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The history of Ellerbe School
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The history of Ellerbe School

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One of the first schools in the state to offer hands-on learning has a Hickory connection.

Marty Abbott Goodman of Ellerbe has spent the last 30 years collecting articles, photos and information on the Ellerbe School in Richmond County. The school is famous for being one of the first schools to introduce progressive education. This educational technique encouraged students to learn by doing. Goodman attended the school and completed all 12 grades, but it was after the school’s fame had faded.

Goodman said she thought the people of Hickory would be interested to know that the school’s second principal, Richard Franklin Little, was originally from Hickory, as were two of the teachers, Mary Wolff and Elizabeth Wolff Parsons.

Goodman said that Little was well-known around Hickory because he would often run along the streets at night, earning him the nickname, “The Midnight Runner.” He also was a prominent track athlete during his high school and college days. According to Goodman’s research, Little was offered a position on the United States track team for the 1912 Olympics, but his parents wouldn’t allow him to join.

Goodman started collecting information when she was working on her master’s thesis in 1988. She had grown up in the area and heard her parents and grandparents talk about the famous school in Ellerbe. Her interest grew as the years passed.

“My main purpose wasn’t to make money. I didn’t want the story to be lost,” Goodman said. “I knew once my generation was gone, the story would be over.”

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Goodman said she had been wondering for a long time what to do with all the information she gathered. She kept it all in a large plastic bin. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the country started shutting down, she decided to write her book, “Learning by Doing: An Annotated Scrapbook of the Ellerbe School 1920-1949.”

“I wanted to show it (the school’s history), not tell it,” Goodman said. “Which is what inspired the scrapbook idea.”

Goodman spent last year retyping the articles she had collected. She thought this was the best way to preserve the history of the school rather than paraphrasing and telling the story through her own narrative. She does add her own commentary into the book, but the majority of it is the original articles retyped for visual clarity.

According to Goodman’s book, Little served as principal of the school for 21 years. He never earned a college degree but took some college courses, which in the early 1900s qualified him to be a teacher. He started his college education in 1910 at Lenoir-Rhyne College, now Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Later he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he took a class under Morris Mitchell. Mitchell was the founder and first principal of the Ellerbe School. Mitchell liked Little and wanted him to be the school’s next principal, according to Goodman’s book.

Both Mitchell and Little thought the best way for children to learn was by doing and by being independent. Eventually the children even made their own food from the produce they grew in their gardens. The children also had a student council that would decide how students would be punished. The teachers in the school were mostly there for support and to answer questions, but students were encouraged to work out problems for themselves, if possible, according to Goodman.

Goodman said the school acquired a broken printing press. The students fixed the machine and began printing papers for the town. They even printed a book. This idea of children learning by doing rather than reciting lessons in the classroom was revolutionary at the time, Goodman says.

Goodman’s book is available through Amazon in paperback and in eBook forms.


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