Hitting the road?

Detroit parents steered to ‘better’ schools — that don’t actually take Detroit kids

PHOTO: Ken Lund
State officials are encouraging Detroit families to hit the road in search of 'better' schools — but some districts offered as alternatives won't accept Detroit children.

Thousands of Detroit parents last month opened their mailboxes to find an alarming letter.

“You are receiving this letter because the school your child attends is at risk of being closed by June 30, 2017 due to academic failure for many years,” the letter states.

The letter, signed by State School Reform Officer Natasha Baker, went on to explain that children attending closed schools may be offered “the opportunity to attend a higher-performing school” and encouraged parents to use an attached list of schools “to enroll your child in a better option for the 2017-2018 school year.”

But when Detroit parents turned to the attached list, many were surprised. There were nearly 60 school districts listed, including some like Holly, Brighton and East China, Mich., that are an hour’s drive from Detroit.

“When this letter first came out, parents started blowing up my phone saying ‘What is this?’” said Wytrice Harris, a parent organizer with 482Forward. “‘Are they telling us to move out of the city because these schools are so far away? How am I ever supposed to get my kids to these schools?’”

To make matters worse, Chalkbeat has discovered that some of the districts listed don’t even accept Detroit kids. We spent an hour on Friday calling districts on the list to see how they would respond to questions from someone claiming to be the mother of a Detroit student — and some seemed very confused.

“I’m really sorry they put us on that list,” said the woman who responded from Brighton Area Schools.

Brighton is a Schools of Choice district, meaning it accepts students who live outside district borders. But state law only allows districts to accept kids who live in the same county or in a neighboring county. And since Brighton is in Livingston County, which does not share a border with Wayne County, Brighton does not accept Detroit kids.

“I would imagine you could attend Oakland County schools,” said the helpful woman from Brighton.

It was the same story with East China schools, which are in St. Clair County.

“We take students from Sanilac, Lapeer and Macomb [Counties],” an enrollment official in East China responded.

When told that East China was on the list provided to Detroit families, she said, “That was a typo. That was supposed to be East Detroit.”

East Detroit was also on the list provided to Detroit families, and its schools are much closer to Detroit than East China’s. But that district has also had academic struggles. Some of its schools are currently being run by a state-appointed CEO, and one East Detroit school is also on the list of schools officials have threatened to close.

Baker last month put 38 Michigan schools on notice that they could be closed unless her office determines that closing the school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students.

There are 25 Detroit schools on the list, including 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that are expected to revert back to the city’s main district this summer.

The Detroit school board voted last week to oppose the closings in court if necessary, and cited the letter parents received among its concerns.

“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,” board President Iris Taylor said, reading a prepared statement from the board Wednesday night.

Asked for comment about the parent letter on Friday, the SRO emailed this statement to Chalkbeat: “We looked at districts with schools that have Top-To-Bottom rankings of 25 or higher contiguous to failing schools that are also schools of choice. The goal was to find quality schools accessible to children and families.

“We appreciate the concerns that have been raised and will consider those points during the hardship review. Our goal is to offer quality opportunities for students so that they can succeed as adults.”

When Chalkbeat set out to contact districts on the list, we decided to see how many we could reach in one hour.

We started at the top of the alphabetical list, placing a call to Airport Community Schools, which are near the Ohio border in Monroe County.

“We can take kids from Wayne County,” said the man who answered the phone.

But Airport schools are in Carleton, Michigan, nearly an hour away now that I-75 is closed for construction — and very few districts offer student transportation to non-resident kids.

“It would be your responsibility to get ‘em here,” he said.

Some districts we reached were welcoming, including Clintondale Community Schools in Macomb County.

“We have a lot of Detroit kids here,” said the woman who took the call in Clintondale. “Twenty to 25 percent of our population is from Detroit.”

She recommended Parker Elementary school, where she knows some Detroit families carpool to class. (She did not mention that the school was one of the lowest ranked schools in the state last year.)

The Crestwood School District is very close to Detroit in Dearborn Heights, but it won’t take just any kid.

“We’re a closed district except that we have the Crestwood Accelerated program,” the woman on the phone at Crestwood told us. “Your child is welcome to test for the accelerated program but we don’t have any test dates scheduled yet. The next one would probably be by the end of the school year.”

Most districts that answered our calls were largely helpful but not necessarily encouraging.

“Our Schools of Choice window should be open at the beginning of March,” said the woman who took the call at the Anchor Bay School District, which is based in Casco Township, Michigan, a 50-minute drive from Detroit.

“But, you know, transportation is not included,” she said. “If traffic was bad, you could be spending an hour just getting them here.”

Here’s the list of “better” districts that Detroit parents received:

The list of ‘better’ school districts provided to Detroit parents include districts very far from the city that won’t accept Detroit kids.


Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!


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.”