The first Opportunity School in South Carolina was organized under the direction of the State Department of Education as an experiment in adult education. Dr. Wil Lou Gray, the state supervisor of adult education, created a boarding school for young people who could not attend public school or who had not gone further than the fifth grade. The school opened August 2, 1921, at the Tamassee DAR (Daughters of American Revolution) School in Oconee County. Its primary purpose was to offer undereducated young white women the opportunity to secure intensive instruction during a summer residential experience. Some seventeen women registered as boarders at Tamassee and received instruction from one paid teacher and several volunteers from Winthrop College and the surrounding community.
Opportunity Schools were patterned after Cora Wilson Stewart’s Moonlight Schools in Kentucky and named after Emily Griffith’s Opportunity School in Denver, Colorado. Inspired in part by the Danish “folk school” concept, the South Carolina Opportunity Schools were based on the premise that a central place was needed where students could learn in an environment free from the pressures of grades, academic standing, degrees, and exams. Residential adult education meant living together, taking meals together, and sharing responsibilities and experiences. The initial goal was to acculturate unschooled, rural mill workers into modern society, especially in the realm of citizenship. Schools offered instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, health habits, civics, good manners, domestic science (including hygiene), and arts and crafts work. The virtues of faith in God and country were instilled through the curricular focus on middle-class concepts of culture, including religion, morals, manners, etiquette, and citizenship. For example, students read Bible Story Reader and Country Life Reader and memorized the Twenty-third Psalm.
The Tamassee experiment led to further efforts to provide evening classes and short-term schools for two or more hours a day during slack periods of agricultural and mill employment. On November 1, 1921, Gray met in Lancaster with the Board of Education of the Upper South Carolina Methodist Conference and outlined a plan that called for one or two colleges to open during August to teach the “three Rs,” supplemented by courses in citizenship and, for women, courses in domestic arts. Clemson, Anderson, Erskine, and Lander colleges donated their campuses for one-month sessions, and enrollment continued to increase.
In 1931 the Opportunity School became coeducational for the first time at Clemson College. Five years later the Opportunity School for Negroes opened at Voorhees Industrial School in Denmark. In 1947 the General Assembly appropriated $65,000 to be used for year-round adult schooling. That same year a site on the Columbia Army Air Base became the permanent home of the Opportunity School. Programs expanded in the late 1960s to include undereducated military veterans and clients from Vocational Rehabilitation, CETA / Job Corps, Department of Social Services, dropouts, truants from Juvenile Justice, the National Guard, and state school systems. At the start of the twenty-first century, the Opportunity School continued as an alternative educational source aimed at reaching out to teenagers or young adults who had not completed high school, while meeting the educational needs of the state.
Ayres, DaMaris E. Let My People Learn: The Biography of Dr. Wil Lou Gray. Greenwood, S.C.: Attic Press, 1988.
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Gray, William S., Wil Lou Gray, and J. W. Tilton. The Opportunity Schools of South Carolina, An Experimental Study New York: American Association for Adult Education, 1932.