In the late 1950s, a sprawling suburban tract tucked into a historic farming region of North Omaha became home to thousands of learners. Since then, the building, fields, and student body have changed, some for the better and some for the worse. I attended the school in the late 1980s. All of this informs this article, which is a history of North Omaha’s McMillan Magnet Center, which was originally planned as North Junior High School and was called McMillan Junior High School for several decades.
Context for a School
Starting in the 1910s, the Omaha school district (OPS) had been wrestling with the concept of junior high schools. Until then, all students attended the same primary school starting in kindergarten and ending in eighth grade. This led to crowded conditions in North Omaha’s most popular primary schools, including Kellom, Howard Kennedy, Miller Park, Monmouth Park, Saratoga and Sherman, which would lose their seventh and eighth grades. The main idea of junior high schools in Omaha though was to acknowledge the unique youth development of students age 12 to 15. Although it dabbled in the idea, it took another 35 years for OPS to open these buildings.
Throughout its history, there have been many vibrant suburbs in the North Omaha community, which includes everything from Dodge Street north to the Washington County line and from North 72nd Street to the Missouri River. As this particular neighborhood grew, it was considered for a lot of different developments. However, everyone agreed something needed to be done to improve students’ graduation rates as they transitioned from ninth grade to high school. Before World War II many learners’ educations ended in eighth grade, and there was a national movement after the war to improve those rates. Employers needed smarter workers, and they knew that using free public schools would be the way to do that.
Originally, Omaha North High School was the place where OPS thought of better supporting these young teenage students. Originally entertaining the idea in the 1910s, the school district thought of opening North Junior High School within the North High building. When Omaha North High School opened on September 2nd, 1924, there were more than 325 junior high students who attended the school on the first day. The junior high stayed at North until 1929, when they were fully transferred out of the school. The students went back to their primary schools, which included Druid Hill, Springville, Central Park, Florence, Belvedere, Minne Lusa, Miller Park, and Saratoga.
Booming Post-War Sprawl
After World War II, the farms beyond Florence Field, Belvedere, and Central Park began in-filling with suburban tract homes. These houses were built cheaply and fast as soldiers from WWII and then Korea came to Omaha with loans from the government to buy their first homes. Originally buying saltbox bungalows lining Martin Avenue, Redick, and other larger streets, they eventually moved into split-level ranch-style houses in all the surrounding hills. They enjoyed mid-century amenities like the nearby Ames Plaza mall, bowling alleys, and strip malls around the area, and reveled in the large streets that hauled them to work. They needed more schools for their kids. In 1957, the Omaha World-Herald melodramatically made the case that Omaha faced, “more pupils than ever before, more classrooms, more teachers and new junior high schools.”
New elementary schools soon flooded the region, including Fontenelle, Hartman, Pinewood, and Wakonda. It was with this backdrop that OPS started designing North Side Junior High School in 1956. For context in the larger city, Indian Hill Junior High and Monroe Junior High were slated to be built around the same time as North Junior High.
In 1955, more than 78% of voters in Omaha approved the school levy that funded the construction of the future McMillan Magnet Center. Buying a 20-acre site at North 37th and Redick Avenue, in 1956 the district hired the Leo A. Daly Company to design a building that would house 1,300 students in grades 7 through 9. Later in the design process the district added a pool. Originally proposing that it would be a year-around pool for the community to use, the school board entertained the idea of a having community lockers and more. Upon opening, McMillan featured specialized learning areas for shop, “homemaking,” music, art, typing, and the sciences. The building also opened with a cafeteria, swimming pool, and an auditorium with 700 seats.
The pool incorporated the radical concept of a “sunlight wall” designed to let light in to reduce the amount of humidity in the pool room. Including 138,000 square feet of space, the original building was estimated to cost $2,300,000 and was scheduled to be completed by September 1958. The cost averaged to about $30,000 per classroom in the building.
After “exhausting all other options,” more than two blocks of houses were condemned to make room for the school.
Opening McMillan Junior High School
Located at 3802 Redick Avenue, McMillan Magnet Center is located near the historic Florence Field neighborhood and by the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in North Omaha.
The unwillingness of the school district to pay necessary wages led to a carpenter’s union strike in last month’s of the school’s construction. Partially still getting built, the school opened in September 1958. Reportedly having “many windowed classrooms,” the city seemed really pleased with this fancy new school, with several other junior high schools being completed nearly simultaneously, including Horace Mann, Technical, and Lewis and Clark. Many of the elementary schools in the region around McMillan had school through eighth grade into the early 1960s.
