Sidney Miller Intermediate / High School

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, large numbers of immigrants from Europe and around the world arrived in Detroit to work in the factories and plants springing up around the city. Many of these immigrant groups "landed" in slum neighborhoods just outside and to the east of downtown, settling for a few years before moving further out into the city. As higher education went from being a luxury to a necessity, the Detroit Public Schools started building intermediate and high schools around the city, looking to serve the ever-expanding number of students arriving almost daily.

The neighborhood around what is today Chene and Street and E. Vernor was made up of ramshackle houses, many of which dated back to the nineteenth century. It was here that the school board decided to locate a new intermediate school to serve the population of the lower east side. Ground was broken for the new school in 1918, designed by the noted architectural firm of Malcolmson and Higginbotham. Initially the school was to have been named Dubois Intermediate, owing to its close proximity to the street, but during construction it was decided that it would instead be named for Sidney D. Miller, an attorney and businessman.

It wasn't until April of 1921 that the partially finished school opened its doors, due to delays in construction caused by revisions to the original plan. Enrollment in the fall was 868 students, bringing the school to capacity almost immediately. The eastern wing of the school was finished in 1922, increasing capacity to 1,700 students. Miller remained overcrowded for much of its early years, as more elementary schools were built throughout the area and fed into the intermediate school. A gymnasium with a large gabled roof was added in 1931, and a swimming pool in 1951.

Even as Miller was being built, the neighborhood around it was changing. With most of the European immigrants settling in nearby neighborhoods, the slum area around St. Antoine Street began to fill with black migrants from the south, who were drawn to the city by its promise of good jobs. Though the Detroit Public School district had integrated their schools in 1870, the total black population was small enough that this wasn't a significant issue. This began to change with the influx of black southerners, who found their options for where they could live, worship, and go to school limited to certain areas. An informal system of segregation crept into the school district, as attendance boundaries were restructured to ensure that black students would be assigned to certain schools. In 1933 the school board decided Miller Intermediate, which had fed students into the racially mixed Eastern High School, would be converted into a high school. White students were allowed to transfer to Eastern, while most black students in the area were assigned to Miller. Jeffrey Mirel, author of The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81, notes that "In short, the creation of Miller High School was a clear case of deliberate school segregation."

Miller High School

From the start, Miller High School was at a severe disadvantage. School district administrators treated the school as an afterthought, allocating fewer funds and resources to Miller than to other nearby high schools. Most of the school staff were white, and indifferent to the academic welfare of their black students. Detroit's black community lobbied hard for changes, and the first black teachers were assigned to Miller in 1935. In 1942, Charles Daly was appointed the first black principal to Miller, and lobbied hard for the hiring of more black teachers, and the adoption of African American curriculum. Under Daly's guidance, Miller became one of the highest performing schools in the district, excelling at academics and athletics, despite chronic underfunding. By the late 40's, over 20% of Miller graduates were going on to college. Graduates included teachers, lawyers, political leaders, doctors, athletes, musicians, and police officers. Future mayor Coleman Young was a Miller graduate, as well as Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr. Miller was also an athletic powerhouse in the city. Since the school gymnasium was smaller than regulation size, the Miller basketball team had to play games at the recreation center in the Brewster Housing Projects.

Changing Times

By 1955, change was in the wind. A protracted battle to end segregation in Detroit Schools finally came to fruition, and in 1957, Miller became a middle school again. Eastern High School re-integrated as the city's population peaked and started to decline, eliminating the need for another high school in the area. Urban renewal swept through the neighborhood in the 1950's and 60's, which much of the slum areas being torn down to make way for new housing projects and high-rise buildings. Miller continued to be an important part of the neighborhood, though its enrollment had plateaued. Around 720 students attended Miller through the 1990's, but as the overall enrollment of the school district started to plunge in the early 2000's, Miller was not spared. By 2006 there were only 421 students enrolled, about 1/3rd of the capacity of the school. The condition of the building was poor, requiring costly repairs.

