I am a product of the public school system – Illinois’ public school system to be specific, and I attended the school in my neighborhood. I walked to school from kindergarten to 11th grade (12th grade I had a car and an after-school job). In elementary school, my mother walked my sister and I, and a few other kids from the neighborhood to the building in the morning and greeted us outside when the final bell rang. In middle school, my mother started working in the library so we walked to and from the school together. In high school, I walked by myself or with friends.
Walking to school was key to my sense of place and my sense of community. I knew the crossing guards by first name. I knew when and where to wait for other kids to join me in my travels. I knew the streets and houses I passed like the back of my hand. As a child that time was quality time with my mom. I would watch her interact with the community and mimic her behaviors (greeting the neighbors, navigating the streets, picking up garbage, and informing the right people of any issues she noticed). As a young adult, those solo walks were my independence, the 20 minutes each way where I could think, plan, clear my head, and observe the sights and sounds of my village (technically Lansing, IL is a village).
I do not yet have children, but when I do I intend to send them to the public school in my neighborhood in Detroit. I currently live within six blocks of Durfee Elementary-Middle School and Central High School. When the time comes, I intend to send my kids there to encourage a strong relationship with their city. I want them to walk to school, have friends in the neighborhood, and get involved in their community.
On January 5th, I read an article that impacts my future children’s public school education. Durfee Elementary-Middle School is closing in June and the children are being moved to Central High School as the schools are consolidated. The Durfee building is in poor physical condition and the school is under- performing. Within the same article is an announcement of the building’s future.
The nonprofit Life Remodeled will be leasing the building for 20 years and has plans to turn it into a community center and business incubator. To learn more about the plans I attended the Life Remodeled community meeting at the school on February 10th. What I really learned at the meeting is that my neighbors are angry, scared, and feel hoodwinked.
I understand the hesitation, anxiety, and anger. I really do. There was a lack of transparency in the decision making process and the community was not asked. Parents are afraid of exposing their young children to activities that occur at a high-school and Durfee alumni are upset that the Durfee legacy is ending. The school has been active in the neighborhood for decades.
But I see things differently. I am optimistic about this change. In my mind, the consolidation of the schools will also consolidate resources to provide the best learning environment for the children. In my mind, all of the children grades K-12 will attend school at Central, a building in better condition with increased access to arts, music, science, and literacy programs, and they will thrive. In my mind, Durfee will be renovated and become a vibrant community center with programs for youth and seniors. It will have co-working space and house local start-ups, maybe a restaurant, movie theater, gym, and swimming pool to serve local residents. Then the neighborhood will thrive. In my mind, all of the homes will be occupied and there will be demand for new construction. With more and more kids in the community, Central will reach capacity, and Durfee will once again become an elementary-middle school.
But this future would be a ways down the road and may only reside in my mind. The future of Durfee and Central are unknown and the theory that communities are built around schools has not yet been recognized. There are endless opportunities for residents to get involved, for Life Remodeled to build trust with the community, for Detroit Public School system to make significant improvements, and for the state of Michigan to fully invest in Detroit schools. The community could be a great one with Durfee Elementary-Middle School and Central High School in the center of it.