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Although increasingly regarded as important to the establishment and maintenance of the nation’s public school system, as teacher training institutions began to appear across the nation in the mid-nineteenth century they initially rested at the bottom of the educational hierarchy. In the earliest years, few, if any, granted baccalaureate degrees, providing instead certificates verifying graduates’ instructional competence in various fields or at specific instructional levels. Many of their faculty lacked the credentials required to teach at most established colleges and universities and their students frequently lacked both the precollegiate training and financial resources for admission to such schools. Furthermore, these new facilities often served populations traditionally underserved by other institutions including women, minorities, and the children of less affluent families, and their mission of teacher preparation was one in which many established colleges and universities had little or no interest. Consequently, it is not surprising that in their early years many normal schools, including that at Cedar Falls, struggled because of their lack of tradition and status. 

Following the passage of legislation authorizing a normal school for Iowa, Governor Kirkwood appointed a board of directors that met in Cedar Falls in June 1876 to accept control of what had been the orphanage property and to begin the process of organizing the new school. The board selected James Cleland Gilchrist as the first principal. Gilchrist, born in Pennsylvania and reared in Ohio, had attended Antioch College where he had studied under Horace Mann and was therefore familiar with the pioneering ideas of his teacher. He also brought to his new job considerable experience as an educational administrator in several normal schools and most recently as superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa. In July 1876, the board met again to develop policies for faculty, staff, and students while also selecting three additional teachers, a steward, and a matron. Classes began on September 6, with twenty-seven students.

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