The decision to close Miller in 2007 elicited little protest. Well-known alumni and city leaders pushed to have the school kept open, and alternate plans were studied. One option considered involved closing the Fredrick Douglass Academy and moving the program into Miller, which would have been re-named the Douglass Academy at Miller High School. But the program was moved instead to a newer school on the west side of the city, where it currently resides today. The school closed in June of 2007, with current students and alumni gathering to walk the halls and reminisce. Over the summer the district secured the building with heavy steel panels over all the windows and doors, leaving it to an uncertain future.


In 2011, a chain link fence was erected around Miller School, which by that point had been vacant for four years. Initial fears that the school was going to be demolished were put to rest though by the announcement that a charter school company had bought the building and would be starting renovation work.

The University Prep Academy system of schools was already established in the city of Detroit, with a high school in a former warehouse on Chene and Franklin, and middle school located in the Detroit Science Center in midtown. Establishing an elementary school was the next logical step for University Prep Academy, a program that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math studies and starts preparing students for university as early as elementary school. With a $14 million dollar grant from the Thompson Educational Foundation, renovation of the school began in 2011.

When we visited the school in February of 2012, work was well underway. The classrooms were being gutted, though still recognizable with their old sliding chalkboards and wooden bookcases. The gymnasiums and auditorium were intact, but showed heavy damage from the elements. The swimming pool, which would no longer be needed, was being readied for demolition. Flood lamps lit hallways lined with rusted lockers. Workers were hauling out piles of debris in wheelbarrows; broken ceiling tiles, plaster, and bricks.

18 months later, the school has changed dramatically. Though University Prep Science & Math Elementary School opened in August, there is still work going on, as contractors work on the finishing touches of the building over a school holiday. Where once the locker rooms were located is a modern, cheerfully lit lobby, with a receptionist and comfortable chairs. Hanging on a wall is the State of Michigan historic marker, detailing the history of the school.

Elaina Holsey, director of operations for the school takes us on a tour of the building. The school currently has 430 students, grades K-5. There was such a strong demand for kindergarten that there was a waiting list of 80 families, so the school added extra classes. Average classroom size is 15 students per teacher, far lower than public schools. There have been some challenges in bringing former DPS students up to the expectations of the academic program.

"We are an experiential learning school, and so… our philosophy of education is project-based. And so we take our children on expeditions, we have different focuses that we work on each month. Different character traits that we work on each month. So it's a lot different than the academic rigor that you see in traditional schools.

Parents are deeply involved in the planning and running of the school. A few days prior, the parents had planned and put together a harvest celebration, with kids trick or treating in the school. Miller High Alumni are also very active, supporting to renovation efforts and returning for their yearly meet up. Some of the Miller tradition lives on today. "In fact, we even have Miller alum grandkids that are attending the school. Our facilities manager was actually a student of Miller."

Though the interior of the school is very modern, there are still signs of the old building. Almost all of the exterior masonry has been retained, as well as the doorways and tile flooring. The auditorium, which is still being worked on, retains the original light fixtures and plaster work. As we pass by the library, she stops and points out the old wooden bookcases inside the library, which are original. "Our principal happened to be in the building, and the contractors on site were prepared to destroy the book cases and throw them out, and she stopped them and said absolutely not, we want to restore the book shelves so we can use them for our library. So we are in the process now of restoring the book shelves and we hope to open up our library by the end of class break, that is our plan."

Though the school is closed for the day, a few parents and students come through to pick up or drop off things. The staff knows everyone by name, and there are a lot of smiles.

"We want to see kids excited about learning," explains Ms. Holsey. "Excited about coming to school. That is our goal… Most importantly, we want to see our kids go off to college and be able to use what they've learned to be successful." The goal of the University Prep program is to have 90% percent of students going to college.

Has the experience of renovating an old, outdated school been positive? "I guess being part of this project I would say absolutely, I would do this again. I think revitalizing compared to building new… it takes away the eyesore from the community, it shows the community the unimaginable… Anyone can build from scratch, but when you revitalize a building, when you can totally renovate something that you think could never happen, to me, that's how faith is created." She laughs. "And it's given me a whole renewed level of faith, that the impossible is possible."

Special thanks to the construction crew and the staff of University Prep Science & Math Elementary School for their gracious help.

See how this school before and after restoration.