Education has been important to the people of Ocean Springs since it was a mere village in the 1850s. The Ocean Springs Gazette of March 24, 1855, has advertisements for two private institutions, the LaFontaine Hill Seminary and the Ocean Springs Academy. Mrs. E.A. Treat was the principal of the LaFontaine Hill Seminary. It was a girls’ school, which accepted boarders for $150 per annum. Primary English and music were the main subjects taught here. E.K. Washington was the master of the Ocean Springs Academy. His curriculum was broader as arithmetic, grammar, composition, natural philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, algebra, geometry, Latin, and Greek were taught. Instructions cost $2.50-$5.00 per month depending on the subject.
Public education for both races began in the 1870s. Little is known about early school houses, but it is believed that some instruction was given from private homes and churches, especially for black children.
One of the earliest private schools was held by Pauline Ryan Bellman (1815-1897) on Jackson Avenue. James Lynch (1852-1935), an Irish immigrant, held school in connection with a small store on the northwest corner of Porter and Jackson from about 1890 until he became Town Clerk in 1919. The earliest white public school building recalled was referred to as “the little red school house.” It was a two-story frame building located at the rear of the fire hall on the east side of Washington Avenue.
In 1899, a large, two-story, pine frame structure with a large pyramidal bell tower was erected on the southwest corner of Porter and Dewey. At the time, this public school building was believed to have been the most sizable wood framed edifice on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Professor Q.D. Sauls was the first principal.
By 1927, a larger school building was needed and the Porter Avenue school was demolished. The wood from the demolition was utilized to build the new black school on School Street. The land was donated by Gus R. Nelson (1886-1970), a Swedish immigrant. The new black school replaced the 1909 building on Vermont Avenue, now M.L. King, Jr., which was lead by Professor Franklin M. Nicholls (1878-1945). Nicholls and his wife, Fannie Birch (1894-1982), moved to Biloxi in 1916, where they were involved in black public education on Nixon Street for many years. In 1959, the street and middle school at 340 Nichols Drive at Biloxi were named in honor and respect of Professor Nichols. A new masonry structure replaced the old wooden building on School Street in 1952. When a 1958 addition was completed, the facility was called the Elizabeth H. Keys High School. Mrs. Keys (1892-1976) was a long time teacher and principal of the institution. In 1980, the property became the Elizabeth H. Keys Vocational Tech School.
1927 Public School
The 1927 Ocean Springs High School was erected on Government Street. It remained the principal white school at Ocean Springs until the present building was dedicated at 406 Holcombe Boulevard in 1966. Miss Mary O’Keefe (1893-1980) who served as Superintendent of Public Schools at Ocean Springs from 1929 until 1945 is fondly remembered by her former students for her high academic standards. Integration of the public school system at Ocean Springs commenced in 1966 and was completed by 1968. Historically, the attitude of all the people of Ocean Springs has been characterized by tolerance, respect, and harmony through the ages. This applies to religious beliefs as well. All one has to do is visit the local public cemetery on Fort Bayou, now called Evergreen, and observe that Protestants and Catholics, Blacks and Whites are all interred in the same burial ground. In the 1994-1995 school term, the Ocean Springs School District was awarded a Level Five Certification. This is the highest academic achievement attainable and only one other Mississippi school district has reached this degree of academic competency.