Detroit Residents Monitor Fate Of Local Schools

Detroit Public Schools will continue closing schools this year, in an effort to keep up with a steady decline in the number of students. Neighbors fear that a closed school will add to the city's rapid decline in population.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's go to school now, two schools, actually, in Detroit. Both are closely tied to the fate of the neighborhoods they are in. One is being renovated, the other shut down. And while it's often painful for a neighborhood to lose a school, that's particularly true in Detroit where residents fear that a closed school will add to the city's rapid decline in population. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Carstens Elementary School on Detroit's Eastside appears to sit in the middle of a wilderness. Open fields stretch for blocks where countless houses have been abandoned and torn down. But the school stood tall until now. After kids finish summer school, the building will close. Shelia Travis, a lunch room aide at Carstens, says the move will hurt the area.

Ms. SHELIA TRAVIS (Lunch room aide, Carstens Elementary School): It might look raggedy, but there's still folks living here. And they still have grandkids coming, nieces and nephews coming, and we still need this building.

ABRAMSON: Travis has had five grandkids and six nieces and nephews attend Carstens. The school is known for high test scores, and a family feel. There's a lot of community outreach, and the school offers classes at a parent university. That's what lured Kathleen Sammons to bring five of her grandchildren here.

Ms. KATHLEEN SAMMONS: You know, to come here and not see metal detectors and not to see kids running the halls, you know, and this quiet atmosphere, I mean, it's different, 'cause my grandson went to Hamilton. Hamilton - it was terrible.

ABRAMSON: But with shrinking attendance in this thinly-populated neighborhood, the school system has decided to close Carstens' aging building. They're going to merge the staff and students with another school, in a newer building a mile or so away. The decision to keep the school staff and students together was viewed as a victory. But the new building is a K-through-8 facility, much bigger, with the security measures that bothered Kathleen Sammons. Principal Janice Richardson says she will maintain the intimate feel in the new setting.

Ms. JANICE RICHARDSON (Principal, Carstens Elementary School): I will in turn take my students and we will marry them together with the population that's there, and become a blended family.

ABRAMSON: One big worry for parents here, is that kids who walk will have to cross Jefferson Avenue, a major street. But they are more concerned with just what will happen to the neighborhood once it loses its anchor.

(Soundbite of cars passing by)

ABRAMSON: A few miles north and west, another neighborhood is hoping to get a lift from a school renovation project. Mumford High School is known for its powder blue limestone facade, and for famous graduates like film producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But today, this hulking building is home to a school in trouble. Mumford has not met state standards for eight years running and could qualify for a state takeover next year. But work to overhaul this high school is already underway.

Mr. JEFFREY WAFER: You're going to have your library, you'll have your track, you're going to have your...

ABRAMSON: Jeffrey Wafer, Mumford class of '81, shows me around the huge construction site that will soon give birth to a new school. Wafer is an active member of the alumni association, which keeps memories of the school's grander days alive. Wafer hopes his school spirit will contribute to Mumford's academic rebirth.

Mr. WAFER: Because some of our children don't have the best role models, or the best looks, or they come to school hungry. But sometimes if you have somebody that's an alumnus that come and say, oh, you can make it, it makes a difference.

ABRAMSON: But Wafer has another interest in Mumford's fate. He lives just down the street, and he's hoping the school will raise the fortunes of this neighborhood.

Ms. WAFER: A lot of the - I know the property values will go up, people will move back to the area, and everybody's going to want their kids to go to a new school, you know.

ABRAMSON: The Detroit Public Schools are closing more than two million square feet of space to keep up with declining enrollment. But the district is also adding over a million square feet, in neighborhoods that still look strong. Guessing which neighborhoods here will thrive has been a risky proposition. Now, residents are anxiously watching the fate of their local schools, to see whether their neighborhoods are part of Detroit's future, or its past.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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