A brief history of Willard Middle School
Long thought to be the first junior high school in the United States (a claim found in early school yearbooks, news clippings, and even an educational textbook), Willard was in fact the first in California, and the first junior high school west of the Mississippi. It may have been the second junior high in America when it was established in January 1910, just a few months after the country’s first junior high opened in Columbus, Ohio. It’s worth noting that the Ohio school was intended primarily to teach trade skills, while Berkeley’s school was focused on academics and preparation for high school.
The progressive education movement that swept America at the turn of the century meant that school districts began more strictly enforcing attendance laws, with the result that post-elementary school enrollment substantially increased. In Berkeley, it became increasingly difficult to accommodate 9th graders at the high school. In 1909, Berkeley’s school board voted to create “introductory high schools” comprising grades 7 through 9. The first of these was McKinley Introductory High School, formed from the upper grades of McKinley Elementary School. In 1915, the city approved bonds to construct several new school structures, and in 1916 the McKinley Introductory principal and students moved into a new school building named for educator and suffragist Frances Willard. The Target student magazine also migrated from McKinley to become Willard’s literary publication and yearbook.
Willard’s history reflects the fluctuations in American secondary school education over the past century. First called Frances Willard Intermediate High School, the school became Frances Willard Junior High in 1921. After some 50 years of serving grades 7-9, the junior high became a two-year school in 1966, comprising only the 7th and 8th grades. When the Berkeley school district reorganized in 1994, the student body shifted to grades 6-8 and the school was renamed Willard Middle School.
In the 1970s, the district determined that the original Mission Revival-style building designed by architects Hobart and Cheney was seismically unsound and beyond repair. The old building was demolished in 1977 and replaced with the current structure, which opened in the fall of 1980. Ongoing improvements have included remodeling the gym in 1994, ground improvements, and the new Stuart Street mural, completed in 2016.