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.”

 

Coming merger

‘We all became family.’ Students say goodbye to Detroit school after promising three-year run

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar greets students on the first day of school in 2016.

The Mumford Academy’s future has been in doubt almost from its first day of existence.

The small school tucked inside the larger Mumford High School started with about 100 ninth graders in 2015, but soon faced a series of threats despite some early wins.

There was news in 2016 that the state-run recovery district that created the small school would be dissolved, and it wasn’t clear what would happen to the academy. There was the possibility in 2017 that Mumford High School, along with the academy inside it, could be shut down by the state after landing on a closure list because of years of poor test scores at the bigger school.

But ultimately, it was the issue of cost that doomed the school in 2018, with officials deciding it doesn’t make sense for a cash-strapped district like Detroit to pay two principals in a building that needs only one.

Despite a promising three-year run, the little school will close this week, leaving teachers and students to wonder if they’ll be able to hold on to the family-like community and strong academic achievements of the past three years when they merge with their larger sister school.

“In the academy, we all became family. That’s why we don’t get in fights,” said Trevor Bradley, 16, a junior at the school. “We all look at each other as brothers.”

The academy was part of an experiment by the state-run Education Achievement Authority to see what would happen if high school students were placed in a smaller environment that didn’t have the baggage of a school like Mumford, which had struggled for years.

“It’s really hard to turn around a low-performing school,” said Jack Elsey, who now runs the Detroit Children’s Fund but was the EAA’s Chief Schools Officer around the time the academy was founded. “Mumford at the time had 600 or 700 students. If you really want to re-orient the culture of a school to be about success … doing that with 700 students is a lot harder than starting with 100, and building a grade at a time over the years.“

Having a smaller school, Elsey said, “creates the kind of environment where you can really get to know every student, get to know their families and better serve them.”

The main Detroit district tried something similar a few years earlier when it broke Cody and Osborn high schools up into smaller campuses. But Elsey, who briefly oversaw Cody and Osborn as an assistant superintendent in the district, acknowledged that the district, under the control of state-appointed emergency managers, didn’t fund or support those efforts enough.

“When you start doing things like cutting funding and requiring the schools to share teachers and requiring them to share operational budgets, you start to chip away at the foundation of what a small school is,” Elsey said. “In a nutshell, anything that is not funded appropriately is going to fail.”

After all three Osborn schools landed on the state’s closure list last year, the district merged them into a single campus. Cody had one of its three schools on that list but the other two were added to a state watch list later.

The Mumford Academy showed signs of success in its first two years. It had the EAA’s highest attendance rate and the state-run district’s highest percentage of students meeting targets on tests that measure how much students learn from one year to the next.

In its third year, after the EAA dissolved and its schools returned to the main Detroit district, principal Nir Saar said SAT scores were encouraging.

Though state officials have not yet released SAT scores for Michigan schools, Saar said during the school’s end-of-year ceremony this month that he’d collected individual scores from his 11th graders — the first at the school to take the SAT. He learned that the school-wide average for the junior class was 822.

If this year’s SAT scores come in similar to those from the 2016-17 school year, an average score of 822 would put the Mumford Academy ahead of most Detroit high schools that don’t use selective admissions, such as Cass Tech and Renaissance.

If you take Cass and Renaissance out of the equation, the average SAT score for high schools that are now in the district was around 805 last year.

“This is how [Mumford Academy students] stack up” Saar told the parents and students assembled in the school auditorium for a celebration on June 8.

He flashed a bar chart on a screen that showed the school’s average SAT score rising above those of 11 other Detroit high schools.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar flashed a bar chart on a screen at a school celebration that showed the school’s average SAT score rising above those of 11 other Detroit high schools. “The message for me is really clear,” he said. “If you have really good ideas and you have the right people to put them in place … you can achieve.”

“The message for me is really clear,” he said as he pointed to that slide. “If you have really good ideas and you have the right people to put them in place … you can achieve just about anything and achieve on par with schools that are selecting their students, that are in nicer neighborhoods and have better resources.”

What happens next for the academy’s students and teachers isn’t entirely clear.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board before it voted on the mergers of Mumford and Cody last month that students from the different schools would be kept together even after their schools merge.

“They will take classes with each other and stay together, but under one school,” Vitti said.

