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Big City Schools, Big City Challenges

Grand Rapids, Detroit compete with big, new suburban schools

March 26, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe/MLUI

The Coit Creative Arts Academy, according to a new study of school construction trends by the Michigan Land Use Institute, is part of Grand Rapids’ plan to lure new families and more students to urban neighborhoods by improving schools.

The soaring sounds of Vivaldi’s Largo for Organ take wing in Kaye Davis’ music room in the newly renovated Coit Creative Arts Academy, set amid tall maples and early 20th-century homes on Grand Rapids’ north end. Mrs. Davis, an African-American pianist and vocalist who was recruited 34 years ago from her native Roanoke, Virginia, to teach in Grand Rapids, awaits her first class of young artists.
“This is one of the best facilities for teaching music and the arts in the entire city,” said Mrs. Davis, who also extolled the quality of the adjacent gleaming hardwood dance studio. “What’s great about this school is the atmosphere of the arts, the sense of creativity, the sense of calmness, the discipline they learn here. It helps them grow.”

Moments later a line of third graders appears. “Good morning, Mrs. Davis,” they say. “Good morning,” the music teacher replies as she begins their rehearsal.

Engaging Students By Reviving A Building
The Coit Creative Arts Academy, according to a new study of school construction trends by the Michigan Land Use Institute, is part of Grand Rapids’ plan to lure new families and more students to urban neighborhoods by improving schools. The Institute’s report, Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, is the first detailed assessment of how school construction decisions — whether to renovate existing buildings or build new schools on green fields — are made in Michigan, and their effect on development patterns. Hard Lessons reports the results of a joint project of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Institute and aims to help school officials and community leader better evaluate the full cost of new school construction or renovation. Hard Lessons also recommends changes in state policy that, if implemented, will capture the economic and cultural benefits of renovating older schools or building new ones in town.

Hard Lessons was prompted by the Institute’s observation that building schools in undeveloped areas might be encouraging Michigan’s unfortunate trend toward increasingly dispersed development patterns. Moreover, the trend of building new schools on the suburban edge is draining the vitality of urban schools, including those in Grand Rapids. Although its population is growing slowly, Michigan is one of the fastest sprawling states in the nation, according to a study by Michigan State University.

Grand Rapids is battling back. Last year the city unveiled the $7.5 million renovation of 123-year-old Coit Creative Arts Academy, the oldest operating school in Michigan. It is now a hybrid 117,000- square-foot neighborhood and magnet arts elementary school. Classrooms were enlarged; a gymnasium and arts studio were added. The children say they “really like” the new design.

Parents say they are thrilled with the new attitudes the building has fostered. “The budget cuts in public schools in general have caused declines in art, band, and music,” said Caren Robinson, the 29-year-old president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization and the mother of two Coit students. “This school is an art school and, it’s an incredible achievement that it was established here.”

The streets surrounding the school are lined with rental homes with transient residents, some unemployed and others substance abuse victims. But school administrators and Mayor George Heartwell say Coit demonstrates how renovation improves public education, stabilizes neighborhoods, and convinces families with children to move into and rebuild them.

That’s ambitious, Mrs. Robinson said. “It’s like a business — it takes three to five years to establish your reputation. If you can build a good reputation, that’s going to bring families into the area.”

But even Mrs. Robinson tacitly acknowledged that might not be enough. She said that her family is looking at newer homes outside Grand Rapids with larger yards, even though there’s a seven-acre public park in the Coit neighborhood.

The Money Gap
Such desires form the central challenge for Michigan’s urban public schools. While suburban districts find it relatively easy to finance new schools and compete for students by building shining edifices at the edge of town, urban districts struggle to update their aging facilities and maintain enrollment. Indeed, the Coit School is a symbol of hope among Grand Rapids public schools — a well-appointed building with a stable group of children who achieve.

Duplicating that feat at other Grand Rapids schools, and in other urban Michigan districts, is extraordinarily difficult. Those districts have severely eroded tax bases that require large millage-rate increases to generate sufficient bond issues. Convincing voters in such districts to support large increases is daunting, as recent failures of big-city school construction millage proposals in Grand Rapids, Pontiac, Flint, and Saginaw demonstrate. The problem is circular: School deterioration quickens other economic disinvestments; more people move to the suburbs. The phenomenon helps drive Michigan’s sprawling development.

