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Funeral Service will be held on March 21, 2023, at 10AM at Thayer-Rock Funeral Home (33603 Grand River Ave. Farmington MI 48335).
Zoom will begin once the service begins at 10am - https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84555189910?pwd=RjM3OVZyQ0F0ZkU2UDBSeVk3NEJ2Zz09
“Instead of getting mad, remember our rule!” —“Yes it’s possible at the Open! Yes it’s possible at the Open! Yes it’s possible at the Open School!” Former student’s Facebook posting.
Such was the atmosphere created when Laurajean Milligan pioneered the Detroit Open School in the early 1970s in Detroit, Michigan. One student said, “One thing I’ll never forget, is being introduced to a world where different races of kids went to school with me, learned and had fun with one another. Detroit Open School was a place that molded children into loving everyone, regardless of the color of their skin. Thank you Miss Milligan! :)”
Laurajean was heavily influenced by the British system of educating young children during the year she had spent as an exchange teacher in Bristol, England. Upon her return, Laurajean was given the opportunity to develop her own Open School in one wing of the Burt Elementary School in Detroit.
Open School began as a Kindergarten through Third Grade experiment. Parents demanded that another year be added on each year so their kids could stay in this innovative and highly personalized environment.
For many parents it was the first time they had felt welcomed in their child’s school, and certainly the first time that volunteering and contributing their time and skills had ever been required of them.
Laurajean removed the “bubble-wrap” from the kids and let them have real life experience and fun, like cooking in the hallway or being interrupted on the intercom with a voice saying it was time to go out side and have fun. Their day may have started with the song, “He had High Hopes.”
Laurajean says, “We broke lots of rules.” There were no desks, kids often worked on the floor, they were allowed to chew gum (“As long as it stays in your mouth.”) There was a rabbit, named Rufus, who was allowed to freely roam about the school. Also, there were no report cards or letter grades, just high expectations, and communications with parents about the children’s progress along that path.
Some of the discipline was also a little unusual. Laurajean remembers a time that some of the kids got into a shouting match with kids from the traditional school that shared their building. Someone yelled “Yo Momma!” to one of the “enemy” children, which had a big effect. Laurajean had no idea why this was such a big deal, so she prayed on it, asking the Holy Spirit what to do, and asking other teachers and staff to help her understand what had happened.
Then she called the kids into her office and asked them, “Do you know his Momma?” “No.” “Well I am going to call her right now and have her come here so you can meet her.” and she did. The mother simply said she would take care of it when student came home. As the kids were leaving the office, other kids were waiting to see what happened, “Did she really do that?” With big eyes, the offenders with solemnity nodded yes.
This seemed to end the problem, until some kids came in demanding justice because another student had said, “Yo Grandma!” Laurajean said, “Get out here, you Jokester!” Laurajean commented that she actually really liked the kids who acted up like this. What a gift that must have been to smart boys.
She also said, “The Holy Spirit must have gotten awfully tired of hearing about the Open School.” When asked if Laurajean’s faith was the underpinning for everything she did, she replied, “I certainly hope so!”
Laurajean became a teacher because that was the only thing she ever wanted to be. At first she thought she would teach history because she so loved it, but one of her friends was studying to be a kindergarten teacher and as they talked, Laurajean became more and more interested in young children. Her first job teaching kindergarten was in two elementary schools, the Atkinson in the morning and the Washington in the afternoon. Between the two sessions she walked seven or eight blocks to the bus stop and then went to work at the second school. This job involved taking three buses a day, and in the middle of which there was prolonged a bus strike. After three years, she asked if she could just go to one school and was finally sent to the Burt School in NW Detroit. She was there for so long she thought that she would be buried there, and like a pillar, she would hold up the kindergarten floor.
All in all, Laurajean taught for 45 years, (30 at Burt) staying on as principal of the Open School well beyond retirement age because she liked it so much.
During the summers, she travelled extensively all over the British Isles. Her mother was from the south of England and her father from Scotland, so although she had no relatives in the United States, she had plenty abroad. She really enjoyed getting to know aunts, uncles and cousins during her many travels. During her exchange year, she spent a lot to time with her mother’s sister in Wales.
After retirement, Laurajean traveled to all seven continents. She took one trip with the Nomads Travel Club, an around the world adventure that included staying in a very fancy Dubai hotel shaped like a ship. When asked what her favorite country was she would say, “Oh, I don’t know, probably the last one I visited.” Her biggest travel adventure was probably going to Tanzania, where she lived in a tent and took daytime safaris to see the animals with whom she had fallen in love.
While she lived in England she boarded with a young family — a fellow teacher and her husband. They did not yet have children, but when their first baby arrived, Laurajean became the Godmother, later traveling to Cape Town to attend this girl’s wedding. Back home, Laurajean also opened her home to foreign visitors. One educator from Denmark came and spent a month with her, and now that person’s daughter and family came for a visit in April.
Laurajean says, “I’ve had wonderful experiences.” Certainly, these experiences have given her both a broad world view and an international family.
Laurajean Milligan, of Farmington Hills, MI, passed away on March 09, 2023. Born on July 21, 1929, in Highland Park, Michigan to parents William and Alexandrina Milligan. After obtaining her PhD in education, she worked in the Detroit Public School System as the principal of Open School of Detroit. She was a member of Trinity of the Wood Church in Farmington Hills. Family will accept visitors Monday March 20, 2023 from 3 to 8 pm. Funeral Service will be held on March 21, 2023, at 10AM at THAYER-ROCK FUNERAL HOME (33603 Grand River Ave. Farmington MI 48335).
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any memorial contributions be sent directly to Trinity of the Woods Episcopal Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan (link below).
Trinity in the Woods Episcopal Church
26880 La Muera Street, Farmington Hills MI 48334