By Anne Ruisi
Homewood High’s colors are red, white and blue, but this year gold has been added to that palette as the school celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The road to opening the system’s first four-year high school was challenging, one that involved temporarily housing students at multiple locations and persuading Shades Valley High School seniors from Homewood to skip their final year there and go a completely new school, Michael Gross, Homewood High’s first principal, recalled.
It couldn’t have been done without the support of the students, parents, faculty and community, he said.
Parents were the initial driving force to break away from the Jefferson County School System and form the Homewood School System, Gross said.
“A lot of parents felt they were paying more than their fair share (for) education. Parents were paying a lot of money in taxes,” he said.
When he started teaching at Homewood Junior High in 1964-65, there were 40 students in a class and none of the classrooms had air conditioning, Gross said.
So a group of parents approached then-Mayor Bob Waldrop, who was on board with the idea. Waldrop, Gross and noted educator Mamie Foster, who was from Homewood’s Rosedale community, met and strategized what it would take to form a school system.
At the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jefferson County schools were under a court order to racially integrate schools that had long been part of Jim Crow Alabama, so a federal court had to grant permission for a new school system to be formed. Ensuring integration was a moot point, Gross said.
“The key thing about it is Homewood had a black community, Rosedale. In 1968-69, Jefferson County had a court order to desegregate Homewood and they had no problem integrating. The kids played together, knew each other,” Gross said.
The city of Homewood set up a school board in 1970-71 and appointed the first school superintendent, Virgil Nunn, who came from the Fairfield School System.
“He was a very fine gentleman who knew what he was doing. He was a great leader for the school system,” Gross said, adding that one of Nunn’s first jobs was to hire a principal for the new high school. Nunn recruited Gross for the position.
One of his pressing goals was to ensure the junior high was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as a high school when the seniors were affiliated with it. Then accreditation had to be obtained for the new high school. These are crucial designations demanded by colleges considering student applications. Accreditation was achieved under Gross’ leadership.
By the time the school system was formed, high school students from Shades Valley High were transferring to the new system grade by grade, with grades 8-11 already at the old Homewood Junior High School.
Moving to a New Home
The new $5.2 million high school – $36.8 million in today’s money – was being built on Lakeshore Road, and it was Gross’ job to persuade students who would have been seniors at Shades Valley High in the 1971-72 school year to transfer to Homewood.
“They weren’t happy. I told them, you seniors are the leaders of the school,” and they came, Gross said.
A problem facing school officials in the first semester was that the old junior high already was crammed to the gills with students and there was no room for the senior class. Some shuffling was needed.
The junior high was a couple of blocks north of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church and near Trinity United Methodist Church, and both offered to let the school system use its Sunday school rooms as temporary classrooms, Gross said. So, for the fall 1971 semester, the seniors went to Dawson and eighth graders used the classrooms at Trinity.
In December, the new high school was nearing completion, and “everyone was so excited about forming the new high school. Everyone pulled together. That made my job easier,” Gross said.
Cooperation was the key not only to forming the new school system and building the new high school, but in furnishing it, Gross said. The plan was to move into the school right after the Christmas holiday, but the furniture wasn’t delivered until the week before Christmas, the same week final exams were being held.
“I offered to let them take exams or help set up the furniture,” Gross said of the senior class. “Almost 100 percent helped.”
About 300 seniors pitched in to set up desks, chairs and other school furniture, and the high school opened just two days later than other systems following the break.
The first day in the new facility began with all 1,200 students in the auditorium, where teachers led them to their new homerooms and then took them on a tour of the school, which was separated into “pods” according to grade level, clustered around a large library.
“Everything ran smoothly,” he said.
The new high school also had a huge gym and a swimming pool, which years later was filled in and the space used for additional classrooms.
Not long after the high school opened, Gross recalls hearing a “ping ping” sound coming from outside and “here come Birmingham, Homewood, the county and state police. There was a gun battle in the parking lot,” as police engaged with bank robbers who had fled over Red Mountain after hitting a bank in Birmingham, Gross said.
The robbers had abandoned their car in the school parking lot, and it was assumed at the time that they’d fled into the woods behind the school. There also was a fear that the criminals might kidnap a student when school was dismissed. Police organized a safe evacuation, but the bank robbers were never caught, Gross said.
