Birmingham Public Schools: The Modern Era
“Schools are laboratories where children combine the hereditary influences of the past with the environment of the present in an effort to develop personal abilities to the greatest extent and thus benefit themselves and mankind for the future.”
Birmingham Public Schools Annual Report 1928-29
Growing to beat the band
By 1916, Birmingham had grown from a pioneer settlement to a modern suburban community, drawing more and more families. The local school district [District No. 1, Fractional of the Townships of Bloomfield, Troy, Royal Oak and Southfield (including the village of Birmingham)] was bursting at the seams.
To make room for the children squeezing into classrooms at Hill and Barnum schools, the district school board asked taxpayers to authorize a bond issue to build a new high school and auditorium. To convince voters to support the additional taxes needed to pay for the new high school, which was to be located at the corner of Maple and Chester in Birmingham, District Superintendent Clarence Vliet wrote a pamphlet promoting his vision for Birmingham’s high school of the future.
The result was Baldwin High School, completed in 1918 and built on property purchased with proceeds from the estate of Martha Baldwin, a former Birmingham teacher, principal, and philanthropist. (Read more about Martha Baldwin in the Early School History exhibit.) It served as a high school until 1952, then as an elementary school until 1972, when it was demolished. The school’s original cornerstone is still visible at the southeast corner of Southfield and Maple.
Over the next fifteen years, Superintendent Vliet advocated for one bond issue after another to build the schools needed in Birmingham to keep up with the influx of new students. He also expanded the curriculum to include science, art, and music and strengthened the athletic program. Many believe Vliet set the foundation for the tradition of high quality education Birmingham Public Schools are still known for today. (Photo of Clarence Vliet, 1915, courtesy Birmingham Eccentric)
Roaring through the '20s
By the 1920s, classrooms began to overflow. World War I had ended and demand for homes in the suburbs surged once again. As the population increased, the district built even more schools to keep up, going to the voters each time to ask them to approve bond issues. And each time they did.
Three elementary schools were built in the 1920s: Adams, Pierce and Quarton. All have similar architectural details representative of the period, including brick exteriors, banks of tall windows and limestone trim.
- Adams School (1921): Adams and Ridgedale. Named for the Adams family, who owned Shadyside Farm nearby. Originally served K-6th graders but in 1925 was expanded to accommodate junior high grades (7th -9th). Closed in 1980, now part of the private Roeper School.
- Pierce School (1924): Named for Pierce Street on the west side of the property. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
- Quarton School (1927): Chesterfield and Oak. Named for Fred. V. Quarton, who owned the property on which the school was built. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
Neighboring schools welcomed
Though development slowed during the Great Depression, by the 1940s the suburbs were bustling and the school district expanded once more. The State of Michigan pressured smaller school districts to consolidate. The Birmingham district offered to absorb the smaller surrounding districts, and portions of the Southfield, Bloomfield and Troy districts agreed to annexation. This consolidation is evident today in the irregular shape of the Birmingham district (see map).
The annexed districts brought three new elementary schools into the fold in 1945: Franklin, Bloomfield Village and Walnut Lake. All three schools were closed in the 1980s and 1990s and now operate as private schools.
The baby boomers start kindergarten
Veterans returning from WWII got married, started a family and bought a home thanks to help from the G.I. Bill. Vacant land in the suburbs filled in quickly and family size grew. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of families with three children doubled and the number with four children quadrupled. And that meant the district needed more schools. Thanks to district voters’ strong support of operating millage campaigns and bond issues, seventeen new schools were built between 1950 and 1968.
Elementary schools proliferate
Eleven new elementary schools were tucked into neighborhoods to serve the families that lived nearby. Designed to be functional, the schools were flat-roofed, single-story brick structures with metal-framed windows and doors. The architecture of Harlan Elementary (shown here) was typical of the time. All of the elementary schools still in use by the district today have benefited from significant renovations.
- Torry Elementary (1950): East Lincoln and Torry. Closed in 1981. Now home to Our Shepard Lutheran School.