Detroit: Thinking Big and Spending Big
What does it take to reverse public attitudes about the quality of big city school systems and attract more middle class and wealthy young families to the city? No city in Michigan is responding to that issue with as much energy and money as Detroit. In a vote that was equal parts desperation and recognition of the importance of public education in rebuilding a fractured city, Detroit residents in 1994 approved a $1.5 billion school bond that launched the largest urban school reconstruction program in the Midwest. The bond is building five new schools, renovating 31 more, transforming neighborhoods, and completely burying the myth that to meet their educational goals schools must have campus-like, 80-acre sites far from town centers.

Instead, Detroit is building distinguished new schools in pleasant neighborhoods and dramatic urban settings. For example the Renaissance High and Special Education Building will be a magnet college prep school on the city’s northwest side beginning in 2005. Downtown, a new, $100 million version of the city’s nationally known Cass Technical High School is rising on a vacant lot next to the old, badly deteriorated one.

And a few blocks north of Cass Tech, workers are building the six-story, $122.5 million Ford High School for the Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts. This addition to Orchestra Place, an expansive campus of restored and new performance spaces, office buildings, and educational facilities that are home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, will foster a unique educational partnership with the world-class orchestra when it opens in 2005.

School officials also believe that improving their facilities will help raise the educational achievement of Detroit’s students, many of whom test near the bottom of all Michigan students. They also point out that they are using the classically compact school designs that once provided Detroit youngsters with educations that regularly produced Rhodes scholars.

For example, because it is a five-story building, the spectacular, 630,000-square-foot, $123 million Renaissance High complex will be able to house 2,330 students and still leave room for a gymnasium, a pool, an auditorium, a football and soccer field, a track, a softball field, a parking garage, and a vocational training center on just 45 acres in a solidly middle-class neighborhood.

Unconventional Wisdom
A more modest example of compact design is the Ronald Brown Academy, which opened on Detroit’s far east side last fall. Even before the $19.4 million, 85,000-square-foot elementary school opened, the surrounding neighborhood was experiencing rebounding popularity and home values. That trend is accelerating largely because of the presence of Brown Academy, which is a gem: Two stories of red brick, spacious classrooms, a media center, and a combined gym and cafeteria.

Robert Francis, executive director of the Detroit Public School Capital Improvement Program, smiles as he compares his system’s site requirements with the wide-open spaces so many suburban school systems say they need. “We look for seven acres for an elementary school, 12 acres for a middle school, and 25 acres for a high school,” he said.

That’s about half of what the Council for Education Facility Planners, an influential, Phoenix-based trade association, recommends. Michigan school architects and contractors typically recommend even larger sites — up to 80 acres for a 1,500-student high school.

Brown Academy is serving three times as many elementary students on half the land the planners association recommends. If the remarks of some of the parents waiting outside the school are any indication, though, the facility’s compact design is simply no problem.

“We recently moved into the neighborhood and are thrilled with the school,” said Marcus Rayford, who was picking up his 6th-grade son. “The school was one of the main factors in us coming here.”

“The new school has made a big difference,” said Orlando McCord, a teacher at the academy. “It’s a great place to be and a great place to teach.”

Grand Rapids: Seeking the Bright Spots
Grand Rapids remains determined to become an education bright spot despite the failure of a $396 million bond issue in 1998 meant to finance district-wide building improvements. The defeat compelled elected, business, and school leaders to form the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative.

One project that quickly attracted the Initiative’s attention was undertaken by John Wheeler, whose ponytail, cowboy boots, and Harley clothing belie his role as a savior for schools in Grand Rapids. Mr. Wheeler, president of Rockford Construction Co., focused on a well-defined goal: Improving the schools one at a time.

He used a novel approach in 2001 to renovate Franklin Elementary School, a few miles from Coit. He convinced the school board to lease him the land adjacent to the worn out building, spent $10.5 million to build a new 103,000-square-foot addition and renovate almost 31,000 square feet of old classrooms, and leased those spaces back to the school for 20 years. When the lease expires, he will sell the building to the district for one dollar.

However, this unusual financing method has a downside: It uses operating money normally dedicated to school supplies and teachers’ salaries. Officials approved the plan because they considered it essential to meet growing enrollment and prove the district could offer a good education in an excellent facility. Although the school board used special funds and operating revenue to rebuild Coit, it cannot afford much more construction until the community approves a construction bond issue and raises its taxes. Now, though, school leaders have a secret weapon: All of those smiling kids at Coit Elementary School.

Mac McClelland, the former deputy administrator of Grand Traverse County, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Neighborhood Schools Project. Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach them at mac@mlui.org and keith@mlui.org.

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