The halls of Southeastern High School — a cacophony of slamming lockers and 2,000 teenagers on the move only a decade ago — are quiet, even when the dismissal bell rings.
With an enrollment hovering around 150 and a 2019 graduating class of 35 students, the sprawling school feels intimate and almost cozy to students. “They did not lie when they said Southeastern is like a big family,” said Armani Jones, 14, who will be a sophomore in the fall.
Over a century, Southeastern’s history has mirrored the rise — and long, hard fall — of Detroit’s near east side neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest. But it is on the cusp of a transformation, as the automotive giant Fiat Chrysler Automobiles readies a community benefit plan to infuse Southeastern with funding for industrial technology education.
Fiat Chrysler, known as FCA, which builds Jeep Grand Cherokees at the Jefferson North plant a few blocks east of the school, is expanding that facility and hiring as many as 5,000 new workers. Although the details of the company’s investment in Southeastern have not been publicly announced, school district officials say it’s likely to bring new direction and more students to a school that’s experienced many reversals in its 102-year history.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district was exploring starting an advanced manufacturing program at Southeastern, as part of its partnership with Fiat Chrysler.
This news comes only two years after the district recast Southeastern as an elite school for students who pass a merit examination, in the model of Cass Technical or Renaissance High School.
“It’s been through a lot,” said Donna Givens, CEO of the nonprofit Eastside Community Network, an organization that provides mentoring, an after-school gathering place, and internships for Southeastern High students.
Vitti says the school can maintain its college prep programs, while adding an advanced manufacturing program. The goal, says Vitti, “is to establish strong programming so students can stay in their neighborhood, because what they’re being offered is just as good as what they would get somewhere else.”
It’s the public school mission and that of Southeastern High School, he said, to prepare students for the future, whether that next phase begins in a 21st century manufacturing plant or at a four-year university.
Over the last 12 years, Southeastern has been the focus of other transformations, beginning with a $43 million renovation that began in 2005 and shut down the facility for three years. (Students attended classes in a now-closed middle school.) It reopened as a high school specializing in science and technology.
When that curriculum failed to take root, the school was attached to the separate Education Achievement Authority, a state-run effort to improve poorly performing schools. The authority failed amid relentless publicity about mismanaged funds and poor results. But with fewer students at Southeastern during that period, educators say they were able to make inroads changing the school culture.
Dr. Damian Perry steered Southeastern’s reinvention from 2015 through 2018 to its new status as an examination school for the east side.
“You can imagine the immense pressure everyone was under, transferring back [to the Detroit public school district] and then rebranding,” said Perry, who moved to Mumford High School in January. “All we had was a vision and a dream.”
The vision? Southeastern could become a beacon of achievement on the city’s east side, offering committed Detroit students an opportunity to take college prep classes, and to jointly enroll in classes after school at Wayne County Community College.
To win over students, Perry and his successor, Maurice El-Amin, have trained students to serve as ambassadors, and traveled to middle schools to recruit students. While they’ve had some success, it hasn’t been an easy sell. Students are being asked to choose the historically low-performing Southeastern over Cass and Renaissance, which have had merit-based admission for decades.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think anyone thought people would select Southeastern High School. When I started, nobody wanted to go,” said Perry, who likens his recruiting efforts to Steve Jobs trying to pitch Apple when it was still more idea than reality. That some did choose it “was a huge point of pride for us.”
Many of the former students left, responding to what teachers say became a more respectful and academically demanding culture. When you walk through the halls now, said El-Amin, the principal who moved to Southeastern in January, “you hear teachers teach. You see engaged students. I was pleasantly surprised to see what I was inheriting.”
Advanced placement classes were introduced, along with a robotics program, and a journalism class with a student newspaper. A choir was reinstated. There was singing in the halls. “It’s a very positive school culture,” said Givens, of the Eastside Community Network. “It’s unlike any other school we’ve worked with. It’s almost like a small town school.”
Teachers like Jacqueline Mitchell Robinson, a former journalist who was Southeastern’s teacher of the year, say the students have exceeded expectations. Robinson’s journalism class publishes a newspaper and she also supervises the yearbook staff.
The students benefit from small classes and personal attention, she said. “Some of these students would get lost in a big high school like Cass.”
But the school needs to grow at a faster pace, everyone agrees, to offer the electives and extracurricular activities students need, and to justify the school’s high operating costs. The Fiat Chrysler investment, expected to be announced within the next few weeks, should galvanize that growth.
Southeastern’s next chapter will reflect Vitti’s conviction that Detroit schools need to offer students multiple pathways to success — inspiring some to win college degrees, and equipping others to find sustainable careers without an immediate college education.
Vitti, who inherited the exam school concept, has not backed off the district’s commitment to keeping it in place. But the Jefferson North plant expansion — and the thousands of jobs there — offers new career opportunities for those students who aren’t headed to college.
“We’ve had good momentum,” Vitti said during an interview at his Fisher Building office, “but it needs to be expanded if we’re really going to draw neighborhood students.”
Southeastern has weathered two world wars, racial strife, the 1980s era of crack and gang warfare (in 1984, three students were shot at the school in one week), and — for decades — steady depopulation.
It is overdue for a boost of resources and hope.
“Let’s preserve the exam schools but also really make viable options for students,” Vitti said, noting that the district’s east side schools, which have some of the city’s lowest-income residents, “haven’t been as competitive and robust in programming,” as in other parts of the city.
In the weeks ahead, details of the FCA investment and the district’s plan for Southeastern will emerge. Supporters of the school hope its future will be more stable than its past and that, for the first time in 50 years, it might be on the upswing.