The haves and have-nots

How generous private donations have created a tale of two pre-Ks in Detroit

PHOTO: LaWanda Marshall
Students in LaWanda Marshall's pre-K class at Detroit's Carver STEM Academy go on field trips to places like the Grand Prix Education Day at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

LaWanda Marshall and Candace Graham both teach pre-kindergarten at the Carver STEM Academy on Detroit’s west side.

Both have colorful, toy-filled classrooms, computers for students to use and assistant teachers to help guide their four- and five-year olds as they learn and explore.

But Marshall’s classroom has other things too — lots and lots of other things that regularly arrive like gifts from the pre-K gods.

“The office calls and says you have a package, and we’re like ‘Yay!’ and the kids get excited. It’s like Christmas,” said Marshall. Boxes filled with classroom supplies like musical instruments and science kits arrive every few weeks.

Marshall’s students — part of the Grow Up Great program funded by the PNC Foundation — go on regular field trips and get frequent visits from travelling instructors. The parents of her students get access to support programs like one that connects job seekers with employment opportunities. And Marshall receives special training in teaching arts and sciences that she credits with upping her game as an educator.

Graham and her students, meanwhile, hang back when the kids down the hall board the bus to go on field trips. Few packages or visitors arrive.

“We get left out a lot,” Graham said. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like all the kids should have the opportunities … They get more resources than we do. They have more materials in their classroom.”

The tale of two pre-Ks at the Carver STEM Academy is a problem well known in high-poverty school districts like Detroit that rely on the generosity of corporate and philanthropic donations to pick up where government resources leave off.

Districts are happy to accept gifts from private donors — baseball tickets or classroom supplies or money for school renovations. But inevitably, there’s not enough to go around. Schools then have to choose.

At Carver, all of the pre-K students are getting a quality education and a leg-up on school. But the children in Marshall’s classroom get to experience a program that shows how much more is possible when teachers have enough resources to fully involve parents, to engage community partners and to focus as much on science and art as they do on the ABCs.

The pre-K enrichment program is in 38 Detroit classrooms including 28 that receive PNC Grow Up Great funding and 10 that are supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Children in most of the city’s 177 pre-K classrooms don’t get to participate. That’s an inequity that Pamela Moore says she’d like to change.

Moore heads the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, which raises private funds for district schools. She’s trying to raise money to expand the program to all of the district’s preschools.

“We’ve got lots of partnerships so some kids get some things. Other kids get other things … but a lot of money is needed,” she said.

Moore is also looking for new ways to distribute private dollars so things like donated equipment or invitations to the Grand Prix are more coordinated — and less like a game show with prize-winning contestants.

“You’re the winner!” Moore said. “You and you and you. If we could coordinate that, maybe everyone could get a field trip or two and teachers could plan on it and count on it.”

 

* * *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students in LaWanda Marshall’s pre-Kindergarten class at the Carver STEM Academy regularly receive boxes with new toys like these ramps and balls that teach physics concepts through PNC’s Grow Up Great program. “It’s like Christmas!” Marshall said.

The PNC Foundation launched Grow Up Great in 2004, investing $350 million in quality education for young children across the nation. The bank’s effort was part of a national push from philanthropists, advocates and governments to help children become better prepared for school.

“For every dollar spent on high quality early education, the society gains as much as $13 in long-term savings,” said Gina Coleman, a PNC vice president and community relations director.

PNC approached the Detroit school district about participating in 2009, said Wilma Taylor-Costen who at the time was an assistant superintendent in charge of district early childhood programs.

District officials worked with PNC to design a program that would expose kids to the arts and sciences through extra classroom resources and partnerships with museums and arts organizations, Taylor-Costen said. The idea was to connect families with those groups through field trips and classroom visits, and to train teachers so the benefits would continue even if the money dried up.

“It has been an awesome opportunity for exposure of not just our children but their families,” Taylor-Costen said.

When kids in the program go on field trips, their parents come along. This year that included trips to the North American International Auto Show, the Grand Prix education day at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Cranbrook Science Center and a Music Hall puppet production of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Parents also benefit from classes and programs that help them support student learning at home.

And Marshall credits the program with expanding her approach to teaching preschool after 22 years in the classroom.

“The professional development has been key, very valuable,” Marshall said. “Before, I focused on the reading and the math and making sure they could write their name. Now I know that by incorporating arts and sciences … I’m adding that missing element.”

