Early schools of the small, private, or "subscription," type operated under primitive conditions with inadequate supplies. Tuition was often paid in agricultural produce such as tobacco, which was considered legal tender. Some school buildings were used also as church houses. Even after public education was established in 1830, private academies flourished, patronized by wealthier families who scorned the public or so-called "pauper" schools.

Madison Female Institute,
 now Madison Middle SchoolOne private academy is particularly noteworthy: Madison Female Institute. When it was incorporated in 1858, a large brick residence located on a hilltop south of downtown Richmond was enlarged to accommodate the school, and ten acres were divided into lawns, gardens, and tennis courts. Following the Civil War Battle of Richmond in August 1862, the building served briefly as a Union army hospital where teachers and students helped care for the wounded. Madison Female Institute attracted students from all over the South and became famous as a finishing school. The property was leased in 1919 to the City Board of Education for ninety-nine years; today, it is the location of Madison Middle School.

In 1939 Model School of Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College merged with Madison High School. The merged schools remained until 1962. In the 1960's in response to federal court rulings the old black high school in Richmond, Richmond High School, was merged with Madison High School. In 1989 Madison High became Madison Middle School and high school students went to Madison Central High School. In response to population increase Madison Southern High School was created in the 1980's. Berea Independent School continues to be the only independent public school in the county.

Information for this article came from Lavinia H. Kubiak's Madison County Rediscovered:  Selected Historic Architecture (1988)