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Is closing schools a fake fix?

Failing schools demand urgent action. Are closures the answer? 

Parents are afraid. They don’t want to move schools. This is the sentiment that Bernita Bradley has heard loud and clear from parents who fear that their children’s school will be shuttered over the summer. Bernita is a Detroit mother of two and the community engagement manager for Enroll Detroit, an organization that helps families search for and enroll in city schools that meet their needs.

Parents’ concerns about the potential school closures include transportation, quality and pace of learning, safety and neighborhood stability, says Bernita. But what’s most panicking is that there doesn’t seem to be any plans to deal with these issues.

“Parents have become low on faith that there is a solution,” she says.

If you’ve missed the news regarding the potential school closures, here’s a recap:

  • In June 2016, the State of Michigan legislated that the worst performing schools, those falling in the bottom five percent in standardized test scores for the past three consecutive years, are to be closed by the State School Reform Office (SSRO) — unless the closure would present “unreasonable hardship.”
  • In January 2017, the SSRO released its first list of bottom performers: 38 schools, 25 of which are in Detroit. Letters were mailed to families with children attending the bottom performing schools, without coordinating with or informing the schools.
abandoned class


Closing low-performing schools is a reasonable action — if there is a strong and well-intentioned plan. Without a plan to provide better educational opportunities, closing schools oversimplifies and exacerbates a complex issue. Detroit has been here, and has experienced what happens without a solid plan.


Nearly 200 schools have closed in Detroit since 2000, yet the city’s reputation for having the worst student outcomes remains. In 2015, Detroit Public Schools ranked dead last among urban districts on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exam.

Closing schools without thoughtful planning further destabilizes struggling neighborhoods.


A report by LOVELAND entitled “A School District in Crisis” states: “Between 1999 and 2012, over $78 million dollars was spent upgrading schools that later closed. Another $27 million dollars was invested in schools that were closed and demolished a few years later.”

Some schools on the list of potential closures are new or have undergone major renovations. What will become of those investments?

The cost increases in transportation, transfer or storage of supplies, and securing and maintaining of buildings also need to be taken into account. On this last item, LOVELAND Technologies’ report sites: “By 2007, Detroit Public Schools was spending over $1.5 million dollars a year maintaining vacant schools. The cost of maintaining so many vacant buildings was so high that in 2011, emergency manager Robert Bobb considered ‘simply abandoning’ the closed buildings, a move that would have saved $12.4 million dollars.”


Closing schools without thoughtful planning further destabilizes struggling neighborhoods. Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity recently put together a documentary series entitled “We Live Here,” exploring what happens in neighborhoods after school closures. Its producer Jennifer Guerra writes, “When a school closes, property values go down, crime often goes up, and families move out. Drive around some of those neighborhoods and you see a lot of emptiness.”


The SSRO hasn’t given any indication that they have a plan for improving Detroit schools. For one, the majority of schools released on the closure list are in areas where there are no quality school options. Illustrating this problem is the below map, showing how nearby schools rank in state performance measures. The map reveals that there are sections of the city where all schools are performing in the bottom 10 percentile. That begs the questions: Will students be shuffled to another school only to have a similar academic experience, and/or be displaced again by another school closure?

Detroit schools map

Source: MISchoolData, SRO & MDE websites

While the SSRO has not provided any leadership or support for improving academics in Michigan schools, they are certainly aware of the overall low-performance rate of Detroit’s traditional public and charter schools. In letters sent home to families with children attending schools on the potential closure list, the SSRO suggested that families consider school districts outside of the city — as far away as Romeo and Ann Arbor.


We at the Foundation are deeply concerned about this issue and its impact on kids and families; Their voices must be heard.

Last week, Mayor Duggan pledged to work with the newly elected school board to “fight the irrational closing” of schools in Detroit.

And earlier this month, the Foundation supported the Detroit Public Schools Community District and Education Achievement Authority in planning its learning summit that studied models to improve schools and stave off closures. We’re working rapidly to determine next steps around this issue.

We are encouraging parents and concerned citizens get involved, or receive support, in the following ways:

  • Detroit parents & all concerned citizens

 482Forward: A great resources for information and advocacy opportunities.

 Enroll Detroit: Offers one-on-one support for families navigating school options. For assistance, call 888-308-1534.

  • Detroit teachers and educators

The Skillman Foundation wants to hear from Detroit teachers so we can better support you. We have a teacher survey open, which also asks if you’d like to take part in an upcoming a teacher listening session.

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