Vitti wants community input on plan to relocate some Detroit schools, programs, and even district headquarters

The plan is sweeping: The Detroit school district would move out of its headquarters in the historic Fisher Building. Students at two schools — King and Communication and Media Arts high schools — would be required to take an exam to be admitted. And about a dozen schools or programs would move to new locations or see small boundary changes.

These are among the proposals that the district is taking to the community, in a series of meetings that begin Wednesday focused on explaining the rationale for the changes and getting public input. (For a full list of the changes and meetings, scroll down.)

The goal, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, is to increase enrollment, spread programs more equitably across the district, and ensure more children are in buildings that are in good physical condition.

“There’s nothing here that’s set in stone,” Vitti said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s really our best thinking on how to continue to improve the school district.”

Depending on what officials hear from parents, staff, students, and others in the community, the district’s school board could take action on the proposed changes as soon as February.

It’s a crucial step for the district, which since 2017 has faced a grim reality left behind after nearly two decades of state control, leaving buildings in disrepair, many buildings underutilized, academic achievement faltering, and enrollment declining. 

State-appointed emergency managers who ran Detroit schools from 2009 to the end of 2016 were focused on cutting costs, but it took an act of the Michigan Legislature to address crushing debt. That act included creating the current Detroit Public Schools Community District to educate students, while the old Detroit Public Schools remains to collect tax revenue and pay off debt.

An audit last year found it would cost the district more than $500 million to fix its building needs — a number that was expected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2023. 

Beginning in December, the district will hold another series of meetings. While the meetings that begin this week are about specific proposals regarding the dozen or so schools, the later meetings are meant to discuss building problems at schools for which there are no proposals on the table. 

Those December and January meetings will set the stage for a broader conversation about the district’s building needs, and the solutions for paying for them. Vitti, who has led the district since 2017, says a bond proposal to address the problems is likely on the horizon.

The proposals on the table now are coming during a year in which the district has seen an enrollment increase, improved results on the state’s standardized exam, encouraging progress on a tough national exam, and declines in chronic absenteeism and suspensions.

Tyra Smith-Dean, principal of Pulaski Elementary School, said she’s elated that one of the proposals includes moving her school to a newer building that now houses an adult education program. The adult program will move to another location.

Pulaski is among the buildings in the district with the worst physical conditions, the audit found.

“We have roof leaks. When it rains outside, it rains in here,” Smith-Dean said. And when it’s hot outside in June and September, some students “just don’t come to school,” because the building gets too hot. 

“I believe the learning environment must be conducive to student achievement,” she said.

Vitti said three principles have guided the district in developing the proposals: the need to protect neighborhood schools, the need to preserve high schools, and the commitment to not randomly close schools, something he discussed earlier in this Chalkbeat Q&A. He said it’s the opposite of how things were done during emergency management.

Here’s a breakdown of what the public will have a chance to weigh in on, and the dates and locations of the upcoming meetings:

District headquarters, Detroit International Academy (Meeting at 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday at DIA, 9026 Woodward)

 The district would leave its headquarters in the Fisher Building and move to the building that formerly housed Northern High School on Woodward Avenue, about a mile and a half away. The current occupant of the building, Detroit International Academy for Young Women, would then move to a district-owned building that up until the current school year housed the GEE White Academy, a charter school that is now closed. If approved, the district headquarters would be in a more central location that is easier for visitors to access. The district would be able to hold its school board meetings at its headquarters, rather than rotating it among schools that have appropriate auditorium space. Vitti envisions also creating a museum to honor the history of athletics in Detroit Public Schools.

The district has been in the Fisher building since it spent nearly $25 million in the early 2000s for five floors of space. (A 2009 audit found the district grossly overspent.) Vitti said the district would either sell, lease, or do both if it moved.

“We won’t sell them for less than what the taxpayers paid for them,” Vitti said. The revenue, he said, would go toward converting the Northern building into space for the central office.

