretary. The Taft elementary school would serve its community well for the next 50 years. The actual number of children that attended this school is not available but most of Taft’s early youngsters received “reading and writing” training there.
One of the more popular teachers at the old school was Carrol Terry. He was a tall man, originally hailed from Oklahoma and had a Will Rogers outlook on life. Students fondly remember him teaching them the harmonica. During WWII he sent the students out to collect scrape metal so they could feel they were helping with the war effort. He made sure they each got a nickel for their hard work and most of the students would hurry to Gresham’s store to purchase candy. There was a visiting nurse; she came by the school twice a month to check on the health of the children. The school had a visiting art, as well as music teacher. Grades 1-3 shared one room, with grades 4-8 occupying the other. Each grade had its own row and Mr. Terry scooted his chair from row to row, teaching each grade. The rooms had wood-burning stoves and the children moved their desks as close as they could in the winter. When the warmer weather hit, the children would move as close to the window as possible, as the school had no air conditioning.
Black children attended a school located at Sidney Hayes and Cypress Street. The school was originally housed in a church building and consisted of two rooms with an outhouse in back. Mrs. Josie Cooper was one of the first teachers; she was also a substitute mother for many of the younger children. Hard economic conditions required many mothers to work and the younger children would attend classes with their siblings. If the children finished their schooling with Mrs. Cooper and if they could find transportation they would go to Jones high. This created a hardship forcing many children to finish their education early. There was an unknown “angel” who was famous for bringing hot lunches to the school at no charge. The school was closed for a few years and the black children were bused to a school at Lake Holden. Orange County later replaced the old building with portables and the school was reopened. The school was active until 1964 when the Brown versus the Board of Education verdict made segregation illegal. The site is now home of a beautiful park.
The original deed for the land that Taft Elementary stood on was for 50 years, expiring in 1959. This, coupled with the fact the building had outlived its usefulness, led to the opening of Cypress Park Elementary in 1959. The old school had only four toilets for the students and lack of class space forced the first graders to meet at Livingston Hall at the Methodist church. Safety at the school had become a concern; locals felt the old building had become a firetrap. A few parents threatened to keep their children home rather than send them to the old school. Orange County responded with a state of the art school for the children of Taft. Construction delays in the sewer system at the new school resulted in the first grade remaining at the old school and children at the new school being bused back to Taft Elementary the first year for lunch. By the following year, the new school was up and running. The old building, along with a lot of memories was torn town in 1964. The land would be used to house the Sphaler Activity Center, home of the Boys and Girls Club. So the young people of Taft still benefit from the generosity of the Sphaler family. The new school, located at 9601 11th Ave., was built for the sum of $92,000, consisted of a one-story cinder block building with six classrooms. Mrs. Annie Bell Wheeler served as the first principal, she had also taught at the old school. Opal Shields also taught at both schools, she is the daughter of Mr. And Mrs. John Langley, continuing a family tradition of educating the children of Taft.
Cypress Park has flourished through the years. It is one of Orange County’s smaller schools, the Department of Education has recommended more than once the school be closed and its students sent to other school. Cypress Park always seemed to be on the state’s “hit list”. Each time local citizens fought hard to keep the school open, the same school many attended. In 1989 when it seemed the school was doomed parents passed out petitions, held meetings and vocally opposed the proposed closing. They were successful but only after a hard battle. But residents have always been involved with the school, many helped with the original landscaping and many served on the PTA. Cypress Park has served its residents well for over 50 years and has taught two generations of young people.