New buildings at stake

At stake in school closings: Tens of millions of dollars spent on recent improvements to targeted Detroit schools

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
Among the Detroit schools on the state's closure list is Osborn High School, which got a $5.7 million facelift in 2015 from a nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

Parents, students and staff at the Fisher Upper Academy on Detroit’s east side gathered at the school last fall for an exciting announcement:

The Ford Fund, the carmaker’s philanthropic arm, planned to spend $5 million on a new “resource and engagement center” inside the school.

Parents were thrilled to learn that they and their neighbors would soon have access to services like job training and a food bank in the same building where their children go to school, said parent Kenya Tubbs, whose 12-year-old daughter Camille is in 7th grade.

“The 48205 needs a lot of things,” Tubbs said of the high-poverty zip code where Fisher Upper is located. “A lot of people would not come to a community center if they need a job or if they need food, but they’ll come to a school.”

But three months after that joyful announcement, Fisher Upper was named to the list of 38 Michigan schools that state officials have targeted for closure because of years of low test scores.

Now, the effort to unite social services with education on the east side of Detroit has been thrown into question.

“We’re moving forward in the event that things are resolved at the state level,” said Ford Fund spokesman Todd Nissen. “But at the same time, we have to monitor what happens between the state and the district.”

The turmoil at Fisher Upper is just one consequence of a school closure effort that’s focused largely on academics without much consideration for neighborhood impact or the loss of investment in schools. The closures could mean schools that have received tens of millions of dollars in recent years from taxpayers, corporate donors or community service organizations might soon be left vacant.

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Officials from the Detroit Public Schools and the Ford Fund visited Detroit’s Fisher Upper Academy in October to announce a $5 million investment in a new school-based community center. Three months later, the school learned it’s in danger of closing.

Among them is Mumford High School in northwest Detroit, which moved into a brand new $50 million building in 2012.

The new Mumford was paid for with $500.5 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2009. That money also built a new $22.6 million Gompers Elementary-Middle School in the Brightmoor neighborhood and paid for major improvements to Denby High School ($16.5 million) and Ford High School ($16.85 million).

All of those schools are on the closure list.

Among the 25 Detroit schools that have been targeted for closure by the state are several that have from tens of millions of dollars in recent renovations.

Also on the list are schools that benefited from major corporate and community investments such as Osborn High School. The Osborn building houses three small schools, all of which are on the closure list. It got a $5.7 million overhaul in 2015 from a Detroit-based nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

And other schools have been put on notice that they could be closed in 2018 if test scores don’t improve this year. Spain Elementary is on that list. It got a $1.2 million upgrade last year with help from a $500,000 check from Lowe’s that was delivered to the school on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The 38 schools targeted in 2017 — including 25 in Detroit — were identified for closure because they landed on the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row.

The schools will be ordered to close in June unless officials from the state School Reform Office decide that closing them would represent a hardship to students.

Final decisions were expected to be made in the next few weeks but Gov. Rick Snyder announced Thursday that decisions likely won’t be made until May.

When they are made, they’ll be based on educational concerns — not buildings, said School Reform Officer Natasha Baker.

“The SRO is focused on our mission: to turn priority schools into the highest performing schools in the state,” Baker said in a statement. “We do this through academic accountability and have no statutory authority with the financing or operational components of schools.”

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Students at the Fisher Upper Academy have worked with the Ford Fund to determine what will be offered to the community if a $5 million resource center is built in their school but a threatened closure of the Detroit school has thrown plans into question.

Advocates warn that closing a school impacts more than just students and teachers.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools,” said Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO of Life Remodeled. “You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? …  How are funders going to trust that their commitments are going to be sustainable and fruitful in the future?”

Lambert’s organization raises money and recruits volunteers to renovate schools, parks and homes in Detroit neighborhoods. In addition to the major renovations at Osborn, Life Remodeled did an estimated $5 million in improvements to Cody High School, a three-school building with one school on the 2017 closure list and two on the possible 2018 list.

Lambert said he never would have raised the money or put years of effort into renovating those schools if he had any inkling that closures were looming.

“I asked at length,” he said. “We did hours and hours and hours of research into these schools, talking with DPS, funders, stakeholders, community leaders. We’ve got to make sure that we’re stewarding the donations … and using them wisely and all factors pointed to ‘These are schools to invest in.’ ”

But school closings were not expected until state lawmakers last year approved a $617 million financial rescue to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy. The new law included language requiring Baker’s office to close persistently low-ranking schools in the city.

The law specifies that the district (or the authorizer in the case of charter schools) “may not open a new school at the same location … within three years after the closure of the school unless the new school has substantially different leadership structure and substantially different curricular offerings than the previous school.”

Detroit school officials could, in theory, put new schools into closing buildings or move existing schools into them. But new schools would need to be approved by the School Reform Office and it’s not likely that the district would be ready to open new schools by September.

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
The non-profit Life Remodeled organized donations and volunteers to renovate Osborn High School, which could now be closed by the state.

Some school buildings could be snapped up by charter schools if the district is willing to sell them but negotiations and sales could take months or years so Detroit — a city riddled with vacant and blighted buildings — could soon get some more. And that will cost money.

“Even a very brief period of vacancy is going to result in scrappers getting into buildings,” said John Grover, a Loveland Technologies staffer who last year authored a comprehensive report on school closings and vacancies in Detroit.

Grover’s report, called A School District in Crisis, found that the city had 82 vacant school buildings last year. Most had been stripped, damaged by fire and had become dangerous, blighted eyesores in city neighborhoods.

Past school closings by the Detroit Public Schools cost the district an estimated $100,000 per school in one-time “mothballing costs” such as securing the buildings, removing equipment and  turning off water so pipes don’t freeze in the winter, Grover said. The district also spends roughly $50,000 per year per school to maintain and secure vacant buildings, he said.

“At the worst of times in 2012, they had so many [vacant school] buildings that they were monitoring all night long, they were out there playing a game of cat and mouse with the scrappers, going from one building to the next,” Grover said. “If you dump another 20 buildings into the school police department, that’s going to put a lot of strain on their resources … and they have a hard enough time dealing with active school buildings.”

It’s not clear who would cover the expense of securing vacant school buildings if they’re closed down by the state but the district, now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, owns the buildings. Some of the schools including Mumford, Ford and Denby are currently part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority but they are scheduled to revert back to the district this summer.

Baker said the state has “made no decisions” about who will pay expenses related to closures. A spokeswoman for the district said city schools do not have the resources to shoulder those costs. “We would definitely need assistance,” she said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.

 

Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”