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Time & Place: Diversity In Reno's Schools

Dick Belaustegui (back row, second from right) poses with his class in front of the Orvis Ring School in northeast Reno, late 1940s.
Courtesy of Dick Belaustegui.
Dick Belaustegui (back row, second from right) poses with his class in front of the Orvis Ring School in northeast Reno, late 1940s.

It may not feel like fall out there yet, but for students throughout our region, summer vacation is over and school is back in session. In this episode of “Time & Place,” historian Alicia Barber takes a look back at the development of Reno’s public schools and some of the neighborhoods they served.

As the first decade of the 20 th century came to a close, Reno was booming, and the town’s two public schools were completely overcrowded. But relief was on the way. Thanks to a major civic bond campaign, five new state-of-the-art schools opened in Reno between 1909 and 1912: a high school on West Street, and four grammar schools that were nicknamed the “Spanish Quartet," or “Spanish Sisters” for their Mission-style architecture.

The second to open was the Orvis Ring Grammar School, named for a former state superintendent. It was located in Reno’s northeast section, which was one of its most diverse neighborhoods from the very beginning. On one side was the University of Nevada, and on the other, blocks of family homes stretched northward from the industrial and commercial corridor of East Fourth Street, originally the Lincoln Highway, up to the racetrack where the Livestock Events Center would later be built.

Dick Belaustegui moved with his family to a house four blocks from Orvis Ring in the mid-1940s. Belaustegui, who was of Basque and German descent, was interviewed about the neighborhood in 2012.

"It was a very mixed neighborhood," Belaustegui said. "There were lots of kids. We had a black family across the street. Three doors down we had a Chinese family. There was a Polish family down on one corner. There was a Portuguese family across the street. We got along fine. We had a great time. We were just kids. They were all of our buddies."

Orvis Ring gained its diverse character from the neighborhood, but that wasn’t all. Even further east, well out of town at the time, was the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which had been established for the area’s tribes in 1916. The kids who lived there attended a separate school on the colony grounds for many years, but it closed in 1945, and its students needed somewhere else to go.

Around the same time, a small African American community had formed several miles north of Reno in an area called Black Springs, named for a creek that ran through it. Black families began to move there around 1950, even though it had no city services, because it was one of the first places in the area where African Americans could own property. There was no public school that far north, so the kids who lived there had to be bused somewhere in Reno. Belaustegui remembered the response at Orvis Ring. 

"Grace Warner was the principal, and she was the first person in Reno that agreed to take the black children from Black Springs and the Indian kids from the Indian colony into the school," said Belaustegui. "So, we had those two groups of kids, plus neighborhoods that were mixed like mine, and we were just one big bunch of people. We had a great time."

Principal Grace Warner became legendary for her support of students of all backgrounds, and in 1964, the Washoe County School District named a new school after her. The Orvis Ring school and another of the Spanish Quartet, the Mary S. Doten school, were both demolished in the 1970s. But the other two remain standing: McKinley Park on Riverside Drive now houses cultural offices, while Mt. Rose, in the Old Southwest, is now celebrating its second century as an elementary school for Reno’s children.

Historian Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. More about the history of Reno’s public and private schools can be found on the Schools and Education tour on the website and smart phone app Reno Historical.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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