At Berry Elementary School last week, there was a clear case of denial about a future that’s fast approaching.
Students walked to and from school together. In quiet corners of wide hallways, volunteers from the neighborhood tutored children. Parents attended after-school workshops to learn how to help their sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors with their reading lessons.
The floors were clean. The library shelves were organized and full of books. The windows at the front door had welcome signs for visitors and views of the playgrounds from inside.
Teachers patiently read to kindergartners, led math multiplication and division lessons for sixth-graders, and explained to a multi-grade class how to add “-ing” to words: “hope” became “hoping.”
No one talked about — unless asked, and then only in hushed tones so the 238 children who attend school there couldn’t hear — the Detroit school board’s recent vote to close the building at the end of this academic year and to relocate students and staff.
“It’s always in the back of our minds that this school is going to be closed,” says secondgrade teacher Thomas DiLuigi, a 28-year veteran of the east side school. “But if we were to dwell on that, the children would be affected and they’re our main priority.”
As one of the 34 recently announced Detroit public schools to be closed during the next two academic years — to cut operating costs and help close a multimillion-dollar hole in the district’s roughly $1.2 billion budget — Berry’s history as a place of learning is about to grudgingly end. Those schools will be joining the 25 other vacant schools owned by the district that are waiting to be rented or sitting, sometimes decaying, in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Watching enrollment fall from 175,168 students in 1997 to 115,047 this year, district officials had to come up with criteria to use to determine which schools would be shuttered, says Darrell Rodgers, the district’s chief of facilities maintenance and auxiliary services and chair of the facilities realignment committee. They settled on enrollment trends, student capacity in each building, how each school was progressing academically and the condition of the buildings. About 40 of the district’s 232 schools are operating at less than half of their student capacity.
“Another thing to take into consideration was what kind of development was going on in the city with respect to that region. Do we expect new housing or is it an area that’s becoming less populated?” Rodgers says.
As a smaller school with less-than-stellar test scores and schools nearby where students can transfer, Berry made the closure list. Now teachers, parents and community volunteers there worry that Berry’s neighborhood will fall apart without a school on this block — that would be a first in 133 years for this modest neighborhood between Mount Elliot and East Grand Boulevard near Mack Avenue, more or less in the center of a triangle formed by the Heidelberg Project, Belle Isle and Indian Village.
“It’s going to be hard. We’re a very small, very close-knit community school,” says Loriann Bell, who teaches fourth grade and has worked at Berry since 1998. “I’ve had full families of siblings in my classroom. I’m close with all the parents.”
Francis Grunow, the executive director of Preservation Wayne, calls the number of closures “troubling” for the city as a whole.
“I think closing down the schools is a death sentence. It’s the glue that holds a neighborhood together,” he says. “I think if there are multiple schools in neighborhoods that still have a quality and a bond that is somewhat viable or could potentially be viable, I think we need to really look carefully before closing a school like that.”
But Rodgers says the eventual tens of millions of dollars in savings to the district make the closures imperative.
“It’s difficult,” he says. “It’s the largest undertaking like this in the United States to my knowledge. It’s going to take an extraordinary amount of planning and coming together, community support and people working.”
When the last students leave, Berry Elementary will become part of Detroit Public Schools’ massive and unwanted challenge as one of the largest landlords in the city, overseeing 38 presently closed schools, roughly a third of which are leased, a third of which officials hope to lease or sell, and a third of which have fallen into such disrepair that the district holds little hope of finding tenants for them in their current states.
If none of the schools are sold outright, the district by 2008 could be overseeing 72 student-less school buildings in addition to the 198 remaining active schools.
The situation isn’t all bad.
Former schools are leased by churches, nonprofit agencies and even the Detroit Police Department (a lab inhabits one structure). The leases bring in between $500 and $6,000 per building each month, school officials say.
One condo developer has bought a former school in Lafayette Park and created lofts that sell for as much as $400,000. Meanwhile, the district is finalizing the sale of the former Wilbur Wright High School at Rosa Parks and Canfield for another loft development.
And the school system recently hired its first real estate administrator and charged her with creating a comprehensive strategy and sales plan for buildings.
But some residents fear nearby school buildings will decay as their padlocked doors and boarded-up windows fail to prevent damage and looting.
“It’s a bad look for the neighborhood to have a school that could be put to good use just sit closed,” says Nadesasia Thomas, whose 10-year-old daughter attends Berry.
