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

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”