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Board member LaMar Lemmons questions Vitti about plans to open a classical K-12 school operated by Detroit's main district.

Board member LaMar Lemmons questions Vitti about plans to open a classical K-12 school operated by Detroit’s main district.

In a bid to lure students back to Detroit, Vitti wants to open a new school focused on classical culture

Just two weeks after Detroit’s main district announced the opening of one new school, its superintendent is asking the school board to approve another — Detroit Latin, a K-12 school whose curriculum would focus on the classical cultures of Greece and Rome.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti proposes selling an abandoned elementary school to the George Washington Scholars Endowment with the understanding that the Endowment will raise millions of dollars to renovate and open the building as a traditional public school, perhaps even next fall. The endowment began raising money in 2017 to open Detroit Latin.

As with the other new school at Marygrove College, which is also being supported by philanthropic dollars, board members spoke glowingly about the concept.

“Kudos for the coup d’etat,” said member LaMar Lemmons. “I really like the workaround, because hands are tied in terms of new buildings.”

This time, however, Vitti faced tough questions from board members who expressed skepticism about the feasibility of opening a new school so quickly — and about opening another new school in a district with dozens of half-empty schools.

“Detroit’s population is not growing yet,” said Sonya Mays, chair of the finance committee. “Why do you think there’s enough capacity to open not one but two schools?

Vitti said he hopes a newly renovated building and the prestigious connotations of a classical education will attract Detroit students who attend school outside the city.

“The data point that’s most compelling is the 30,000 students that live in the city but leave the city for school,” Vitti said, adding, “The options we have right now, public and private, are not appealing to those students.”

Mays was skeptical, especially because the school, the former Brady Elementary, is in what she called a “very distressed” area on Joy Road in northwest Detroit.

“I’m gonna struggle with the idea that these 30,000 students that are leaving the city every day — a large portion of them are leaving because of perceived safety and security reasons,” she said.

But Vitti argued that the school’s name, in combination with the private funding and a shiny new campus, will be enough to attract families that have looked to the suburbs for education. The proposed deal with the Endowment includes major renovations of Brady: a new lower school, a new Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology building, and a “small dormitory, creating a classic quad.”

(Scroll down to see the full plan.)

Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said it is not yet clear how the dormitory will be used.

“I think that Detroit Latin brings more of a perception of private, and that can get people initially interested,” Vitti said. “The philanthropic dollars that add what we can do in the facility, whether its safety or enhancements technologically, will lead to the conclusion that this is a different school than people are used to. I wouldn’t be able to say that if we didn’t have the extra investment.”

Board members also raised concerns about the timeline, questioning whether the leaders of Detroit Latin will be able to raise their stated goal of $75 million. Mays said she is “very skeptical” that the Endowment will hit that target.

The $75 million target is a long-term figure, Vitti said, not the amount needed to start the school by next fall.

“I think there are individuals in Detroit that are being engaged that have not historically been engaged in philanthropy in Detroit. This is a new niche of individuals that are interested in the Detroit Latin concept,” he said.

The leader of the Detroit Latin project — and the chair of the Endowment — is T. Robinson Ahlstrom, a Harvard-educated minister who designed and established Bronx Latin, a well-regarded classical public school in New York City that enrolls mostly economically disadvantaged students of color. Ahlstrom has also worked to open other schools, including a private school that ran into controversy when a funder backed out.

A website that touts the idea of a Detroit Latin private school lays out Ahlstrom’s vision: the school’s “classically-based ‘great books’ program, its advanced offerings in Science and Technology, its full range of opportunities the arts and athletics, all offered within a wholesome and hearty environment that encourages the first principles of personal character and public responsibility — these are the things that will make it the school our city needs — and our students deserve.”

Ahlstrom was not immediately available to comment.

Vitti noted that the Detroit Children’s Fund, which plans to spend tens of millions of dollars on K-12 education before 2025, is also interested in backing the project. But he acknowledged that the Marygrove school is “more realistic for next fall” than Detroit Latin.

Another key concern for board members: Ensuring that the Brady Elementary building is not turned into a private or charter school if the district’s relationship with the endowment fails. Vitti says the district’s memorandum of understanding with the Endowment will last at least 40 years, and that it will be easier for the Endowment to raise philanthropic dollars if it has full ownership of the school.

“We just have to make sure the MOU speaks to that, and speaks to its longevity,” Peterson said.

Mays echoed the concern: “I’m a ‘yes’ on the concept of opening the school, but I’m not quite there on the sale of the school.”

Vitti agreed with the committee to put a more detailed plan, including the full agreement with the Endowment, to a vote of the full board at its regular meeting on Oct. 16.