Fighting to fix

Detroit school board and superintendent: We can improve the local schools the state wants to close

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board voted unanimously Wednesday to fight school closures in court.

Members of the new Detroit school board vowed Wednesday night to prevent state officials from shutting down low-performing schools — and to find another way to fix those schools.

“The school board is committed to improving our schools, not shutting them down,” board president Iris Taylor said in a prepared statement she read after the board voted unanimously to hire a law firm to battle state-mandated closures.

The state school reform office last month released a list of 38 schools across the state that will be shut down for low-performance unless the office decides that closing the schools would cause a hardship to students. The 38 schools include 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that will return to the main district next summer.

The board hired the Miller Canfield law firm, which produced a memo last summer that is expected to be the basis of the district’s legal fight with the state. The memo argues that because the Detroit Public Schools Community District is officially a new legal entity that replaced the Detroit Public Schools, it should be given a fresh start and not face consequences for decisions made under the old district.

Now, district officials have directed managers to create improvement plans for each of the schools in the next 10 days. “Our leadership teams are working around the clock” to create the plans, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather said in a statement.

Here are the full statements from the school board and Meriweather.

DPSCD Board of Education Statement

For the first time in nearly a decade, the City of Detroit has a true school board, made up of educators, executives, and community leaders, empowered to make decisions that will improve our schools and lead to better educational outcomes for Detroit’s children.

Yet, just days into our term, the State School Reform Office (SRO) has listed 16 low performing DPSCD schools and eight EAA schools on a potential closure list, regardless of whether those children and families have a quality school in their neighborhood.  The SRO advised Detroit parents that if their child’s school is closed, they should consider sending their child to communities as far as Holly and East China to find a quality school.

Since 2009—when the state emergency managers took over Detroit schools—over 150 schools in Detroit have been shuttered.  These closures have imposed serious hardship on Detroit schoolchildren.  Study after study has indicated that when students are forced to switch schools unexpectedly, their academic performance suffers, their absenteeism rates increase, and the risk that they will drop out of high school skyrockets.  Yet the SRO is considering closing still more schools—inflicting new educational injuries on a population of students that has already suffered.

That is simply not right.  The DSCD school board is committed to improving our schools not shutting them down.

To that end, the board has directed DPSCD management to rapidly complete improvement plans for each of these schools.

We have spoken with Governor Snyder’s staff and he has committed that thoughtful analysis will be done before any schools are closed.

Meanwhile, we are authorizing DPSCD to take legal action when timely and appropriate to present why we believe these school closures cannot legally move forward.  We are hopeful that we can work with the state to avoid any action, however, we reserve the right to do so.

We look forward to presenting a plan for improvement to the SRO and the families of Detroit.

Statement from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather

On behalf of myself, our families, teachers and our administrators I want to thank the Board of Education for their leadership. We stand with their decision to work to keep our schools open. We have no doubt that closing schools without providing high-quality options would be devastating to our families. It would mean undue hardships in transportation, safety and access to critically needed wrap around services.

We also understand that it is critically important that each of these 16 schools shows dramatic improvement. As I speak, our leadership teams are working around the clock to create data-driven improvement plans for each school. These plans will be presented within the 10 days. We are confident that each one of these neighborhood schools can be a high-quality option for our students.

Finally, I want to thank the community – Mayor Duggan, our legislators, pastors, residents and friends for your outpouring of support. We sense that you are behind us and that you are locking arms with us to help us create better outcomes for our students. Thank you.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”

 

measuring progress

Fixing Detroit’s schools won’t happen overnight. Here’s what new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he can do by next year.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

It could be years before Detroiters see significant improvement in their struggling city schools, but Detroit’s new schools boss says there are some very specific ways that he expects to see some progress by next year.

Among them: improvements on test scores, attendance rates, teacher hiring and the amount of money district grads receive in college scholarships.

Those goals are spelled out in the documents that the Detroit school board plans to use to evaluate the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

State law requires districts to evaluate superintendents on both their skills and how students perform on things like annual state exams, but Vitti asserted at a forum last week that his evaluation is “more rigorous than any superintendent in the state.”

The evaluation, he said, spells out “very clear metrics linked to reading proficiency, math proficiency, college readiness, college going, graduation rates, fully staffed status for teachers.”

The Detroit district faces countless problems including some of the nation’s lowest test scores, buildings in poor repair and a reputation so diminished among Detroiters that fewer than half of the city’s children are currently enrolled in the district’s schools.

Since arriving in May, Vitti has promised that he can transform the Detroit schools, but cautions that change won’t happen overnight.

“People have to be patient,” he said at last week’s forum. “We’re going to work with a sense of urgency. We’re working night and day, but this is not going to be rebuilt in a year. It took two decades in my calculation to break one of the best urban school districts in this country … We’re not going to rebuild it in a year.”

To see what Vitti says he can do in a year, read his evaluation targets below. The targets were approved by the Detroit school board last week.