Sweltering schools

‘Sweatbox’ conditions close aging Detroit schools a third day as board member seeks help

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
After her 11:40 a.m. dismissal Thursday, Lataliah Madden, a third grader at Davison Elementary-Middle School, said this week's early school closures due to extreme heat cut her education short

Thousands of Detroit parents were awakened Thursday morning to the news that district schools would be closing early again for the third consecutive day.

With temperatures predicted to soar into the high 80s, school officials decided to close the 106 buildings—most lacking air-conditioning—of Detroit’s main district three hours early before the temperatures hit a high of 87 degrees.

The early school closures were the latest fallout for a district with many aging buildings that haven’t been well maintained in recent years. The district let students in air-conditioned buildings leave early so siblings who attend different schools could be dismissed together. Schools will open Friday, when the high is expected to reach 80 degrees.

Not only do approximately 61 of our buildings not have air conditioning but windows do not open in many of the classrooms. This creates ‘sweatbox’ conditions in many schools and classrooms,” district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said in a statement.

“The decision has been well received by our staff because previously their voice was not heard” when the state ran the district, Wilson added.

Nevertheless, parent Gina Reichert felt frustrated as she  picked up her 8-year-old daughter, Eva, early from the Davison Elementary-Middle School for the third day in a row.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Gina Reichert and daughter, Eva

“We want the kids to be safe, and you don’t want them sitting in the building sweating,” the independent artist said after the 11:40 a.m., dismissal. “But it’s not even June yet. What should we expect for the rest of the year? The district needs to invest in these buildings.”

Tashia Madden called the early dismissal an inconvenience, but said she realizes the district “barely has any money.” Her daughter, third grader Lataliah, also had some thoughts about it.

“When you get out early, your education is cut short,” she said.

The early closing not only affected parents’ schedules, it also impacted students’.

As he waited for a bus on Ryan Road at East Seven Mile Road outside Pershing High School after his noon dismissal, 16-year-old Keshawn Holton, a 10th grader at the school, said he wasn’t happy because the early closure interfered with his schoolwork.

“I feel like it’s not good logic to let school out,” said the aspiring firefighter. “OK. It’s hot, but it’s hot everywhere. What do they do in places like Birmingham, Alabama? I’ve got work I’m missing, and I can’t do it.”

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Keshawn Holton

He said he had an online chemistry assignment he needed to complete, and planned to do the work at school because he lacks home internet access. “On top of that, we can’t go on any field trips,” he said.

But even an air-conditioned building, Cass Technical High School, has been closed all week, and will remain closed Friday because of a malfunctioning cooling system.

“The reason for the school closures is due to [having] only one of five chillers operating to cool the school building,” Wilson said. “Required repairs are extensive but temporary chillers are being installed in the meantime to cool the building by Monday.”

The district is reviewing its facility needs, Wilson said.

Most of the area’s other districts and schools remained open, with a few exceptions.

The district could have difficulty upgrading its buildings because of a quirk in state law that created the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. The new district is free from most of the debt that imperiled its predecessor, the Detroit Public Schools, but the new district is barred from borrowing money to pay for capital improvements.

That’s likely why district school board member Sonya Mays put out a call for help on Mackinac Island where the state’s business and political leaders were gathered for the Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan’s largest annual political event traditionally held the week after Memorial Day.

“We have several decades of poorly maintained buildings, deferred maintenance and tons of vacant buildings for which there is no clear purpose,” Mays told a well-heeled audience assembled at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

“I don’t know that I can overstate how much of a hurdle that has become in consistently educating and providing a safe environment for our students.”

Mays, who heads Develop Detroit, a nonprofit real estate development agency, said helping the district take care of its properties would be the best way for business leaders to offer support. She cited this week’s early dismissals as evidence that the district needs help.

“Just think about the disruption that that causes, and you multiply it out across a whole school system,” she said.

The district’s early dismissals fall on the heels of a new study released Monday that shows warm classrooms hamper student learning. The research by the National Bureau of Economic Research also suggests that air conditioning, still missing in many schools, is a worthwhile investment.

Under Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s year-old administration, the Detroit district has been dealing with crumbling buildings, and malfunctioning heating and cooling systems, even as it has focused on improving instruction and test scores. Earlier this year, a school had to be shuttered after a leaking roof led to dangerous mold growth.

Administrators have had to be “superior managers of property and buildings in an environment that’s not like any other across the country. It’s not their core competency,” Mays said.

She pleaded for help from business and political leaders.

Mayor Mike Duggan, who was on the same panel with Mays and Vitti, recalled the business community lining up to help Detroit schools after a similar plea at the 1999 Mackinac conference. Eager to help, he said, they forged robust partnerships. But most of that receded after the district spiraled downward in later years.

Mays is seeking new partnerships to help the district.

“It’s an area where the broader community could really step up and collaborate and help solve some of the problems we have with our buildings.”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.