A lot of big news from Detroit this week. The district’s emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, announced that 23 schools are to close next year, five more than the 18 schools the district announced would close last month. Bobb’s announcement came on the heels of philanthropist Eli Broad’s pledge to give the Detroit Public School system hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the system assess and strategize around the $306 million deficit. Big changes are being made and, hopefully, Broad’s pledge will be merely the first wave in a big influx of cash and other aid to the beleaguered school system.
It’s a sad time for Detroit. Some very good schools are being shuttered, including three in our own Detroit pilot program. Many of these schools anchored their neighborhoods for years, and their communities rightly mourn their closing. But while it’s not pretty or popular to close neighborhood schools, the reality is that Bobb had little choice. According to the Detroit Free Press, the 23 schools currently on the chopping block were built for 19,275 students but currently hold only 7,095. The steady decline in Detroit’s population means that it has excess infrastructure, and it doesn’t make financial sense to keep operating that infrastructure indefinitely.
But while Bobb is probably doing what he has to do financially, the education business is not merely about the balance sheet. Closing these 23 schools means the forced transfer of their 7,095 students to new schools, and this will inevitably be difficult for families and children. Moving students to new schools means numerous adjustments—changes in commutes, daily routines, and, for many kids, seeing an unfamiliar face at the front of the classroom.
Students could also lose access to certain opportunities they grew used to at their old schools. Perhaps the old school had a chess club, a baseball team, or an annual field trip that the new school doesn’t or can’t afford to offer. Indeed, it could be something as simple as books they don’t have anymore. When I went to Detroit’s Wayne Elementary to talk to kids about one of our donors’ gifts of a Magic Tree House book set, one little girl was particularly excited. It turned out that she’d read books from the Magic Tree House series at her old school across town, but when her family moved, she’d lost the opportunity to read them in class. Even simple things like that can be tremendously important for a kid, and hopefully students’ educational experiences will not be lost in the financial restructuring.
Detroit’s focus now has to be on student achievement and doing whatever needs to be done to raise both the graduation rates and achievement levels of Detroit Public School students. Perhaps combining resources in fewer school buildings will allow students’ educational experiences to improve, and perhaps Mr. Broad’s money for strategy and assessment will help the system better manage its finances. But the Detroit upheaval should also be a call to action for people across the country who want to make a difference in the city. A gift through The Generation Project is unlikely to save the school system, get it out of debt, or resurrect the Motor City. But if a small gift—art supplies, a set of books, or sports equipment—can make even a few children’s transition to new schools easier, it will be an important gift indeed.