In the early 1900's the education of children with physical or mental impairments was oftetimes crude and ineffective. Most were taught in special classrooms set aside in schools, with limited training for teachers. Eventually, the district recognized the need for special facilities for handicapped students, and opened the first school dedicated to their education in 1910 with 16 students. As the city grew, Leland School was built in 1919 and grew to over 800 students. Plans for a second school for the handicapped on the west side of the city were drawn up in 1927. It would be named for Dr. Charles H. Oakman, an oral surgeon whose family had played a large role in the growth of the city.
Oakman School would be a unique building in almost every design aspect. The firm of Smith, Hinchman, and Gryllis proposed a single-story rectangular building, with classrooms and facilites arranged around a central courtyard. The cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium and library were located at the corners of the building. Every accommodation for special needs students was made, including extra-wide hallways with low handrails, a physiotherapy room, infirmary, showers, and a dental clinic furnished by the Oakman family.
Speech Therapy classes were started at Oakman in 1931. Classes for "crippled and cardiac" students were transfered from Van Zile School to Oakman and Leland. Oakman had vocational training courses for the handicapped, including a print shop, sewing, and cooking. Offerings were expanded through the 1940's and 1950's to include art and business education. In 1959, the upper grades were moved to White Special School on the east side of the city, and Oakman became a K-5 school. In 1978, enrollment was opened to all students in the neighborhood as part of an effort to foster understanding between the two communities.
The importance of Oakman cannot be understated. For several decades, Oakman was one of the top special needs schools in the state, helping kids who had suffered through polio and other diseases achieve in ways that would not have been possible at other schools. Parents and students grew very close to the teaching staff, whose dedication made a challenging educational environment fun for their students. Oftentimes when the district did not have enough money to fully fund the expensive programs at the school, teachers and parents would raise the money themselves. Two Oakman teachers, Elizabeth Jarulaitis and M. Christine Skoglund, wrote grants in 1999 to obtain money for a lending library and small computer lab in the school, introducing many local families to the internet for the first time.
The 2000's were a difficult time for Detroit Public Schools, as students left the district in large numbers and budgets were cut. On April 10th, 2013, Emergency Manager Roy Roberts announced that four schools, including Oakman, would be closed at the end of the school year. Students would be transfered to two other schools, neither of which were equipped to handle children with special needs.
The announcement caused immediate controversy, with parents stating that the rationale for closing Oakman was flims . The district told parents that enrollment was falling, and that the school was under capacity. But in fact enrollment had actually increased over the previous five years, and the capacity of the building had been revised upward without any actual physical change in the layout of the school.
In May and June of 2013, parents and activists rallied to keep the school open. For a time, it appeared as if a local church was planning on buying the school to reopen it as a community center. The building was secured, and a generator was hooked up to provide power. However, the purchase was never confirmed by either the district of the church. Even as the new school year started, parents were still fighting to have the school reopened. As scrappers began to pick away at the building, someone posted signs on the door imploring "KEEP SCHOOL IN TACK (sic) 4 OUR KIDS TO COME BACK."
By October, the school was open to trespass and being scrapped. Much of the specialized orthopedic equipment was left behind, as well and books and other learning materials. Hundreds of pounds of rotting food were left in freezers that had been turned off. Parents found documents with personal information, including birth certificates strewn across the front lawn. Despite efforts to secure the building, scrappers quickly destroyed much of the building. A fire in 2015 damaged one of the classrooms.