As charters rush to find new locations, the Detroit district announces big plans to use their buildings

The Detroit school district plans to spend more than $3 million to update buildings it is taking back from charter schools — with plans to turn those buildings into district schools that will relieve crowding at some schools and boost overall enrollment.

District officials have already notified four charter schools that they’re ending contracts to lease buildings from the district. They include Escuela Avencemos Academy, Hamilton Academy, GEE-Edmonson Academy, and GEE-White Academy.

“This is specifically to increase market share,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during board of education committee meetings Monday morning.

“Right now there are 50,000 students that live in the city who attend charter schools. And there are another 20,000 that are leaving the district for other options. This is a strategy … so more students attend district schools,” Vitti said.

Three of those school buildings (Escuela Avencemos, Hamilton and Edmonson) will be re-used by the district. The district owned the buildings but leased them when the district was controlled by state-appointed emergency managers.

A fourth currently being leased by a church would also be reclaimed.

The plan must be approved by the full board during its next regular meeting in March. The money to pay for the updates would come from the district’s rainy-day fund.

Here’s the plan Vitti laid out Monday:

  • Escuela Avencemos, 3811 Cicotte. It would be re-used to house either the high school portion of the district’s Academy of the Americas or its students in preschool to third grade. The academy’s high school currently is housed in space the district leases at St. Anne Parish for $300,000 annually, Vitti said. That lease is ending. Vitti said the recommendation could attract students. Within a one-mile radius of Academy of the Americas, there are 1,000 high schoolers who aren’t attending a district school because there isn’t a high school nearby. Cost to upgrade the building: $825,740.
  • GEE Edmonson, 1300 W Canfield. Using that building  would relieve some of the pressure on Spain Elementary-Middle School, which Vitti said is struggling to maintain a performing arts program and a Montessori program in the same building. The new building would offer what Vitti described as “a wall-to-wall Montessori” program for  preschool to third-graders. Cost to upgrade: $1,516,380.
  • Hamilton Academy, 14223 Southampton. Ending  the lease with this school represents “an easy recapture of students back to the district,” Vitti said, because other schools in the area are already full. He said the district would reach out to parents, hoping to keep students attending the charter school. The district would also look to recruit current teachers to stay at the school. Cost to upgrade: $951,740.
  • Barton School, 8530 Joy. This school, previously closed, had been leased by a church. The district would re-open a school  to relieve crowding at nearby Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School. Vitti said Mackenzie is turning away K-5 students because it’s out of space. But parents who’ve been turned away aren’t opting to send their children to any of the recommended district schools. He believes Barton will attract those parents. Cost to upgrade: $1.077,942.

Sonya Mays, the board member who chairs the finance committee, asked Vitti to address the criticism the district would likely face for opening new schools when it has a number of schools that are underenrolled.

Vitti said the conversation “has to be specific to the neighborhood and the feeder patterns we have.”

In the case of the four above recommendations, Vitti said the neighborhoods are growing, but don’t necessarily have enough schools for the population.

He said a separate conversation is needed  about neighborhoods with too many schools and a declining student population. In those cases, there may be a need to consolidate schools.

In December, Vitti discussed with Chalkbeat the potential for reclaiming the charter buildings, for a story about the mounting anxiety among charter leaders about the district’s intentions with their leases. Vitti noted that the district could use buildings reclaimed from charters to replace current district buildings that have high repair costs. But he also said the district could use the buildings to add a school in an area where a district school is struggling with crowded classes and “another traditional public school does not exist.”

At the time, no decisions had been made. But on Friday, several charter leaders told Chalkbeat they had been notified the district would not renew their leases.

As for the charters being displaced, some are still looking for new buildings. But Escuela Avencemos already has new digs. Principal Sean Townsin confirmed that his school is relocating to the St. Anne building that the district is vacating.

“We’re going to have everything we need,” Townsin said.

The St. Anne’s building is about two miles from Escuela Avencemos’ current location, he said. But that won’t be a problem, given the school offers door-to-door transportation to its students.

“There will be minimum disruption,” Townsin said.