The move also would allow the district to better use the space in the old Northern building. Currently, the DIA school enrolls about 200 students, far below capacity. At its peak, Northern enrolled thousands of students.

Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School (Meeting is at 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesday at King, 3200 E. Lafayette Street)

The school would undergo a conversion to a full-exam school either in 2020 or 2021. Currently, the school offers two programs that require taking an exam to be enrolled. Under the proposal, all new students admitted to the school would have to take an exam. The school would also add a new sports marketing and medicine career academy.

Vitti said existing students wouldn’t be moved (or have to take an exam if they weren’t already admitted in an exam program) and would be allowed to continue their education at King. The new rule would apply to incoming freshmen, and those who enroll in the years after.

Students who live in King’s attendance boundary would get an advantage in enrolling at the school, similar to what the district now does at The School at Marygrove that opened in September.

Vitti said the proposal could help the school better compete with charter schools in the area that have a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math programs.

“King once attracted some of the highest performing students in that area. And we want to build off that previous legacy, while still connecting the school to the neighborhood,” Vitti said.

Principal Deborah Jenkins said she likes the proposal, and said many parents are on board. But some, though, are concerned about the “examination-only” nature of the proposal, she said.

Southeastern, Golightly, Davis Aerospace (Meetings are 5:30-7 p.m. Monday at Golightly, 900 Dickerson Avenue; and 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14 at Southeastern, 3030 Fairview Street)

Southeastern, which the district had tried to convert into an examination school, would instead be a traditional high school, with its own attendance boundaries. However, it would retain a program in business administration that students will have to test into. And those who were already admitted through the exam process would be able to remain in the program until they graduate. Previously announced is the placement of an advanced manufacturing program, part of a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. New is a proposal to move most of the career technical education programs currently housed at Golightly Career and Technical Center to Southeastern, including a popular welding program. 

Remaining at Golightly would be a culinary program and a printing and graphic design program. The district’s food and nutrition department would move to Golightly, a move that would allow the building to provide banquet spaces for events such as weddings, alumni reunions and graduations, Vitti said.

Meanwhile, the district would continue to move more students from Davis Aerospace Technical Academy — currently housed at Golightly — to take their afternoon aviation classes at the Detroit City Airport. They can remain at Golightly to take their morning classes. However, the district is seeking to phase out Golightly’s traditional high school program, which only enrolls 140 students. 

Pulaski Elementary-Middle School, Adult Education, Frederick Douglass. (Meeting is at  5:30-7 p.m.  Dec. 4 at Pulaski, 19725 Strasburg Street)

The Pulaski building, which is in poor condition, would move to the Adult Education East Building. All district adult education programs would then move to the building currently being used by the Frederick Douglass Academy. The Douglass academy would remain at the building, which formerly housed the Murray-Wright High School. It would, however, be separate from the adult ed program. Douglass, also, would go from serving grades 6-12 to serving grades 9-12. Vitti said the school has struggled to attract middle school students.

Communication and Media Arts, Ludington. (Meeting is at 5:30-7 p.m. Nov. 19 at CMA, 14771 Mansfield)

The Communication and Media Arts High School would move from its tight space to a larger building — which now holds Ludington Middle School. The school would also become an examination school, requiring students take an exam for entry.

The move will allow CMA to expand its enrollment and programs, including expanding athletics. Principal Donya Odom said the move provides stability to the school.

“To move a building and to invest resources into making our programs more robust … means they have a commitment to the success of CMA,” Odom said.

The move also means Ludington students would be relocated. Ludington now enrolls 270 students, and they’ll likely be moved to the Charles Wright Academy, which now serves K-5 students and would expand to include middle school grades.

Cody, Henry Ford, Central Collegiate, and Northwestern

There’s no meeting scheduled for this, but the proposals include making some slight boundary changes to four high schools. The northwest section of the Cody High School attendance area would be assigned to Henry Ford High School. And a section of the Northwestern attendance area would be assigned to Central.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the enrollment number for Ludington Middle School.