Empty halls

In a district full of empty classrooms and darkened hallways, can Detroit find a way to keep its schools open?

Pershing High School on Detroit's east side was built to serve more than 2,200 kids. Today just 314 are enrolled.

When Pershing High School opened in 1930, it was designed to serve more than 2,200 students in what was then a fast-growing part of the city’s east side.

Today, the school serves just 314 kids. That means Pershing is more than 85 percent empty.

It’s a similar story at Southeastern High School, Davis Aerospace High School and scores of other schools across the city that now serve just a fraction of the students they were designed to educate.

Some schools, like the Douglass Academy for Young Men, now house district offices. But other schools in Detroit have mothballed wings, darkened hallways and costly building expenses that threaten to exceed the state funding that’s based on how many students are enrolled.

The half-empty buildings across the city represent one of the thorniest dilemmas facing the new Detroit school board and Nikolai Vitti, the Florida superintendent chosen last month to lead the district. (He is now negotiating his contract.)

Any decisions could be politically damaging for the board, and potentially harmful to communities already burdened with derelict vacant school buildings. Although many districts across the country have shuttered underused buildings, Detroit’s history with school closings makes doing that difficult.

“The district closed 134 schools in seven years and I think anyone observing that process would agree it was extremely devastating to the community and to the educational ecosystem,” said Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, referring to closings by state-appointed emergency managers that accelerated enrollment declines in the district and left dozens of school buildings empty.

In some neighborhoods, past school closings have already forced children to travel long distances.

That history of closings is part of why local schools advocates were so relieved last week when state school officials formally scrapped plans to shutter 24 Detroit schools because of low test scores. But state superintendent Brian Whiston set off a fury when he said the district would close some schools “based on their enrollment numbers.”

Whiston was referring to the high number of Detroit schools that are less-than-fully occupied.

A Chalkbeat analysis comparing school capacity to student enrollment found that 43 of the 103 school buildings in the main Detroit district and in the state-run Education Achievement Authority are at least half empty. Only a handful are full.

The state-run EAA is scheduled to dissolve at the end of June and the schools, which were historically part of the Detroit Public Schools, will be returned to the main district.

One reason the school board chose Vitti last month was his claim that he had turned around schools in Jacksonville and Miami without ever closing a building.

But maintaining that track record in Detroit will require Vitti and the board to dramatically — and quickly — increase the number of families that choose traditional Detroit public schools. Or they’ll have to come up with other ways to make better use of half-empty buildings.

“The board is asking these same questions,” Meriweather said. “How do you repurpose space or how do you use space differently?”

The district, together with charter school and community leaders, is working with a non-profit real estate consulting firm called IFF to conduct a city-wide analysis of where schools need to be.

That analysis, which is expected to be completed later this year, will go beyond simply looking at student enrollment and building capacity, said Kirby Burkholder, IFF’s Vice President and Eastern Region Executive Director.

“In Detroit, we definitely have more building capacity than we have students, but for us it’s never the only thing we think about,” said Burkholder whose organization has done similar studies in cities around the country. “The question is: Where are the quality seats?”

The IFF analysis will look at where families live, where buildings are located, the condition of those buildings and the quality of the schools inside them, Burkholder said.

“It’s not as simple as saying ‘we’re going to close or not close,’” Burkholder said. “There has to be this nuance, a thoughtful, informed, collaborative approach that’s grounded in data.”

Once that analysis is complete, the district might decide to close schools but Meriweather said she hopes the district will come up with other options.

Meriweather cited the Douglass Academy, which houses district offices, as an example of ways the district can use vacant school space.

The district is also consolidating some programs, putting the Turning Point Academy, a treatment program for emotionally impaired students, into the nearby Henry Ford High School.

Durfee Elementary-Middle School will move next year into nearby Central High School and the Durfee building will become a business incubator run by a nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

At the Fisher Upper Academy on the east side, the Ford Fund is converting what used to be classroom space into a community center that will offer services such as job training and a food bank and will operate in partnership with the school.

Meriweather, whose term as interim superintendent is due to end when Vitti takes over July 1, said she has urged the district to address its building surplus with “thoughtful planning.”

“I hope that the way any of these conversations proceed will be markedly different from the way things were done in the past,” she said.

“I hope that there will be a great thoughtfulness put into this … These conversations need to be around making sure that we provide the best possible opportunities for kids.”

For a look at how well Detroit school buildings are being used, here’s a sortable list of the number of students enrolled in Detroit schools, according to recent state data, compared to official building capacity, according to a recent district financial report.

Detroit schools, by the numbers

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”