What will ultimately happen to all of the buildings is a question of demographics and economics.
“It’s a big issue you’re facing,” says Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which is based in Arlington, Va.
The population of Detroit, like in many other Rust Belt cities, is in decline, meaning fewer students are enrolled in the public schools. With fewer students, there is less state per-pupil funding. Charter schools are enrolling a portion of those students who do remain in some cities, like Detroit, which further shrinks the districts’ budgets. To cope, districts make cuts that increase student-to-teacher ratios and eliminate supplemental staff like reading coaches, counselors, nurses and arts, music or physical education teachers.
But districts still need some number of teachers, administrators, support staff, buses, buildings, food service, books and other supplies. States and the federal governments require certain mandates to be met, and union contracts require certain expenditures.
“You take all that into consideration and you’re left with very few areas where you can actually reduce the budgets,” Houston says. “Obviously you have more expenses than you’ve got money. Where do you cut?”
With their mounting deficit, continually declining enrollment and aging buildings in need of costly maintenance and upgrades, Detroit school officials had to do something. Closing schools was a way to take care of some of the budget deficit.
The closure list emerged after several contentious months of board deliberation, community debate and intense lobbying by individual neighborhood schools. At a meeting made famous by an audience member being charged with throwing grapes, board members approved the district-generated closure list.
District officials estimate that closing the buildings will cost about $21.8 million, according to a committee report, after moving and environmental services are paid, the closed buildings are mothballed and the remaining buildings are reconfigured as needed to serve their incoming students.
But after that, about $16 million will be saved each year.
“Savings will start being realized the second year and then onward annually,” Rodgers says.
Meanwhile, the district will seek buyers and renters who can care for the buildings and produce some income for the district. Finding those is part of Monique Dugars’ new job as Detroit Public Schools real estate administrator.
The licensed real estate agent — a California native who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in organizational studies — joined the district about a month ago as the dedicated staff person to oversee leasing, create a sales plan and address other real estate issues for the previously or soon-to-be closed buildings the district owns.
One of her priorities is to lease vacant buildings that are in good enough condition to have tenants. She also is assessing which of the buildings are too deteriorated to lease, and that project involves touring each of the schools with an engineer and assessing their viability.
It’s often a dispiriting exercise.
She sees signs of animals and people living in former classrooms, takes note of all the looted fixtures and worries about further vandalism to the buildings she believes could be leased or sold.
The district maintenance staff checks on the buildings and takes care of the grounds, but there is not 24-hour security. Detroit police sometimes catch looters and vandals, but that has not prevented widespread damage.
“They’re stealing the copper, much like abandoned houses. They’re taking our transformers and that leads to other problems. If the building has no electricity, the sump pump stops working and the basement might flood,” Dugars says. “Throwing paint around a room or knocking a blackboard off a wall, that stuff can be cleaned up pretty easily.”
But the annual cost of vandalism to the district is estimated in the millions, she says.
“There are people that have gone into some schools with sledgehammers and broken out the walls to get at the wiring,” Dugars says. “Not to mention the fires. We’ve had some fires from homeless people that have been living in some of the buildings that we can’t always chase away.”
Throughout the city, some of the already-closed schools offer a depressing glimpse of the toll of the latest round of closures.
There are locked fences at the schoolyard of the former Newberry Elementary School, located north of Michigan Avenue near West Grand Boulevard and mostly surrounded by vacant lots.
There is the shuttered Chandler Elementary School near the intersection of Gratiot Avenue and I-94, surrounded by residents in single-family homes and flats.
At the former Biddle Primary School, the playgrounds are still used two years after that building’s closing. But the Biddle building is shuttered and listed by the district as “for lease.”
“It just seems weird,” says neighbor George Stokes, when asked what it’s like to live near the empty hulk that was once a center of activity.
But Dugars sees pockets of redevelopment around the city — both commercial and residential — and that may mean schools either reopen to serve a returning population or have the potential to increase in value as land becomes needed. In those cases, the district may want to bypass the immediate sale of a building to either meet its future needs or sell it at a higher price.
“It is a big balancing act,” she says.
Robin Boyle says he takes a “very optimistic view” when he describes school closures as an “asset” to a neighborhood. The chair of the geography and urban planning department at Wayne State University says empty schools can represent opportunity if — and that’s a big if — there are willing and able developers.