- Beverly Elementary (1955): Beverly Road. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
- Pembroke Elementary (1955): North Eton Street. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
- Greenfield Elementary (1957): Greenfield and 13 Mile. Demolished and completely rebuilt in 2006. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
- Midvale Elementary (1957): Midvale and Glenhurst. Repurposed in 1995 as the Early Childhood Center and the senior center now called NEXT.
- Valley Woods Elementary (1957): Bellevine south of 14 Mile. Closed in 1975 but has continued to be a home to students; first as Yeshvath Beth Yehuda, a school for girls and currently as the Beverly Hills Academy, an Islamic Montessori school.
- Harlan Elementary (1958): Adams north of Big Beaver. Built on ten acres of land formerly owned by Mr. C. Allen Harlan. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
- Westchester Elementary (1962): W. Maple Road. Closed in 1981. Now serving as the Detroit Country Day Lower School.
- Meadow Lake Elementary (1963): Lindenmere near Inkster and 14 Mile. Now the French School of Detroit, a French language immersion school open to families in the district.
- Evergreen Elementary (1966): 13 Mile and Evergreen. Closed in 1981 and now serves elderly residents as Evergreen Health and Living Center.
- Bingham Farms Elementary(1968): 13 Mile west of Lahser. Continues to operate as a PreK-5th grade public school.
Junior highs multiply
All four of the junior high schools built during the post-WWII expansion included gymnasiums and swimming pools. The original architecture reflected the era in materials and function. Derby (shown here) had a second floor to accommodate more classrooms. Each of the junior highs served 7th- 9th grade students when they opened and each has received upgrades and additions over the years.
- Derby Junior High (1958): Derby and Adams. First of the period’s junior high schools to be built in the Birmingham district. Now serves as a middle school for 6th-8th grades.
- Berkshire Junior High (1963): 14 Mile Road. Now serves as a middle school for 6th-8th grades.
- Covington Junior High (1967): Covington and Cranbrook. Transitioned from 7th-9th grades to a 3rd-8th districtwide school renamed Birmingham Covington School (BCS) in 1995.
- West Maple Junior High (1968): Inkster north of Maple. Named for its proximity to Maple Road. Now operates as a PreK-5th grade public school.
High schools double in number
While Seaholm High School, built in 1952, resembled the other new elementary and junior high schools in utilitarian design, Groves’ architecture incorporated now iconic elements of the mid-century modern style. Such features are evident in the glassed-in courtyards and the rippled roofline (shown here).
- Ernest W. Seaholm High School (1952): W. Lincoln and Cranbrook. Built to replace Baldwin High School and was confusingly first called Birmingham High School. When Groves High School was completed in 1959, the name was changed to honor Ernest W. Seaholm, a long-time resident and former school board president. (See also Early School History)
- Wylie E. Groves High School (1959): W. 13 Mile and Evergreen. Named for former school board treasurer Wylie E. Groves. It originally included 7th-10th grades, but within two years expanded to accommodate 11th and 12th graders.
Both high schools currently serve 9th-12th grade students.
Modern lifestyles, smaller families
Enrollment peaked in the 1967-68 school year with more than 18,000 students and 900 teachers filling classrooms to the brim. However as school enrollment began to decrease over time, Birmingham Public Schools faced the prospect of consolidation and reorganization – a trend that would continue until the 1990s when enrollment finally stabilized at around 8,000 students.
Since early in Birmingham’s history, the community has shown a resolute commitment to rigorous education for all students, thanks to the groundwork laid by leaders like Martha Baldwin and Clarence Vliet. The consistent support of voters for millage and bond issues from 1916 through today has made it possible for the schools to grow to meet the needs of students in the district. As a result of that commitment and support, Birmingham Public Schools are ranked among the highest-performing districts in the state today.
Virtual exhibit by Lori Eaton, Birmingham Museum. Except where noted, all images, Birmingham Museum collection.
Brief timeline of Birmingham Schools in the Modern Era