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Yarbrough’s Tenure Saw School Growth

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann Shank, former Sarasota County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - Yarbrough’s Tenure Saw School Growth photo

Thomas Wayland Yarbrough was the standard-bearer for Sarasota schools for nearly four decades. He came to Sarasota in 1907 to lead the public schools and, with the exception of three years in Mulberry, remained until his retirement in 1945.

Yarbrough came to Sarasota as principal of a two-story frame school on Main Street that boasted five classrooms and an auditorium. By the early 1910s, a rapidly growing population required more classroom space, and a red brick school was erected in 1913 on the same property, this time large enough to include high school classes. By the time the school opened in September, enrollment was 253 students (six in the 11th grade) and eight teachers. Yarbrough became principal of the high school with a salary of $125 a month. The first high school graduation was in May 1915 after four students completed the 12th grade.
The following summer, Yarbrough led a campaign to establish compulsory school attendance in the Sarasota district. (Although all public schools were under the county school board, each school had its own trustees and taxing district, which enabled individual districts to act independently in some matters). In the spring of 1915, the state legislature passed legislation that permitted local school districts to enforce, by a 3-5 majority vote within the district, compulsory attendance for students 8-14 years-old.

With the support of the district’s three trustees, the education committee of the Woman’s Club, and the editorial support of Rose Wilson, publisher of the Sarasota Times, Yarbrough pressed for approval in the September election. The vote was 58-5 in favor, from 200 registered voters. The Times noted that the Manatee and Sarasota districts were the first two in the state to adopt the law.

In 1921, Governor Cary Hardee appointed Yarbrough superintendent of public instruction in the wake of the separation of Sarasota County from Manatee County. During the 1920s, Yarbrough oversaw the rapid growth of the student population and the resulting need for additional schools.
At the time when Mediterranean Revival-style architecture became popular, most of the new schools took on the new look. Central Elementary School was built behind the high school in 1924 (the downtown post office now stands in that spot). The following year, Sarasota Grammar School, the first school built for African American students in Sarasota County, opened on what is now Seventh Street, just west of Lemon Avenue. Prior to that, classed for black students had been held in rented, non-school facilities.

To accommodate students to the north and south of the city of Sarasota, Bay Haven and Southside Elementary schools, based on the same architectural design, opened the next year. In 1927, Sarasota High School in Collegiate Gothic Revival-style, opened on South Tamiami Trail, then a two-lane road “out in the country.”
Continuing the Mediterranean style, elementary schools in Osprey, Laurel, Nokomis and Englewood replaced smaller and older frame buildings that no longer accommodated their populations. In 1929, the Nokomis Elementary School expanded to include high school students from the southern part of the county.
In the 1930s, Yarbrough led the county schools through some bleak times. Shortened school terms, tuition fees, and parent organizations providing lunches and clothing for students illustrated the financial difficulties experienced during the Depression years.

On the eve of Yarbrough’s retirement in January, 1945, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune paid him this tribute: “Progressive in spirit and cognizant of the community’s needs, Yarbrough has devoted his influence to the service of Sarasota.” When the “dean of Sarasota schools” died 14 months later, schools closed early so students and teachers could attend his funeral.