[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the corner of Kings Highway and Line Avenue, C.E. Byrd High School teems with the hustle and bustle of being one of the state’s largest high schools. But beyond educating the current hive of Yellow Jackets, the building stands as a testament to education in Shreveport and to the city itself.
Step through the main entrance off Line Avenue and history is there to greet you in the Grover C. Koffman Memorial Foyer, named in honor of the school’s first principal. Trophy cases chronicle years of athletic and academic prowess. The faces of prestigious graduates smile upon you as you walk the hallowed halls.
The alumni roster reads like a local who’s who list: Mayors James C. Gardner and William T. Hanna; philanthropist Virginia Kilpatrick Shehee; Bill Joyce; B.L. “Buddy” Shaw; and Tillman Franks. Others went on to national acclaim, including Sen. J. Bennett Johnston; former Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton; retired Maj. Gen. Richard “Dickie” Murray; Federal Judge Tom E. Stagg Jr.; and former ABC Sports executive Andy Sidaris.
Yes, year after year, an impressive new class leaves the Byrd campus. And each class adds to a history that dates all the way back to the city’s first high school.
The Early Years
Ann M. McLaurin and a team of researchers trace these early roots for Byrd in the book Glimpses of the City of Byrd: 1925-1995:
Professor Clifton Ellis Byrd was hired as principal of Shreveport’s first public high school in 1892. The Caddo Parish School Board rented two rooms in the YMCA to open the school. As the school grew and relocated through the years, Byrd’s reputation also grew. He was promoted to superintendent in 1900.
As Shreveport’s population grew, and as more people valued education, the city needed to resolve crowding issues at the school. Shreveport High School was dedicated in 1910. A decade later, with only two high schools in the parish – Shreveport High School and Central Colored High School – it was evident again that a new building was needed.
On Oct. 3, 1924, Byrd laid the cornerstone for that new building named in his honor. Grover Koffman, who served as principal at Shreveport High School since 1919, continued serving as principal at the new building. C.E. Byrd High School welcomed its first students in October 1925. The school year started late because the furniture did not arrive in time.
City of Byrd
Many have come to know the school as the City of Byrd. But how did a school come to be known as a city within a city?
Koffman is credited with coining the school’s nickname. He considered the students citizens of the school, with a special emphasis on citizenship. He expected his students to carry themselves with utmost decorum in the halls of the building and outside the school.
Jerry Badgley is a graduate and the current principal at Byrd. He said that to this day, the moniker is something the students, administration and alumni take seriously, even if it’s misunderstood in the general public.
“Any time you hear ‘City of Byrd,’ a lot of people think in terms of size,” Badgley said. “Size has nothing to do with it. We do so many different things where the kids make the decisions. They feel like they are a part of the decision-making process, not unlike you and I who are citizens who vote for leaders and feel like we have control of what goes on. That is a lot of what we try and do by making the kids part of it.
“When we go to a football game, count the football players and the support network on the field. Then go into stands and see the cheerleaders, the pep squad and the band. You have half of your school participating in that game. That’s citizenship. It prepares the kids for the next level, whatever that is.”
The Golden Age
The 1950s are described as the Golden Age of Byrd. The Yellow Jackets excelled in everything from football to golf and track. Students also dominated competitions in 4-H, debate, band and more. McLaurin reported in her book that in 1957 Byrd had nine National Merit Scholarship finalists. Koffman, the school’s first principal, retired after 30 years at Byrd in 1955.
That Golden Age extended into the ’60s, but times were changing. In 1965, Arthur Burton enrolled, making Byrd the first school in the city to integrate. Integration came to Shreveport schools full scale in the 1970s, when students from the all-black high school Valencia were merged with Byrd.
By the end of the ’70s, new public and private high schools and the changing demographics of the neighborhood surrounding Byrd were taking a toll. Declining enrollment and a deteriorating building left many questioning the future of Byrd.
Byrd is Back
The 1980s ushered in a new era of growth and revitalization at Byrd. In 1982, parents and students met with the school board to discuss the school’s future. The school board decided to keep the school open and begin renovations. When the school opened for the 1986 academic year, students were welcomed to a completely reconstructed building.