“When schools close, we get relatively large pieces of real estate that become available, if they are for sale,” he says. Normally, if a developer were looking to purchase land the size of a city block for new housing construction, it would require buying from numerous sellers and seeking clear title to the property.
But when a school property is available, those issues don’t exist. “Schools represent opportunity, if that’s the way you want to go,” he says.
Dugars is putting together a sales plan, but historically the Board of Education has been more interested in leasing vacant buildings, she says. She’ll use three factors to determine if she’ll recommend a closed building’s sale.
“The major factor is: Do we need the property for children in the next 10 to 15 years? If we’re going to need it, it’s not going to be on the sell list no matter what condition it’s in. The next is if it’s a salable location. We do have some properties that are on nice locations in the city,” she says.
The district also must consider what the intended use of a building is by the potential buyers.
“Anything we sell or lease must be to better the Detroit Public Schools children and parents and the city of Detroit,” Dugars says.
And though the district might be criticized if it sells at perceived low prices, Boyle says that’s an economic necessity.
“I think these properties have got to be priced competitively. I think that the idea you’re going to be able to attract lots and lots of big dollars to come in and buy schools in the city of Detroit is far-fetched. I think they’ve got to be competitively priced and you may get somebody looking at them carefully,” he says.
As Detroit and districts nationally have struggled to either replace crumbling, outdated schools or close some buildings to better match enrollments, they’ve attracted the attention of people like Royce Yeater.
Based in Chicago, he’s the Midwest director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and has expertise and interest in school buildings — especially historic ones that might be closed or torn down.
“This is a prominent issue that we’ve been dealing with since the turn of the century,” he says. “We started getting a ton of calls from people in the field who felt communities and neighborhoods were losing their schools.”
In researching the issue, Yeater and the trust’s staff found many districts throughout the country passing bond issues to build replacement schools and new state programs that were funding such construction. That prompted the group to put “historic schools” on its annual America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. They joined Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Cottage, where the president drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, and Valley Forge National Historic Park with its Revolutionary War-era buildings on the list.
“Not only are [the schools] historical artifacts in their own rights, they’re significant for people,” Yeater says of schools in general. “They’re also anchors to traditional neighborhoods. Without that school in the neighborhood, the houses are less desirable, the neighborhood is less cohesive. All of the fabric that holds the neighborhood together is compromised by the loss of the school.”
According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, the average age of U.S. school buildings is about 40 years old. In urban districts it’s usually older. Of the schools Detroit has shuttered in the last few years, the average was about 65 years old.
Preservation Wayne’s Grunow has talked with Yeater and district officials about how the closure, mothballing and sales of buildings will proceed and what eye to history can be kept.
“The buildings that were built during Detroit’s ascendancy feature really amazing architecture and quality craftsmanship,” Grunow says. These can include unique cornices, moldings, tiling, woodwork and other features.
But Grunow has an economically practical view as well when considering the high number of school buildings being vacated in Detroit. “We don’t want to lose any of them, but there are some we recognize that aren’t in areas that have any hope of recovery because of the extent of the loss of population. But we feel like there are hopefully many we can either keep in a mothballed state or work with the community leadership and organizations to keep the lights on,” he says.
Throughout the midwest, some former school buildings have been adapted for other uses. The old Ypsilanti High School graduated its last class in 1974, was used by the district for other purposes and then sold to American Community Developers in 1998. Named Cross Street Village, it opened as senior housing in 2000, and today all 104 units are rented. In Toledo, a former elementary school houses the district administrative offices.
In Grand Rapids, Minn., on the Mississippi River, the school district decided in 1972 to close down Central School, built in 1895, when it opened four new buildings. The district gave the four-story downtown building to the city, and leaders planned to tear it down and put in a parking lot.
But a group of local preservationists opposed that plan and initiated a citywide referendum that overwhelmingly passed in 1978 and raised the $1 million to renovate the building, says Lilah Crowe, executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society.
Construction began, grants rolled in, the building reached the National Historic Registry, and it’s now run by a seven-member citizens’ commission that rents space to fund the building’s annual $110,000 upkeep. The building now houses nonprofits, several retail shops and a coffee shop called “Auntie Em’s” in tribute to Grand Rapids native Judy Garland and her Wizard of Oz colleagues.
Crowe runs the historical society on the second floor where a woolly mammoth’s tusk and Garland’s baby cradle are on display as part of several permanent exhibits. Former students visit “all the time.”
“When they come in, they’ll tell you where they sat at their desk. I know which corner they had to put their noses in,” Crowe says.