Tayor-Costen said she couldn’t recall how classrooms were selected for the program but said district officials made sure to include schools in different city neighborhoods.

 

* * *

PHOTO: Courtesy of LaWanda Marshall
Detroit Pre-K teacher LaWanda Marshall poses with her students at the Carver STEM Academy before a bell choir performance that was made possible by the PNC Grow Up Great program. She learned to play bells when the Music Hall brought the instruments to her classroom.

 

Principal Sabrina Evans first brought the PNC program to Carver when she came to the school in 2012. She had seen the program at her prior school, the Beard Early Learning Neighborhood Center, and wanted it for Carver’s pre-Ks, she said.

“For them to have the first time going to school with all these things at their disposal, it’s like ‘Wow! I like school!’ Not only the kids, but the parents. I see more parents coming to the field trips and then I see them coming to school to participate.”

Evans was able to put both of Carver’s two pre-K classrooms into the Grow Up Great program in 2012 but when the school added a third pre-K in 2016, there wasn’t room for a third Carver classroom in the coveted program.

That’s why Graham’s students can’t participate.

“It’s lonely,” Graham said. “A lot of times we don’t even know when they have somebody coming to their classroom because it’s almost like a secret society.”

On a recent morning, when Graham’s class came out to play on the playground, her students ran past students in the school’s two PNC classrooms. The PNC kids were launching bottle rockets they had learned to make when visitors from the Charles H. Wright Museum, a new partner, brought bottles, baking soda and vinegar to the school.

Evans said she tries to support Graham’s classroom with other resources. She sets aside $20,000 from her budget every year to pay for school-wide field trips (Marshall’s students go on those field trips, too). And Marshall says she shares as many classroom resources with Graham as she can. She also passes along ideas and tools she develops through the supplemental teacher trainings.

But Evans regrets that some of her classrooms get benefits that others do not.

“I’m blessed to have two [PNC classrooms] because some schools don’t have any,” she said “But  … If they’re going to offer it, it should go to every pre-K class in the district.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Pre-K teacher Candace Graham talks to a student on the playground at the Carver STEM Academy. She says her students get “left out a lot” because the school’s two other preschool classrooms are in the PNC Grow Up Great program.

Moore has been trying to raise money to expand the program — and continue it in case the current funding dries up.

Last year, Moore put together a proposal to share with potential funders that put the cost of the program at $882 per child per year.

“PNC was the one that stepped up and said they were going to write a check and … we were so excited about that investment, we just said ‘woo hoo!’ and took it,” Moore said. “But now it’s time, if we all agree that it’s valuable … to go and find the resources.”

Moore is encouraged by the Hope Starts Here initiative, led by the Kellogg and Kresge Foundations, which has brought parents, experts, community organizations and political leaders together over the past year to develop a city-wide strategy to improve the lives of young children in Detroit.

“Hope Starts Here is an excellent example of bringing everybody into the room, figuring out where the gaps are and coming up with a plan we all agree with,” Moore said. “Then we’ll have a road map.”

Kellogg has been funding programs in the Detroit Public Schools for years but has recently ramped up its focus on early childhood education, said Khalilah Burt Gaston, a Detroit-based program officer with the Battle Creek-based foundation.

The foundation has worked closely with district leaders, she said, but the string of state-appointed emergency managers in recent years has made city-wide collaboration with the district challenging. “I think it would be fair to say that it’s been difficult during transitioning leadership to articulate a clear vision and strategy,” Gaston said.

That could change now that the district has a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, who has said he plans to stay for at least five years. Gaston said Hope Starts Here hopes to work with the district as it looks for new ways to expand high-quality early childhood programs.

Grow Up Great offers one model that the planners are looking to, she said. “It’s wonderful but it’s only serving a small number of children so what are the strategies needed to scale that? Replicate it across the entire district?”

Coleman said PNC knew that limited resources would prevent the bank from providing the program to all of the district’s preschoolers. The goal, she said, was to show what can be accomplished with extra funds.

“Obviously you can’t help every classroom,” she said. “But we have helped set the bar in how it can look.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of LaWanda Marshall
Students in LaWanda Marshall’s Detroit pre-Kindergarten class attend the North American International Auto Show through PNC’S Grow Up Great program

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.