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Proposed school closings could include Denby High, a community hub and catalyst for transformation in Detroit

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As I entered the school last week I noticed a quiet I had never associated with this building. The usually boisterous students moved almost silently from one class to another. I missed the normal yelling and jostling of my young people at Denby High School. A student in the hallway asked me, “Ms. Sandra, do you know they are going to close our school?”

Sadly, I do. While the graduation rate at Denby has been steadily rising, test scores remain low. As a result, the state School Reform Office listed Denby among 38 schools that could be shuttered. Standing in the hallway, I realized that this silence might become the new normal.

Closing Denby would mean the end of what has become a hub for a Detroit community—one where students and residents have worked together to move beyond vacant land and buildings, overgrown foliage, flooding, crime and a lack of amenities, and have begun the transformation to a clean, safe and healthy community.

More than just an innovative approach to education, the model we pioneered at Denby is a way to build more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with improved access to fresh food, more opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation and residents who are more empowered to advocate for the health of their neighborhood and their families. It’s about creating healthier, more sustainable communities—that’s why the Michigan Environmental Council has been a strong supporter.

I had hoped to expand our work at Denby to other schools and neighborhoods in Detroit, but now that looks doubtful.

Where education meets engagement

Over the past three years, I have been honored to help lead a project at Denby that connected students to their neighborhood and the future of their city, merging academic learning with community activism. Through this project, Denby students learned about Detroit’s history, its current challenges and the impact of the built environment on education and economic opportunity.

A capstone portfolio assignment required Denby seniors to identify environmental and social problems in their community, research viable solutions and take real, on-the-ground action to implement those solutions and raise the quality of life for all residents in their community. Plans were in the works—but now may never be implemented—to also include students from 9th through 11th grade. This added curriculum support and academic rigor would include expert mentoring and instruction in research, statistics, oral presentations, literary analysis and engagement. It would help those younger students prepare to graduate.

Students who have completed those capstone projects leave a legacy that includes the creation of community greenspaces, improved stormwater management, a solar energy installation, new recreation opportunities and many other neighborhood improvements. They catalyzed a local movement that has brought millions of dollars in investment to their community. Denby students learned they have the power to create real change.

A legacy to be proud of

Their first project included beautifying 16 city blocks, boarding up 11 vacant structures and engaging community members to join them in creating the Denby Neighborhood Alliance, an intergenerational, student-and-resident collaboration for planning and action.

Next, they decided to do something about a vacant two-story building that sat directly in front of their school. Students were nervous walking past it on their way to school, and for good reason. They decided to call the city to express their concerns. When they returned to school after a holiday weekend, the vacant building was gone. These energetic young people didn’t stop there. They requested that the city allow them to use that land for a botanical garden, set to be installed this spring and summer, where students and residents can study plants or just sit and enjoy the beauty of the landscape. They learned that their voices mattered.

The Denby students’ largest project was a massive, $5 million neighborhood redevelopment effort last summer. They led some 10,700 volunteers in boarding up 300 vacant structures, removing overgrown foliage on 300 blocks, renovating 70 homes for neighborhood residents and creating safe routes to school for children.

That project also included the $1.4 million overhaul of a six-acre playfield next to the school. When they started, Skinner playfield’s only amenities were a football upright and a small children’s playscape. It now features swings, a volleyball court, a golf putting green, a pickle ball court, a horse shoe pit, a children’s climbing mound, a children’s free library, benches, picnic pavilions, barbeque pits,  recycling, an apple orchard, raised garden beds and a $100,000 performance pavilion powered by solar panels. There’s also a stormwater catchment system used to water the flower beds, vegetable gardens and apple orchard. These urban agriculture facilities will provide financial opportunities and good, healthy food in a community that has very little to offer in access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Here’s a video put together by our partners at Life Remodeled—who organized volunteers and donations for the redevelopment work—showing some of what the students and others accomplished at Skinner Park.

What’s next?

So what happens to our students and community if our only high school is closed?  Some parents might move closer to schools in the suburbs or elsewhere in Detroit, leading to further depopulation of this community. Some will be forced to figure out how and where to send their children to get an education—especially challenging, since  three other high schools on the east side of  Detroit are also on the closure list, leaving only East English Village High School, which is already at capacity.

As for the students themselves—these young leaders whose work has made me so proud—I worry they might become discouraged, disengaged and disinvested. They might start to believe that their work is in vain or that striving to make their community safer, cleaner and healthier is not important.

Without the kind of learning we pioneered at Denby, Detroit’s neighborhoods will continue to depopulate, the city’s kids will continue to live in unhealthy environments and residents will continue to face increasing social, economic, and environmental injustices.

I hope state decision makers recognize the value of the unique curriculum and community engagement we’ve built at Denby and decide not to close it. And if the school does close, I hope students will hold on to the knowledge they’ve gained about sustainability, energy, land use and community engagement—a kind of knowledge not available at any other high school in Detroit.  I hope it will spur them to continue their activism and demand learning that encompasses both academics and their built environment.

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Photo courtesy detroitdenby.org.

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