Edward E. McMillan (1875–1943), the first principal of nearby North High School, was memorialized with the naming of the new school after him in 1957. McMillan began teaching in Ohio in 1893, and after moving to Omaha in 1905, he was a physics teacher at Central. As an assistant principal at Central he was appointed as the first principal of North in 1924 when the school opened. McMillan was principal at North until 1942, and died tragically just after retiring in 1943.
The first principal of the new school, Myrton Hall, was particularly proud of a tradition he instituted to improve school grounds and community/school relations. For more than 15 years the school practiced “Dandelion Day,” when students were given a few hours away from class on one day in May in order to pick dandelions in the giant field to the north of the school.
Along with Hall, other principals at McMillan through the years included John Pease, Leslie R. George, Lawrence Smith, Dick C.E. Davis, Norma Deeb, Thomas Harvey, Ed Bennett, Tom Lowndes, Dan Bartels, Greg Emmel, and Jeaneen Talbott.
With his words nearly throbbing with anticipation, Superintendent Burke was quoted more than once talking about the tremendous boon the school was to the surrounding region of North Omaha, then referred to as “northwest Omaha.” The building proved immediately popular, with families moving into surrounding suburban developments as soon as they were built in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. The original feeder schools to McMillan were Central Park, Minne Lusa, Miller Park, Belvedere, Monmouth Park, and Florence Schools.
The school was popular for many reasons. Starting in 1958, McMillan’s then-state-of-the-art gymnasium started hosting basketball games and wrestling matches for the North High Vikings teams, as well as district tournaments in several sports, demonstrating some of the advantages of the new facility. The academics were rigorous, and the community was thriving. In addition, the school absorbed students from many surrounding primary schools, and was literally bursting at the seams within a year of opening. For more than a decade, McMillan was notoriously over-populated, at times with almost 1,500 students bursting from its 1,300 student capacity.
Everything wasn’t perfectly rosy when the school opened though: There was a long-simmering debate on whether or not student lockers needed locks on them. After several years, students won their privacy and security; before that, Principal Hall and Superintendent Burke touted their own horns for forcing students to be revealing and restricting student freedoms.
Throughout the decades starting around 1965, McMillan experienced several years of strife between African American students and white students. Accusations of coordinated attacks and racism floated back and forth, with both white students and African American students claiming discrimination against them. Starting in 1972, the Omaha Police Department coordinated with the school administration to patrol Black students specifically in response to accusations by white parents against them. That same year though, the newspaper shared repeated reports of students coming from west Omaha and even Blair, apparently intent on attacking Black students leaving McMillan. Even though these young people were found to be carrying “weapons including chains, ball bats, pipes and knives” in their vehicles, the newspaper only reported one arrest, with that student being released to their parents.
However, the school continued to grow in enrollment, although its population eventually flattened out. Forced integration brought African American students for the first time, and by the late 1970s the building had a large minority of Black learners.
McMillan became Omaha’s first magnet school in 1983-84 as part of Omaha’s desegregation plan. With a student population of nearly 50% Black and 50% white, the school was regarded as a highly successful technology magnet school and made several nationally recognized achievements in technology integration and internet connectivity early on.Originally focusing on math and technology, today it’s focus includes engineering and communication arts, too. Throughout the years, the school was home to several “invention conventions” and computer expos. These events were open to the community and drew support from corporate partners throughout the city, especially US West. There also have been regular performances by orchestras, theater troupes, and other school programs throughout the decades.
I went to McMillan in the late 1980s. The first year I went there was the last year of ninth graders in the school, before the district moved them out to the high schools. As an eighth grader, I was a self-described “king of McMillan,” handling my favorite classes (art and Latin) with ease and participating in several afterschool activities, including JROTC and the theater program. Although I excelled in the mime show that year, because of the tensions and trauma in my life outside school my grades suffered a lot and I began losing motivation in school before leaving McMillan. However, a few teachers and my counselor (Mrs. Johnson!) were awesome and brought me through, and I continued onto North with some success. I remember the racial tensions at McMillan were palpable, with teachers who didn’t address what they didn’t understand, and fellow students who were either pleasantly oblivious or completely entwined in the city’s white supremacist history. It was all on display at McMillan in the 1980s. Students who participated in McMillan’s magnet program didn’t look like the rest of us, while those of us with behavior and academic achievement issues were often treated poorly and castigated. That was then.
