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Detroit’s Frederick Douglass Academy looks to adopt a new identity. Will a name change help?

A sign in front of a building.

Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men is Detroit’s lone all-boys public school. In years past the building served as an alternative school for academically and behaviorally struggling students. But current school leaders hope a new name will update the school’s reputation for the next generation of students.

Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat

In the main hallway of Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men is a mural portrait of the school’s namesake. The painting, bordered with the school’s orange and green colors, showcases the famed abolitionist and journalist in a stoic pose looking across the 31-year-old school. 

In classrooms, students say, screensavers on computer monitors bear images of the fiery orator. Following daily morning announcements, students recite an affirmation inspired by Douglass’ values: manhood, altruism, courage, scholarship.

That sense of brotherhood and mentorship was part of what Kamar Graves, a 2016 graduate, loved about going to the all-boys school. By the time Graves graduated, he had become valedictorian of both his eighth and 12th grade classes and earned a full-ride academic scholarship to Michigan State University. 

But now, school leaders want to remove the singular name of this school near Midtown Detroit — and rebrand it in honor of Ernest Everett Just, an African American biologist and educator who pioneered cell research and was a founding member of the historically Black Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

The name change, they say, is part of a transformation designed to take Frederick Douglass from being one of Detroit’s long-standing alternative high schools to a STEAM-focused school, a learning approach that incorporates science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

“We want our students to have a name associated with the sciences,” said Douglass Principal Willie White.

Since taking leadership in 2018, White’s charge has been to revamp the school. But as Douglass staff meet with prospective students and parents, they repeatedly hear about the school’s poor reputation, not the robotics awards or science program.

White says the name change could help shift that perception.

“The stigma is that you shouldn’t want to go to alternative schools … that they are for bad boys,” White said. “We’re not a school for bad boys.”

The Detroit school board was initially set to approve the renaming process for Douglass at its monthly meeting in early December, but the board opted to delay a decision until the matter could be discussed by individual committees in the new year.

The proposal is the latest effort to rename a Detroit school this year, coming after three Detroit schools were earmarked for new or modified names: Detroit Collegiate Preparatory Academy at Northwestern (now Northwestern High School), Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine (renamed Crockett Midtown High School of Science and Medicine) and East English Village Preparatory Academy (which added the phrase “at Finney” on the end).

The board actions resulted from recent efforts by district officials and community members to revisit naming decisions made — sometimes without community input — when the district was overseen by state-appointed emergency managers for much of the last two decades. 

At Douglass, White is enthusiastic about the change. And some current students say it would mark a fresh chapter for the school.

“It’s a new name, a new building, new colors, new mascot,” said Douglass senior Naim Bellamy, “It’s going to be good to hopefully see the difference in everything.”

There are also plans to move the school to a different location, which Naim thinks may even attract new students.

But some alumni say the new name will erase a critical part of the school’s legacy.

“Detroiters are letting their history be washed out,” said Daivon Reeder, a 2012 graduate of Douglass, who opposes the alternative name.

The proposal to change the name of Frederick Douglass Academy comes amid larger national discussions of how to teach African American history and who should be honored with buildings, statues, and monuments.

It also raises questions about what it will mean for the school’s identity and legacy and whether a name change is enough to turn a school around.

Alumni remember school as ‘beacon of hope and light’

The origins of Frederick Douglass Academy go back several decades.

In the late 1980s, Detroit created the High School Development Center, an alternative high school that targeted ninth and 10th graders who were identified as struggling academically and behaviorally, according to a school statement.  

Students were selected for the program by principals from some of the city’s major high schools, and could return back to their neighborhood school if they showed improved attendance and academic performance.

But in the midst of a rise in citywide school dropout rates, Detroit school officials proposed the creation of multiple all-male academies, which would be equipped with “specially trained teachers and curriculums emphasizing black achievements,” according to a 1991 New York Times article.

Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men grew out of that concern.

To some alumni, the name change discussion would undermine decades of success among Frederick Douglass students both academically and athletically

Douglass’ small class sizes, strict dress code, devoted teaching staff, and plethora of extracurricular activities offered students an opportunity to excel and shine away from distractions at other larger high schools, they say. Those qualities, coupled with the building’s namesake, left a mark on students.

