WSW: Portage Schools History Through The Eyes Of Former Leaders

Dec 14, 2017

Credit Courtesy of Tom Vance

The Portage School district started in 1922 with five teachers. The first superintendent was Cleora Skinner, who was also the principal of the school. Tom Vance says the person in charge of hiring bus drivers asked them if they could work for a woman.

An interview with Cleora Skinner is the foreword to An Oral History of Portage Schools: Cleora Skinner to Pete McFarlane. All proceeds from sales of the book will go the Portage District Library’s Portage Public School Collection. Vance, who now works for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, is editor of the book and did most of the work on the oral history while he was Community Relations Manager for the Portage School District.

Vance interviewed three former superintendents and ten former presidents of the Portage School Board. The only interview he did not conduct was the one with Cleora Skinner, many years after she led the district. It’s not known who conducted the interview. Vance says a female superintendent in the 1920’s is a “neat part of Portage School and Kalamazoo County history.” But he says it’s not clear “how unique” it was.

From 1947 to 2002, three superintendents, Varl Wilkinson, George Conti and James Rikkers, led Portage Schools. Vance says the stability helped Portage schools. He says there were also many school board members who served for a long time. But he says the district struggled at times to manage its growth. Vance says the district built some schools in places where neighborhoods didn’t develop. Those schools eventually had to be closed. 

Vance says oral history can be a resource for someone who wants to further explore the history of Portage schools. Vance says there are other school board trustees who served for a long time, and people who served in administration who have other perspectives on the district’s history.