Mumford High School’s principal, Angela Prince, said in a statement that since she took over the larger school in the 2016-17 school year, she has “been focused on student achievement and turning around what others had counted as a lost cause.”

At the end of the 2016-17 school year, she said, test scores showed Mumford students were moving in the right direction, and the school was named most-improved school in the EAA district.   

When the two schools merge, she said, academy students will stay with their same teachers but will have access to more electives than they did when they were at a small school. Entering 9th-graders will be separated into a dedicated 9th grade community that will provide extra support, she said.

“We pride ourselves at Mumford on developing a small family atmosphere and letting students know they are loved,” Prince said. “Our students will continue to excel and be successful, and show that it can happen in a comprehensive high school setting.”

Vitti said he’s not against the small school concept, which has been used extensively in cities like New York.

“There certainly was some positive impact regarding those smaller schools,” he told the board last month. “From a student attendance point of view, from a behavioral point of view and just an overall safety point of view. But one concern that was expressed by individual board members and myself was the large administrative costs linked to having multiple schools, with multiple administrators.”

Merging the schools, he said, would both reduce costs, saving $1.1 million a year at Cody, and between $735,000 and $825,000 a year at Mumford, and “create a clearer vision under one leader.”

Vitti said Saar and two of the Cody principals will be moved to other district schools and will remain principals.

What’s not clear for now is what will become of a leadership training program that had been taking place at the Mumford Academy.

Saar and his top advisors at the academy had been participating in something called the Team Fellows program, a $900,000 effort, funded by the Detroit Children’s Fund, to bring school management coaches from around the country to work closely with the leaders of three Detroit schools.

The idea is to help school leaders — including those who, because of Detroit’s challenges, have never worked in a high-performing school — better understand what has worked in other cities.

Elsey, who now runs the Detroit Children’s Fund, said Saar and his team were selected from among the leaders of 25 district and charters schools who applied to participate. The program started last winter and was supposed to extend through the 2018-19 school year.

Now, Elsey said, he’s not sure what will happen next. One option is to involve the leaders of the larger Mumford, but coaches could move on to a different school instead.

“We put schools through a pretty competitive application process,” Elsey said. “We need to know if that’s the right match.”

Parents and students at the academy say they’re worried about what next year will bring.

“I am upset and really sad about us losing a strong, three-year family because this academy is a strong academy,” said Jerreon Smith, a Mumford Academy junior. “I’m going to miss the environment. It’s most likely going to get lost.”

Jerreon’s mother,  Yolanda Johnson, said her son thrived at the small school.

“They get to know you. Your child is not just a number,” she said. “[Students] want to do well when they come into a classroom where they know that the teacher actually knows them, that the teacher will get on the phone and talk to their mother … not just when they’re not doing the right thing, but when they’re doing good.”

Still, Johnson said, she is hoping for the best.

“Hopefully,” she said, “the skills they’ve given them in the academy will be strong enough.”

Uphill battle

Recruiting when your team is full of ‘detractors’: As the Detroit district searches for talent, most of its employees aren’t on board

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

Michigan’s largest school district has its share of critics, from lawmakers pushing for school closures to families who send their children to schools in the suburbs.

As it turns out, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has plenty of detractors on the inside, too. A survey of 19,000 teachers, students, parents, and district employees underlined the challenges facing Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s administration as it races to fill nearly 200 teaching positions and boost enrollment before the first day of school next fall.

Only a quarter of administrators are happy with the district’s hiring processes. Fully 63 percent of office staff are “not at all likely” to recommend the district.

“If our own employees are not favorable toward the organization, then how can we ever recruit new parents to schools or new employees to the district?” Vitti asked at a school board meeting this week.

Students reported their own concerns, especially about the climate and safety of their schools. Less than half of students in grades 3-8 felt safe, putting the district in the bottom 10 percent that asked the same question nationwide.

But one of the survey’s more promising results also came from students, 60 percent of whom said they felt a sense of “school belonging.” Among schools nationwide that asked the same question, more than two-thirds reported a lower score.

Nonetheless, as Vitti pointed out, the survey labels 40 percent of parents, 50 percent of instructional staff, and 63 percent of office staff as “detractors,” meaning they were not likely to recommend the district.

Response rates for the survey were: 97 percent of teachers, 55 percent of office staff, 29 percent of families, 85 percent of students. Most took the survey online.

Scroll down for results from the full survey.