In 1983, the school board established the Math/Science Magnet Program for Byrd. The first students entered the program in 1984. The magnet program helped draw some of Shreveport’s best and brightest students to Byrd.
Lynne Fitzgerald graduated from Byrd in 1961. In 1984, she was serving as assistant principal at Magnet High School when Principal B.L. “Buddy” Shaw called her and told her it was time to “come home” to Byrd. She returned to Byrd as an assistant principal and became principal in 1986 when Shaw retired.
“It was at a time when families were pulling and going to parochial school,” Fitzgerald said. “That was pretty tough. The school dwindled to about 700 students, including the parish night school. The numbers were really low. The magnet proposal came with the idea that it would give us a lifeline to increasing population.”
Fitzgerald turned to fellow alumni with high-school aged children across the city to help by enrolling their students in the magnet program.
“We began to grow again and it was due to people,” she said. “People who had been students there who were good enough to have faith in us and bring their children to Byrd. They were wonderful about trusting us and giving us their children. That’s when it began developing.”
Badgley said two signs that Byrd was back were the ultimate reunions held in the mid-‘80s and mid-‘90s.
“The purpose of that first one was to create the Hall of Fame and to induct the original Hall of Fame members,” Badgley said. “Secondly, to bring attention to Byrd and the new math/science program. They did a great job with it. I was in awe of a lot of people I saw there.
“In the mid-‘90s there was a second ultimate reunion. I won’t say there was a particular goal for that one. I think people just enjoyed the first one and we did another one.”
Badgley said a committee has been formed and is planning a third event around the school’s 100th anniversary. That event will celebrate the past while focusing on the future of the school.
“We have in the works a number of things, including creating a master plan for the school,” he said. “We certainly do not plan on closing our doors anytime soon.”
Byrd’s Living History
As with any history, the story of Byrd is a story of people as much as it is dates and buildings. Take Fitzgerald and Badgley. They are just two examples of a number of people who attended Byrd as students and later returned to serve as teachers and administrators.
“If you had asked me 30 years ago if I’d be where I am today, I would have laughed at you,” Badgley said. “That was one of those situations that just came up. It took my career up to a different level. I’ve enjoyed my time. I enjoy the kids, watching them evolve and succeed and do fun things. The biggest enjoyment is having a student or parent who tells me how much they enjoyed high school, how important it is to them.”
“We don’t ever go far,” Fitzgerald said. “We are homebound people. I don’t know if you can ever capture the deep emotion. But let me give an example. One of our former coaches, Nicky Lester, was a coach in the ’50s. When we started doing reunions again, Nicky got very involved. When Nicky died, at his funeral, they played the alma mater, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
“Charles Ravenna. They did that for him, too. In the alma mater it says ‘Always deep within our hearts/The Purple and the Gold.’ It is deep in our hearts. We love it so much.”
The Legacy Continues
Sidney Beeman is a 2018 graduate of Byrd and will attend LSU in the fall. She recalls that when she came in as a freshman Byrd’s historic traditions, especially those surrounding football games and pep rallies, were a point of emphasis to new students. But she said her fondest connections to the school’s history are the teachers she had who once were Byrd students like her.
“You can tell how much they love it,” she said. “It’s not just a job to them. It makes your time there much more enjoyable.”
Her teachers did share some of the school’s history, Beeman said. They taught her what “C.E.” stood for, and some shared perspectives on the school’s urban legends and ghost stories.
“My biology teacher was on the third floor of the main building,” Beeman said. “She talked about how several times she’d be in the room alone and the door would be wide open, then it would just shut. One time she left the room and when she came back the cabinets were wide open.
“And there’s always the pool. They say crazy stuff happens down there.”
But it’s not the legends and lore that she will remember most about her years as a Yellow Jacket.
“It’s definitely been like a home for the past four years,” she said. “There was a lot of work involved. But there were so many opportunities I was provided and so many lasting friendships I made. It’s definitely had an impact on my life.”