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Mack School

Grace Shackman
Ann Arbor Observer
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Mack School

For seventy-five years, it's served a changing neighborhood

In September 1922, when the new Mack Elementary School opened, its location at the corner of Miller and Seventh was on the edge of town. In the seventy-five years since, it has gone from being Ann Arbor's newest school building to its oldest. And as subdivisions steadily filled in the farmland to the west, Mack has been transformed from the city's most rural school to its most urban.

"Mack has a long proud history. It's the kind of place that people feel intense about," says Leroy Cappaert, principal from 1969 to 1972. Mack is the quintessential neighborhood school, serving the community through changes in population and the gyrations of educational theory.

The new school opened in the midst of a building boom. Between 1910 and 1930, Ann Arbor's population nearly doubled, from 14,817 to 26,944. Much of the growth was from World War I veterans returning and starting families. Ann Arbor's elementary schools were ill-equipped to cope with the flood of children--all but one school dated back to the nineteenth century.

The old Mack School was typical. Located on Miller across from Fountain, it opened in 1866 as the Third Ward School. Renamed in 1901 in honor of longtime school board member Christian Mack (founder of Mack & Co., Ann Arbor's preeminent homegrown department store), the building was badly overcrowded by the end of World War I. Classes sprawled over into the cloakrooms and even a nearby chapel.

People had talked about the need for expanding and updating Mack and the other elementary schools for years, but little had been accomplished. The cost of replacing the high school, which had burned down in 1905, and the outbreak of the war had delayed action. Voters actually rejected several funding requests under superintendent Herbert Slauson on the grounds that they weren't as modem or far-reaching as needed.

In 1919 Slauson retired. To succeed him, the board hired Leslie Butler of Mt. Pleasant. Although he stayed only four years and never had a school named after him, Butler had a tremendous impact. He had the vision and common sense to develop a comprehensive plan for physical improvements and curriculum changes, and he had the persuasive powers to sell that plan to the community in two millage campaigns in 1920 and 1922.

Thanks to Butler's efforts, Ann Arbor's entire school system was updated during the 1920s. Four new buildings were added: Mack, Angell, Jones, and Burns Park. Two older schools, Bach and Perry, were given major additions.

Mack was the first of the new schools to open because its site had already been purchased in 1919. After students moved to the new building, the old one was tom down and the land was traded to the parks department. Today, the spot where the old school stood is a grassy field connecting Miller to West Park.

To avoid a cookie-cutter appearance, the school board hired different architect firms to design each of the new schools. Mack was designed by a Chicago firm, Childs & Smith, in a style called "modified castle," complete with a tower with a sundial, a battlement roof, and arched first-floor windows and doors.

All of the new schools included kindergartens and libraries--cutting-edge innovations at the time. In addition, Mack, Jones, and Bums Park (then called Tappan) were designed to house separate junior high schools for grades seven through nine, another Ann Arbor first. For the junior high students, Mack's ground floor had a print shop (where students put out the school magazine), woodworking shop, sewing room, and domestic science room. The second floor had a modem gym with bleachers and an auditorium complete with lovely terra-cotta detailing and balconies on the sides and back.

The population of the neighborhood then was mainly German, but Don Behnke recalls some Italian classmates. Karl Horning remembers farm kids from west of town who drove themselves to the junior high in old trucks. Some African Americans were just then beginning to live in the neighborhood northeast of the school (many came to Ann Arbor in the 1920s to work on construction projects). Says Behnke, "We played with them, didn't think anything about it."

Mack lost its junior high in 1937 when Slauson Junior High opened, but otherwise remained unchanged physically for decades. Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it gradually evolved. Most notable was an increase in the number of black families; in the days of segregation, the area east of Mack was one of the few places in Ann Arbor where blacks were permitted to buy houses.

When Sandra Harris moved to the neighborhood in 1959, black students were still a minority. A second grader, Harris was put in the lowest reading group, she assumes because she was black and from the South. But the teacher kept moving her up a group every day until she reached the top section. In spite of this start, she has very fond memories of Mack, saying she experienced no outward acts of racial prejudice and that she had one teacher in particular who encouraged her to reach her full potential.

But Mack didn't escape the national racial tensions of the 1960s. By then the school was about equally divided between blacks and whites. According to Betty Hayward, who was both a mother of a Mack student and a teacher's aide in the 1960s, "There were some aggressive kids. There was quite a bit of trouble in the sixties and early seventies--fights between white and black kids."

Pam Quirk Knight, who attended Mack from 1965 to 1971, recalls, "It was a good learning experience. Some blacks became my best friends, but there were also racial incidents. There were some rough kids, some bomb scares. I was teased about my long blond hair."

Adrienne Burroughs, whose three daughters attended Mack between 1972 and 1989, felt the positives outweighed the negatives. "The diverse population was an advantage, particularly for nonminorities," she says. "When they got to the bigger scene, they were not intimidated." She admits that this view was not shared by all. "When I talked to people and said my kids went to Mack, they'd look at me like, 'What's wrong with you?'"

Even without racial tensions, by the 1970s Mack was beginning to show its age. Burroughs recalls, "The old kindergarten was a real dump." And though three new elementary schools had been built farther to the west, Mack was once again very crowded. "Even in the basement they had classes," Burroughs says. "I remember the kids sitting on carpet pieces because they had no seats."

Clearly something had to be done, but it was equally clear that parents wanted Mack to remain a neighborhood school. They didn't want to go the way of Jones School, which was closed as part of a halfhearted attempt at school desegregation in the late 1960s. After Jones closed, the black children who had formerly walked to school were bussed all over the city. (Jones's building is now Community High.)

When the school board got cost estimates for fixing up Mack, they discovered building a new school would cost only a little more than renovating. But Mack's defenders didn't want to lose the best parts of the old school, such as its lovely auditorium. A committee of staff and citizens deliberated and recommended preserving the old building with a modem addition.

The addition opened for classes in 1974. It was designed as an open school, with a central area and classrooms around the perimeter that flowed into one another. The addition also included a city-financed swimming pool. Leroy Cappaert, whose tenure as principal overlapped his three terms on city council (1964-1970), fought for the pool as a way of giving Mack something special.

Today the other urban schools of its era have either changed use (Bach and Jones) or closed altogether (Perry). Mack is no longer an open school (Bach now has that role), but with its relatively new physical structure, swimming pool, and diverse population, it is still going strong.

Many former Mack students, both black and white, now have children in the school. Some never left the neighborhood; others moved back specifically so their children could go to Mack. One of the latter was Linda Wick, a student in the 1970s. "You know if something is wrong, the teacher will call," says Wick. "There's a lot of support."

-Grace Shackman