In 2003, OPS completed a 3-year, $13 million renovation project at McMillan. In addition to a thorough makeover and other improvements, the school got a new addition to increase the size of the school, as well as creating a new entrance and school office. Other improvements included a library/media center, technology and living laboratories, computer labs, and an indoor and outdoor athletic complex.
In 2013-14, the school had around 580 students, with 74% who were eligible for free and reduced lunches. As the district’s only math and technology magnet school, students from around Omaha attended.
Throughout the years, students at McMillan have competed in international, national, state, and local competitions in a variety of academic areas including engineering, science, math, and more. Students have led designs for safe routes to school, struggled to improve school climate, been involved in a variety of community service projects, and more. The school has also had successful partnerships with local higher education institutions including Creighton University and Metro CC.
Maintaining Jim Crow in Omaha
At the same time North Junior High was being planned in 1957, OPS was developing plans for the Near North Side Junior High. This Jim Crow stake was the brainchild of district superintendent Harry Burke, who was committed to ensuring segregation in Omaha Public Schools. The Near North Junior High would’ve kept African American students from attending McMillan, among other then-predominantly white enclaves in North Omaha. That year, several other junior highs were proposed along with the Near North Side Junior High, including Paxton Boulevard Junior High, Technical Junior High, East Central Junior High, and Western Avenue Junior High.
White flight from the far-north region of North Omaha has affected McMillan’s population vastly throughout the decades. In 1972, the Omaha World-Herald claimed the school lost 250 white students since 1965, and increased its Black student population by 300%. This same newspaper report identified the cause of white flight as the increasing presence of African Americans further north in the community, with elementary schools increasing their populations of Black students who feed into McMillan. The paper said Miller Park, Central Park, Monmouth, Saratoga, and Belvedere all experienced “substantial growth” in African American student populations with “significant drops” in white students’ attendance. That year, the newspaper identified busing as one component of solving segregation in Omaha schools.
McMillan was included in the 1975 court case that forced OPS to integrate its schools. That year, McMillan was 36% African American. Finding that the school had a disproportionately high number of Black students, evidence also pointed to Black teachers being assigned to the school at a higher rate than other buildings in the district. Other evidence showed that McMillan was opened to be a predominantly white school, unavailable to Black students. Under the forced integration plan, the school’s overall Black student population dropped 8% from school year 1975-75 to 1976-77, with an overall population of nearly 31% that year.
In 1976, students from Sherman School and Pershing School started busing to McMillan to meet integration goals. In 1980, students from Central Park School were shifted from attending Nathan Hale Junior High to McMillan to maintain the district’s obligations through the US Supreme Court-ordered integration plan. These types of shifts continued through 1999, when OPS abandoned racial integration.
Racial and economic segregation is a major issue in OPS today, and directly affects McMillan in many ways. In 2020, 81% of McMillan students receive free or reduced lunches, and 46% identify as African American.
Continuing the trend from previous years, in the last decade Omaha’s media has been fast to associate the school with violent incidences inside, nearby, and surrounding the school. This causes the residents throughout the city to look down on the school and has the chilling effect of enforcing the racial and economic segregation of the school and the surrounding community. Major incidents were reported this way in 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, and in 2020, among others. This popular treatment enforces racial prejudice and white supremacy, and disallows the McMillan school community to truly thrive.
The McMillan Monarchs Today
Today, McMillan has approximately 800 students in grades six through eight. Many area elementary schools feed it today, including (but not limited to) Druid Hill, Sherman, Fontenelle, Hartman, Pinewood, Springville, Wakonda, Central Park, Florence, Belvedere, Ponca, Minne Lusa, Mount View, Miller Park, and Saratoga. The school’s academic achievement has fluctuated in recent years though: In 2017-18, it was ranked as good, but in 2018-19 it was ranked as “needs improvement.”
Despite it all, McMillan Magnet Center keeps making history. As a 65-year-old institution, its one of the most recent historical landmarks in the community, and is a highlight of North Omaha. Hopefully this will be recognized in the coming years as the school continues to modify and adapt to the changing views of Omaha.
You Might Like…
- “Official History of McMillan Magnet Center” from Omaha Public Schools
- (1995) “McMillan Magnet School: A Case History of a School Acquiring a Critical Mass of Computer Technology and Internet Connectivity.”
- McMillan Magnet Middle School facebook page