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.”

 

charter wars

Another weapon for charters in their war with the Detroit school district: A new ‘parent’ group that will lobby on behalf of charter schools

PHOTO: Detroit Voice for School Choice
Parents at the GEE Edmonson Academy in Midtown, Detroit, showing support for SB 574.

In the escalating battle over charter schools in Detroit, a local advocacy group is gearing up for an offensive that includes a new weapon: the support and involvement of charter school parents.

The recently formed group, Detroit Voice for School Choice, is planning to recruit, educate and train charter school parents to help advocate for charter-friendly legislation in Lansing and generally push back against what they see as unfair criticism of the independently managed schools.

Detroit Voice for School Choice is in itself a powerhouse of educators and advocates committed to seeing more public money funneled to charters. Pro-district forces argue that sending more tax dollars to charters means less money for Detroit’s district schools. Many of Detroit’s schools, both district and charter, suffer from low test scores and criticism over their effectiveness.  

Members of the group are pulled from some of the largest and most highly respected charter school networks in Detroit, including the leaders of the University Prep Schools and the Cornerstone Schools and New Paradigm for Education schools. New Paradigm runs prominent schools like the Detroit Edison Public School Academy.   

In late November, the group unveiled its parent engagement strategy, which begins with educating parents at partnered charter schools on issues relevant to supporting and expanding the role of charters in the city.

The group’s chairman, Mark Ornstein, who heads the seven-school University Prep network, described it as a “grassroot effort” based in Detroit that is working on the local level for many of the same issues that are also being addressed by a statewide advocacy group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, or MAPSA.

He said Detroit Voice was given $300,000 in seed money by private, pro-charter funders that he declined to identify, though he did specify that no funding is coming from the billionaire philanthropist and pro-charter advocate Betsy DeVos, who now serves as President Trump’s education secretary.

Ornstein said Detroit Voice “has to be in Detroit to really do this work” — a point underscored by Moneak Parker, executive director of Detroit Voice and so far the group’s only staff member.

“Detroit parents are our main focus,” Parker said.

The creation of the group is part of a larger nationwide trend: charter advocacy groups, funded by wealthy donors, that are working to reshape entire school districts. In Denver, New Orleans and Indianapolis, advocacy groups have dramatically shifted enrollment from traditional public schools to charters.

Detroit already has one of the largest charter school enrollments in the nation, with more than half of its roughly 100,000 students attending charters in the city and surrounding suburbs. The charter movement has strong advocates across the state, notably from a powerful political organization called Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded by DeVos.

But charters have taken a public relations beating in Detroit in recent years, notably during DeVos’ confirmation hearing when critics linked the poor quality of schools in Detroit to pro-charter laws that were pushed in Michigan by DeVos and her Great Lakes Education Project.

Detroit charters are also facing new challenges as district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recently seized upon criticism of charters in his public vow to “put them out of his business.”

“In the context of Michigan, choice has been disastrous because it has not had guardrails,” Vitti said at a forum in October. “We should not be allowing schools to open as if they’re corner gas stations, hoping that they do well for children.”  

Ornstein said an “anti-choice sentiment” had fostered a climate that required charters to unite to push back. “This is the first time various charters organizations have come together to work together,” he said.

Dan Quisenberry, the president of MAPSA, said the state-level group will collaborate and support the new Detroit-centric group.

“I look forward to giving them information on what is happening in Lansing,” he said. “We’re collaborating. They’re brand new and we support parents, so I look forward to seeing how this develops.”

The group’s first call to action was to gain parent support on Senate Bill 574, which would allow charter schools to receive funding from a millage currently given only to district public school students. Opponents of the bill say it would take money away from district schools already feeling squeezed by what they see as a lack of funding.

As the group gets off the ground, parents will continue to be a large part of its strategy. Already Parker, the group’s executive director, has been visiting Charter Management Organization partner schools and providing workshops on education reform once a month. Parents who show interest are invited to attend six weeks of training to become a fellow.

The fellows will assist Parker in organizing and rallying other parents. Those who complete the training will be paid an annual stipend of “a couple of hundred dollars,” Ornstein said, with the exact amount still to be determined.

“Working with so many different [charter school managers] and charters, we wanted to work in a manner that’s efficient, and utilizing parents who know the school environment and their specific type of campus, it’s important to not have just a cold call, you’re taking advantage of very active parents,” Ornstein said.

David Hecker, president of the AFT, the local teachers union, said he is in favor of empowering parents, no matter their point of view. “If parents want to get together and advocate for schools they think are best, then more power to them,” Hecker said. “I just hope it’s a real parent-led organization, not a charter management-led organization. Whether we agree or disagree, more power to them.”

The group is now looking for additional funding to continue expanding.

“We are a very lean meat organization; there’s not a huge amount of overhead at this point,” Ornstein said. Nevertheless, he said, “There will be the need to look for outside, additional funding. We’ll see where we go in terms of money. If we do the right thing, money will follow.”.

The board of Detroit Voice for School Choice includes:  Ornstein; Ralph Bland, CEO, New Paradigm for Education; Renee Burgess, CEO, Equity Education; Reid Gough, CEO, Cornerstone Education Group; Raymond Smith, vice president, Innovative Teaching Solutions; Kyle Smitley, executive director, Detroit Achievement Academy; and Marwaan Issa, senior executive, Global Educational Excellence.

Marwaan Issa and Ralph Bland are members of both Detroit Voice and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.