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Sampson-Webber will remain open as Detroit district adjusts facility plan

In a close-up of a student’s hands in math class, worksheets and a calculator are spread across the desk.

Detroit Public Schools Community District is reversing four changes that were proposed under the district’s initial $700 million plan to renovate, rebuild or demolish school buildings using COVID relief funding.

Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat

The Detroit school district is reversing its plan to phase out enrollment at Sampson-Webber Leadership Academy after parents and teachers raised concerns. 

The reversal was one of four changes district officials say they are making to the district’s $700 million plan to renovate, rebuild, or demolish school buildings across the city. The changes come partly in response to community feedback shared during seven meetings in March and April.

Under the district’s initial plan, Sampson-Webber, a K-8 school, would have stopped enrolling students and would close when all current students had graduated. New students would have gone to Barton Elementary instead.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members during a school board study session Thursday that parents and teachers disapproved of the plan, citing the two-mile distance between Barton and Sampson-Webber. 

Instead of closing, the school building will receive cosmetic improvements. Vitti said district officials will regroup in five years to determine if enrollment numbers and neighborhood investment warrant reconsidering the school’s status. Sampson-Webber’s enrollment of about 330 students has remained flat for seven years.

Under the original plan presented in February, the district would spend $281 million to rebuild five schools, another $296 million to renovate buildings, and $128 million to reopen previously closed schools, expand pre-K, add onto existing schools, and demolish or sell some vacant buildings.

The board discussed the other changes to the plan during Thursday’s session. The district will share updated proposals at the May 10 school board meeting.

The district backed away from a plan to switch buildings for students that attend Davison Elementary-Middle School and Detroit International Academy for Young Women to provide more space for expanding enrollment at Davison. 

Meanwhile, the vacant Poe Elementary School will be kept instead of demolished as detailed in the original plan. Poe sits across from Edmonson Montessori School. If Edmonson’s enrollment increases over the next five years, the district will consider reactivating Poe to provide more space.

The district also might rethink its plan to move Chrysler Elementary, a K-5 school, to the former location of Ralph Bunche Preparatory Academy about two miles away. 

The district wants to expand Chrysler into a K-8 school and hoped that the former Bunche site would offer enough space. Vitti noted that Chrysler is not a traditional neighborhood school because students are required to apply and some families travel across the city to enroll their children. The school enrolls 123 students based on state data, but could increase to as many as 500 students if it added three grades.

Vitti said he’s hesitant to invest $54 million to demolish and build a new school building. But many current Chrysler families who live nearby don’t want to move to the former Bunche site, fearing a change in school culture.

“When you look at cost effectiveness and the other challenges throughout the district, I don’t think it’s a wise decision to build a brand-new building there, especially for 500 students,” Vitti said. “I think it’s too much and then if you do do that, I’ve got to go back and remove $54 million of funding in other schools where children are currently at.”

Instead he said the district could seek federal or state funding for the project or consider purchasing the Woodward Academy, a former charter school that closed in 2017 and is less than a block away from the current Chrysler location.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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