Detroit’s Schools Become Magnets Drawing Population Together

Detroit’s schools, one-third their former size from the loss of more than 100,000 students in the past decade, are leading an effort to rejuvenate the city by casting themselves as neighborhood anchors that help parents as well as pupils.

State money and donations from corporations such as General Motors Co. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are helping create so-called community schools that not only improve learning but are hubs for social services, recreation and even job training. The system’s state-appointed emergency manager, Roy Roberts, a former GM executive, said the schools are the key to reversing civic decline by creating more stable, safe neighborhoods where poverty and blight has spread.

“You can’t separate what needs to happen in the city and the school district,” said Roberts, 74, who will leave his job May 16 and has made community schools a linchpin of his five-year plan. “If you don’t fix the school system, major companies aren’t going to move here.”

Neither will new students, Roberts said during an event April 29 to announce a $1.5 million grant from JPMorgan. The money will help make a high school and two elementary schools centers for social services, recreation, financial counseling and even home-repair loans.

“The way to improve the quality of life for all, and increase the city’s health, is by stabilizing neighborhoods,” said Sarah McClelland, market president for Chase Michigan.

Roberts also plans to expand preschool classes and after-school art and music sessions beginning this fall.

Vast Spaces

Detroit, with 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) and 700,000 people, lost one-quarter of its population since 2000. That makes it more difficult to deliver basic services to residents scattered in an area larger than Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan combined.

About 40 percent of the lots are vacant or unused, creating safety and fire hazards, according to a 50-year blueprint for revival developed by a nonprofit project, Detroit Future City. The plan calls for consolidating residential spaces and turning sparsely populated areas into green spaces.

The district’s 117 schools could be at the center of the urban villages -- if they can be revived.

Since 2002, enrollment has fallen to about 52,000 from 164,000, and about 200 schools have been closed. Last year, 15 of those left were deemed so bad academically they were placed under a new state program to provide more intense instruction.

The district has twice been taken over by the state, from 1999 to 2004, and again in 2009 under former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Core Curriculum

Other cities have transformed schools into gathering places, including Grand Rapids, Michigan. Cincinnati schools increased enrollment, graduation rates and test scores since 2000 by expanding to include social services and even health clinics, according to the Washington-based Coalition for Community Schools.

“Any time you can get the community to wrap their arms around a school, they help with attendance, they help academically, they own it. That’s what we want,” Roberts said at the April 29 event.

He said he’s talked to city Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, about coordinating efforts. Orr has no specific strategy for schools, though he will coordinate as needed, said his spokesman, Bill Nowling, in an e-mail.

Clearing Land

The state has stationed welfare caseworkers in 91 Detroit schools, calling them “success coaches” who counsel students and families. The goal is to reduce truancy and provide easier access to social services. Eighty-two percent of Detroit’s students come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Four schools have health clinics and there are plans for more, said David Akerly, spokesman for the Michigan Human Services Department.

Meanwhile, a state program is tearing down vacant homes around the schools, using $10 million from Michigan’s share of a national court settlement with banks over foreclosure practices. Clearing the surrounding area of havens for predators meant bigger enrollment and better attendance at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, where 100 houses have been razed nearby, said Principal Demond Thomas.

“I wouldn’t want my child at an elementary age having to walk past a large number of those houses,” Thomas said. “With those houses gone, the kids feel safe.”

Intimate Knowledge

Keniqua Bonner, a caseworker at Clark, said she can assess students, parents and their financial needs and keep kids from skipping school.

“It’s been an eye-opener,” Bonner said. “I’ve been in an office for 13 years, and I did not have the kind of relationship with clients I do now.”

Despite assertions of progress by Roberts and school officials, state receivership has been a sore point for many residents. It hasn’t stopped the hemorrhage of students, said activist Larry Hightower, 61.

Hightower said the elimination of district posts hastened the exodus. He said many Detroit school employees, embittered by losing jobs, put their children in other schools.

Roberts, in a report last week, painted a hopeful picture of a district that’s rebounding, albeit slowly.

Test scores are rising, such as an 11 percent increase in eighth-graders who attained at least a “proficient” level in reading.

The budget is balanced, the deficit will be eliminated by 2016 and crime at schools has dropped, Roberts reported.

Still, in 2012, nearly one of every five high-school students dropped out, according to a state report. In 2011, one of every four did.

Maybe Mayor

Improved academics, and keeping students engaged, is the goal of a $1.5 million, three-year grant by auto parts-maker Lear Corp. that pays 150 high-school students to tutor pupils at Clark.

Sophomore Chanel Kitchen said teaching a sixth-grader two hours a week gives her $16, as well as a boost for her college resume and maybe for her troubled city.

“Helping one child is a start,” said Kitchen, 16, who plans to be a lawyer. “That small change might spark somebody to be mayor of Detroit, or just help them with their education.”