Mascot, Band, Football Established
In that first year, the new high school needed a mascot, and Gross wanted the students to vote on it. The Vietnam War was raging at the time and students had strong feelings of patriotism, he said. Over 90 percent voted for the now-familiar Homewood Patriot, a Revolutionary War soldier, and the school colors of red, white and blue.
It was then that Homewood’s marching band was kitted out in a Revolutionary War-style uniform, which members wore for the first of their many appearances at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1978.
That trip was the first time many of the students had flown on a plane or gone to New York, and it was snowing when they got there – another first for some of the students. Before they left, school officials emphasized how crucial it was that band members be disciplined, obey the rules and follow their lead on the trip.
The students listened. That first night, the group went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes perform. At intermission, band director Pat Morrow went to the lobby for popcorn and a soft drink, and “150 kids got up and followed him,” Gross said.
Also formed in 1972 were the color guard, drumline and the Star Spangled Girls, a precision dance team recruited by retired Homewood teacher Cindy Wade. Prospective members had to audition and Wade, a physical education teacher, was their instructor.
“It’s been a great tradition,” Wade said of the dance team.
Homewood High also made its mark in football in its early years coached by Alvin Bresler, who led the program to its first state championship in 1974.
That the football players and other teams at Homewood High had proper equipment to play in the beginning was due to the generosity of Fred Sington, the former University of Alabama football star and Birmingham civic leader.
“I had a school with no (sports) equipment,” Gross recalled, as it wasn’t budgeted in its construction. “Fred Sington came and said, ‘Order what you want and pay when you can.’ He was that civic minded.”
The principal pledged the school would pay the debt within five years, but thanks to fundraising efforts, such as through the school’s sports boosters, it was paid in three.
Early on, Homewood High had an Air Force Junior ROTC program, which led to military careers for some participants. While not every student planned to enlist in the military after graduation, many showed their support for an American POW shot down over North Vietnam by wearing bracelets with his name, Capt. Edwin Hawley.
“They wrote letters to him, but I doubt he ever got the letters,” Gross said.
Hawley was released early in 1973 and came to visit the school that March.
All these aspects of the new school and the support and cooperation of the community set the stage for success, but the teaching excellence of the faculty crowned efforts to set the high academic standing that Homewood High enjoys to this day, Gross said.
Gross Goes to Vestavia
Gross became Homewood schools’ superintendent in 1978 and remained at the helm in Homewood until 1985, when he got a job offer to lead Vestavia Hills High School. He retired from the high school post in 1999, but stayed with the school system until 2002 in the position of interim superintendent until a permanent one was hired.
“I was fortunate to be at two very fine school systems,” he said.
Like Homewood, Vestavia was carved out of the Jefferson County system when the school system was founded in 1970. When Gross went there, he didn’t want to make a lot of changes at first but wanted to learn how the school system worked.
“I wanted to make sure the teachers had the tools to teach. It begins and ends with the kids,” Gross said. “My job was to let them (the teachers) be free to teach, and I had the support of the faculty, community and the board.”
During his tenure, Vestavia continued its strong academic program while its high school math and debate teams went on to win at national competitions.
More national recognition came to Vestavia High when it was named to Redbook magazine’s Top 10 high schools in the country. Also, Vestavia and Homewood schools were designated Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education while Gross was superintendent. It’s an honor that recognizes overall academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups, according to the Department of Education’s website.
The honors reflect the goal of preparing students for life after high school, Gross said. At the high school, for example, students headed for college were writing term papers and taking advanced sciences, such as physics and anatomy.
At Vestavia and Homewood high schools, art classes were popular; noted Alabama potter Tena Payne is a Homewood High graduate. The fine arts thrived at both high schools and were “second to none,” Gross said.
In Homewood, Wade recalled, there was dance instruction, orchestra, a choir and a drama department.
“Many parents paid for private music lessons – took them to the ballet. They believed in the arts. The parents had pride and joy in seeing their kids (perform),” Wade said.
After-school activities are an important component of high school life.
“The idea is to keep the kids involved in positive activities,” Gross said.
For example, then and now, he said, students in Vestavia and Homewood clubs have participated in fundraising walks and other activities for charity. They also formed Interact, service-oriented clubs affiliated with Rotary.
“The kids in Homewood and Vestavia had the opportunity for a well-rounded education,” Gross said.