In Ohio, Roberta Driscoll relives her 1950s high school days at least twice a week when she enters her restored alma mater, the former Central High School in Columbus. The 1924 school building is the entrance for COSI, the downtown science center where Driscoll and her husband volunteer.
A modern 329,000-square-foot museum designed by architect Arata Isozaki adjoins the school and houses most of the gee-whiz exhibits, but the former school building provides offices and classrooms among its restored pillars, stairs and doors.
Visitors ask Driscoll about the older building’s past. “When you tell them it was a school, you can just see their eyes bug out and then they’ll start asking you questions too. They ask you what kind of a school it was and what you learned back then. It’s kind of fun sometimes when they do that because of the historical connection and you get to tell a little bit about what you remember,” she says.
Still, both of these Central schools in nearby states had downtown locations that held potential for productive reuse. The Grand Rapids school sits across the street from city hall and next to the post office in the town’s central business district. In Columbus, the riverside location just blocks from the capitol promised high traffic and a showcase for the school’s sprawling entry plaza.
Detroit’s midtown landmark school, Cass Tech, which once held thousands of students, sits vacant next to the new high school that opened in 2005. It would be difficult to be profitably leased, Dugars says, because of its open, multi-story configuration that would require major construction to close off sections. She hasn’t yet had any serious proposals to purchase it.
One downtown school, though, is enjoying new life as loft condominiums.
Developer Joel Landy purchased the former Leland School from the Detroit district for $500,000 in 2003 after it had been closed since 1980. Aided by historic tax credits and favorable financing aimed at historic building restoration, Landy created 32 loft-style condominiums in the former school.
Renovations cost about $7 million, including about $2 million of upgrades to the fixtures. Units are selling for between $195,00 and $400,000. All but a few have been purchased.
Built in 1917, Leland was part of the Open Air School movement. With diseases like tuberculosis and polio in the public consciousness at the time, one line of medical thought was that time spent outdoors and in cool rooms (less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit) would help protect from or cure these diseases.
Leland, located on Antietam near the crossing of Gratiot Avenue and I-375, was Detroit’s showcase open-air school.
Landy scaled down the 13-foot-wide hallways — built with room for four wheelchairs to travel abreast — to a more practical 8-foot width for the condo building. The elevator was updated. The ramp to the top floor stayed. “You can skateboard or Rollerblade it,” he says.
Classrooms became condos for young singles, married couples and older empty nesters moving back to the city. Each loft is unique, and many retain features from the school. One unit has the stage from the auditorium.
“We love that our dining room table sits in the middle of the divide between a girl’s bathroom and a science lab,” says Adrienne Nutter, president of Fandangle Event Planning and Design, who shares a second-floor Leland loft with her husband, Mac. “Visitors always get a kick out of the lockers that are still in our hallways.”
With progressive dinners and Tigers’ opening day parties, the residents who come from throughout Michigan are forming a kind of neighborhood community in their building.
Nutter is part of a fledgling book club for residents. “We’ve dubbed it ‘The Book Report’ in a nod to the building’s roots,” she says.
Landy believes vacated schools throughout metro Detroit could become similar units. People just like schools, he says.
“Even if you didn’t have a great time in school, you still get a good feeling about the buildings,” he says. “Those buildings, they’re anchors for neighborhoods.”
The district’s current plan reassigns Berry’s students and their 15 teachers en masse to Bunche Elementary School, six-tenths of a mile away. Some parents will undoubtedly send their children there. Some say they are considering charter schools. Others will move away entirely.
Rosie Tipton will relocate to Georgia, taking her 7- and 8year-old grandchildren out of Berry to a small-town district where her sister lives. “It’s going to be a shame if they close Berry,” Tipton says. “It will be a great loss.”
Dugars believes part of her job is to ensure the buildings’ futures — either with the district or with other owners — in line with principles of public education.
“We have all these buildings, we really need to do something nice,” she says. “Ultimately we have to run a district. We have to have the best district for the kids.”
But people like Leon Brown, who has a nephew attending Berry, see the closures as furthering a downward spiral for the district and the city.
What’s best for the overall district will not be best for individual areas, he says, predicting that as more schools are shuttered, more neighborhoods will decline.
“We’ve had a lot of progress in this area,” says Brown, a computer consultant who moved back to his childhood community after living and working in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seattle. The closure, he says, “is going to be critical for this neighborhood.”Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]