The student news website of Omaha Central High School

The Register

The student news website of Omaha Central High School

The Register

The student news website of Omaha Central High School

The Register

Defending public schools for 160 years

Central’s first student newspaper reminds us that free public education can never be taken for granted
History Nebraska
The cover of the December 1859 issue of The Free School Advocate featuring the newspaper’s motto

When Omaha High School opened its doors to students on Nov. 10, 1859, it became one of the first schools in the territory of Nebraska not to charge them for their education. One month later, the school’s pupils established Nebraska’s first student newspaper to keep it that way.  

The Free School Advocate made its first appearance on Dec. 21, 1859, in the school that would later become Central. At the time, Omaha was a wayward settlement of around 4,000 people on the far edge of the rapidly expanding United States. 

The territorial legislature had authorized the taxation of local mills to raise the funds needed to establish a public school system in Nebraska four years earlier. Prior to the law, American and European settlers in the region had to pay tuition for their children to attend a private or “subscription” school. Many of these schools only offered primary grades, not high school, and their cost ensured that poor children received no schooling at all. 

Even as it welcomed its first students, the future of Omaha High School was unclear. The tax money used to fund the school, collected at a time when most settlers were struggling financially from the Panic of 1857, had already been stretched thin. Amid uncertainty about whether it could stay open without charging tuition, the students began to document the school’s educational methods and academic achievements in their newspaper.  

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The Advocate published news, editorials, poetry and creative writing, all the work of students at the high school. Since they could not afford to have the paper printed, only one copy of each issue was produced, handwritten in fine script by student editors. Each issue was read aloud before the study body at school assemblies at 3 p.m. each Wednesday.

The Advocate was far more visually appealing than other student newspapers of the era. Over its short lifespan, the paper’s covers, often decorated with illustrations and calligraphy, became increasingly elaborate.

It is believed to have ceased publication sometime in 1860. The surviving issues of the paper are in the collection of The Nebraska State Historical Society. Today, The Free School Advocate is an artifact of Central’s humble beginnings as a two-story red brick schoolhouse in a budding settlement on the American frontier. 

Yet, when its tattered old issues are read closely, the paper’s words have strangely gained a new relevance. The Omaha High School was a rare exception in a time when most settlers in Nebraska had to pay for schooling or not learn at all. The students who founded the paper could not take free public schools for granted, so they had to use journalism to fight for their right to be educated.  

While our circumstances have changed, Central students once again find themselves living through a perilous moment for Nebraska public schools. In April, the state legislature passed a law making public funds available to private schools for the first time. Omaha Public Schools estimates that its general budget will be reduced because of the legislature’s changes to school funding at a time in which the district is experiencing a historic teacher shortage.  

At the same time, public schools across the state are being confronted by a growing backlash from right-wing activists claiming, without evidence, that teachers are indoctrinating students. In these troubled times, the motto of The Free School Advocate (1859) reminds us why public education is an institution worth defending: 


“Our glorious motto, bear it on, o’er mountains, plain and sea;  

For every daughter, every son 

Our public schools are free 

Nebraska teems with wealth untold,  

Yet her proudest boast shall be, 

Not that her mountains are rich in gold 

But that her schools are free”

The cover of the April 1960 issue of The Free School Advocate (History Nebraska)

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About the Contributor
Jane McGill
Jane McGill, Staff Writer

Hello Register readers! My name is Jane McGill, and this is my third and final year at The Register. I served as Executive Editor, editing The Register’s news reporting and supervising staff writers, for first semester before returning to work in investigative journalism as a staff writer for the remainder of the school year. 

I joined The Register as a staff writer my sophomore year, after taking Intro to Journalism as a freshman. As a junior, I edited the paper’s arts and cultural coverage. I am best known for my investigative reporting into issues affecting students at Central and across the Omaha metro area. My investigations have shed light on the teacher shortage at Central, given a voice to LGBTQ+ students suffering discrimination in Omaha’s Catholic schools, and exposed racial and socioeconomic disparities in Central’s advanced classes. Stories I have written for The Register have been taught in university courses, discussed at OPS school board meetings, and read on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.  

For my investigation into the historic exodus of teachers from Central during the 2021-2022 school year, I won the Student Journalist Impact Award. I am the 2023 Nebraska State Champion in Newspaper Newswriting. Over the summer, I covered climate change and sustainability in Omaha as Editorial Intern for The Reader. When not writing stories or doing homework, I can be found re-reading The Bell Jar or watching Stanley Kubrick movies. I was voted most likely to be hit by a city bus by the Register staff.  

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    Noa GilbertSep 28, 2023 at 4:46 pm

    Omg what an exciting column!!! What an iconic history you all are upholding. Looking forward to more installments.