Schools of Grand Rapids

By Act of the Michigan territorial legislature it was provided that so soon as twenty families were settled in a township they should select three commissioners of common schools. To defray the cost of a public system lands were set aside to be sold or leased by the commissioners. Unfortunately, land had little value in those days and income from sale or lease was negligible. Schools were housed in log huts or shabby frame structures, teachers salaries were small and equipment primitive.

The first school in Grand Rapids was public, for the government established and maintained that at the Baptist mission, where in 1826 Isaac McCoy, and in 1827 Leonard Slater, his wife and Miss Purchase, gave instruction to Indians and a few white children. Later other young women came to labor at the mission. Baxter mentions Miss Thompson, Miss Day and Miss Bond, probably all three teachers. Children of the pioneers attended the mission sessions, crossing the river in canoes. Miss Day in 1835 taught school in the upper story of a frame house erected that year by Darius Winsor at Fountain street and Ottawa avenue, but after three months left for her former home in Massachusetts.

A school was established at Reed’s lake in 1834, in the upper part of a log house, by Miss Euphemia Davis, daughter of Ezekiel Davis, and Miss Sophia Reed, daughter of Lewis Reed. This was maintained until in 1835 a school house, probably the first in Grand river valley, was erected near the lake, in which Francis Prescott taught. He married Miss Bond.

In 1836 Miss Sophia Page kept school in a new barn on Monroe avenue, opposite the present Morton hotel. In 1836-37 Daniel Smith of Cazenovia. N.Y., taught young men, and Miss Mary Hinsdill young women at the National hotel. Averaged attendance, 25.

May 9, 1835, the first public school district within the present city limits was organized. In 1837 the commissioners, William A. Richmond, Charles I. Walker and Noble H. Finney, engaged Miss Celestia Hinsdill of Kalamazoo as teacher and her term continued throughout the summer. Sessions were held in a frame dwelling erected on Prospect hill by Aaron Sibly--later used to house the fire engine.

In 1839 the village built its first real school house, a small framed structure on the north side of Fulton street, nearly opposite Jefferson avenue. Joshua B. Galusha, son of the governor of Vermont, taught there. Other teachers were Warren W. Weatherly, O.R. Weatherly, Elijah Marsh and Thomas B. Cuming, the latter being in charge when the building burned February 22, 1849.

A new school was erected; slabs, flat side up, with pegs for legs, served in lieu of patent seats. A huge sheet iron box stove, the wood for which was furnished by patrons of the school and cut by the boys in attendance, furnished superabundant warmth in the room to those near it, and left the unfortunates seated far off in the corners, where the chinking was defective, a prey to the winter’s cold. Here Miss Bond taught some two dozen pupils.

She was succeeded by Miss Mary L. Green, who taught during the summers of 1839 and 1840. His primitive school house served the educational interests of District No. 2 for several years. Later this log house was succeeded by a small frame building situated a little south of Bridge street and east of what is now Court street (Scribner avenue). When the population of the district had increased so that still larger accommodations were needed, a larger one-story frame building, spacious enough, it was supposed, to shelter the entire school population of the district for a hundred years, was erected on First street. Milton S. Littlefield taught in this school for several years.

In 1853 the district adopted the union school organization. The Reverend James Ballard was chosen the first principal. In 1854 the frame school house, notwithstanding its spacious proportions, was found inadequate to the growing needs of the district, and Ebenezer Anderson, one of the trustee, was given a contract to erect a new union school house on the lot, corner of Turner and West Broadway streets, which had been purchased by the district. In the following year the new school house was completed. At the intercession and with the financial backing of Lucius Patterson, Baker Bordon and other citizens interested in the organization of a militia company, Mr. Anderson increased the height of the building by another story, to be used as a drill hall by the militiamen. Subsequently this story was fitted up and used for school purpose. When thus completed this building furnished sitting for 464 pupils.

Before the union of the school district of the city in 1871, two other buildings, the old Turner and Jefferson street schools, were erected.

W. F. Kent succeeded Mr. Ballard as principal. During his administration the district took advantage of the legislative act of 1859 and graded the schools and established a high school, in which algebra, geometry and the higher branches of study were taught. No graduating classes were organized in this school, however, many pupils preferring to finish their courses of study and receive their diplomas at the high school in No.1 district.

From September, 1861, to June, 1865, J. C. Clark acted as principal and was assisted in his labor by his wife, who was principal of the primary department. Professor Kent served another short term as principal, and Stewart Montgomery was at the head of the schools when districts were consolidated in 1871.


There was considerable friction between the old district, none of which had sufficient funds to employ the ablest educators. One of the most important events in the city’s history is the consolidated of the school system, made possible by act of the state legislative March 15, 1871, when the population of Grand Rapids was about 18,000.

The legislative act provided ‘that the city of Grand Rapids and contiguous territory which shall hereafter be added thereto, shall be one district". This history, indicate the progress made in the building program. During 1924-25, $44,591 was expended for new sites, $1,608,436 for new buildings, $97,080 for equipment. About $33,000 was devoted to alternations of equipment for older buildings.

Expenditures by the board of education for 1924-1925 totaled $4,822,015. This amount covered the cost of administration, instruction, operation, maintenance, auxiliary agencies, new buildings and equipment and miscellaneous expenses.


In 1910 the board of health relieved the board of education of the responsibility of medical examination of school children. Today there are sixteen graduate nurses and three staff physicians whose duties are to examine each year all the children of the public and parochial grades 1 to 5. Immunization from diphtheria by means of toxin-antitoxin is given to all who request it. During 1925-1926 not one school child died of diphtheria. Immunizing the school population against small-pox and the prevention of communicable diseases in general, inspection and sanitary control of the buildings, is part of the work carried on by the health department.

School nurses assist physicians. Each nurse is assigned in a certain number of buildings, each of which she visits at stated interval. Inspection for enlarged tonsils, adenoids and decayed teeth are rigid. Reports of these inspections and examinations by physicians are sent to parents or guardians of pupil, with recommendation that the children corrected by the family doctor, or dentist. If the financial status of the family is such that this cannot be done, the case is turned over to the welfare department. Work of school nurses and physicians required many home visits and consultation with parents of guardian of children.


Central High school opened in 1871 with C. G. Emery as principal. Succeeding principals: E.A. Strong, 1872 to 1885; William A. Greeson, 1886 to 1896;

Albert J. Volland, 1897 to 1906; Jesse B. Davis, 1907 to 1919; Arthur

Andrew, 1920 to 1925; Claude F. Switzer, 1925 to this time.

The principal of Union High School begin with J.B. Hansey, 1871; followed by S.G. Milner; 1872 to 1885; I.W. Barnhart, 1886 to 1890; Orr Schurtz, 1891 to 1898;

Albert Jennings, 1899 to 1910; Isaac B. Gilbet, 1911 to 1922; Charles A. Everest, 1923 to the present.

South High school opened in 1915 with Paul C. Stetson as principal. Upon his resignation in 1917, Arthur W. Krause, present principal, took office.

Creston High school was occupied as a junior high school in 1923 with Claude F.

Switzer as principal. Creston become senior high school this year, Samuel Upton, principal.

Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 25 Feb 2011