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

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.”