Creating a High School in a Desert

Image of high school students waiting for an assembly meeting.
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Leonard J. Arrington Photograph Collection, P0316, Box 3, Fd. 27, image 20A)

With a population of approximately 8,500 people, Topaz had around 1,200 teenagers.[1] The school district had two goals for education at Topaz: to imitate an ordinary education program as much as possible and to ease the students into relocation. But when schools opened on October 26, 1942, the schools were anything but ordinary.[2] Barracks served as classrooms, there was no furniture except for some handmade wooden benches for the students to sit on, and the only textbooks that students had access to were dated, discarded books from California. The barrack classrooms were also freezing during the first autumn months as they had not been properly winterized. It was not until December that the district received new furniture and textbooks.[3]

Another problem that the school districts encountered was the lack of teachers. Originally, the WRA intended all but a few teachers to be white, but it soon became clear that this was unlikely as the turnover rate was high. Instead, about half of the teachers were white while half were evacuees themselves.[4] While the WRA paid the white teachers between 150 to 200 dollars a month, evacuee teachers were only paid 12 to 19 dollars a month.[5] In one case, Tom Ikeda, a Topaz High senior, taught five classes of plane geometry to sophomores.[6]

[1] War Relocation Authority, “Guide Book to the Center,” 31.
[2] L. G. Noble, “Summary Curriculum Report of Topaz City Education Program,” August 1945, Utah State University Special Collections & Archives, General Book Collection, Call no. 375 Un3, 1–2.
[3] Noble, 20.
[4] Akiko J. Tohmatsu, “Japanese-American Youth in Topaz Relocation Center, Utah: An Oral History” (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1994), 64–66.
[5] Leonard J. Arrington, The Price of Prejudice: The Japanese-American Relocation Center in Utah during World War II (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1962), 34–35. In 2020 dollars, this translates roughly to $2,500 to $3,300 dollars a month for white teachers and around $200 to $315 dollars a month for Japanese American teachers.
[6] Norman I. Hirose, interview by Tome Ikeda, “Norman I. Hirose Interview,” July 31, 2008, Densho Digital Archive, Topaz Museum Collection, accessed January 28, 2020, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1013/ddr-densho-1013-7-transcript-f4f16d740d.htm.
[7] Tohmatsu, 64–66.