In Graves’ experience, the school’s environment quickly eliminated distractions, namely girls. While he had been an honor student prior to attending Douglass, Graves said his mother was concerned about her son’s reputation as a class clown and “ladies man” and thought the school’s courses and leadership could offer him a unique experience. 

In Reeder’s case, the dedicated class time his ninth grade English teacher spent on reading Douglass’ autobiography expanded Reeder’s understanding of manhood as well as the significance the orator had in the Black community.

Douglass escaped from a Maryland plantation to become a staunch opponent of chattel slavery, a newspaper editor, and a U.S. diplomat. At Douglass Academy, his life and words are impressed upon students, most notably in the famous quote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Ryan Fielder, who graduated from Frederick Douglass in 2011, remembers the school went through a noticeable change when it first moved to the former Murray-Wright building in 2008. Under principal Berry Greer, the school transitioned from an alternative school curriculum to one that actively encouraged students to look toward higher education and beyond, Fielder said.

“What Frederick Douglass was trying to be was a beacon of hope and light, and also an educational opportunity for young Black men who, otherwise, probably would have just been sucked into the system some other type of way,” Fielder said.

Until the district regained local control in 2016, Douglass continued to accept students with behavioral issues, said White, the school principal. Since then, the district has redirected students with behavioral challenges to other schools. That’s given the school the opportunity to develop a new identity.

“Let’s just send all our behavioral boys to Douglass” is no longer a phrase used by other district principals, White said, but the school still fields multiple calls from parents in other district and charter schools inquiring about enrolling their recently expelled students.

An original proposal to change Douglass’ name was introduced in 2018.

Monique Bryant was president of Douglass’ parent-teacher association when the original proposal was introduced to the school board. She and other parents at the time opposed the name change.

“There was never a thought about changing it,” said Bryant, who feels district administrators failed to engage the school community in a timely and accessible manner. 

The board ultimately dropped the proposal, citing a lack of support. This time around, the district says, parents, staff, and students seem to be behind a name change. White chalks that up to buy-in from current parents, with whom he’s made a concerted effort to collaborate with on the school’s new direction. 

A new name “sets in motion a new legacy and an emphasis on science and technology,” said Keonda Buford, current president of Douglass’ PTA. 

Renewed conversations over a name change began toward the beginning of the school year, Buford said, when White and other school administrators convened a meeting with the PTA where they suggested the school be renamed as Ernest Everett Just. 

A video presentation was shared that detailed Just’s background and scientific contributions.

The parent group agreed that changing the name would be a good move, Buford said.

“I don’t think we would dishonor (Frederick Douglass) by not using the name, especially if we’re replacing it with another equally brilliant and excellent Black person,” Buford said.

“If we were changing it to someone that wasn’t Black, that didn’t have any type of contributions to science … that would be a different conversation.”

School leaders want a new name for a different time

Renaming the school after Just, a renowned scientist, would better market the school’s current science-oriented offerings to students and families across the city, White said. The school offers a program in geographic information systems and Advanced Placement courses, has an in-house weather station, and partners with Eastern Michigan University to offer dual enrollment classes. 

With the school’s emphasis on a career pathway in GIS for students, White said, Just’s name better reflects the school’s long-term vision to encourage students to get into the sciences.

The name change discussion coincides with the district’s plan to renovate and rebuild school buildings across the city using federal COVID relief dollars. Douglass students are expected to move to the vacant Northern High School building at the start of 2023-24 school year. That move, according to DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti, will be permanent until or if “enrollment dramatically improves” at the school. 

Last school year, Douglass had 62 students enrolled, according to the school’s website. At its peak, the school enrolled roughly 300 students, in large part due to its requirement to accept expelled students from other schools. 

As part of the district facility plan, students from three district alternative schools — Detroit Lions, Westside, and Legacy academies — will move into Douglass’s current location, which would become “a hub for alternative programming” in the district, according to Vitti.

A decision won’t happen until the new year, but it hasn’t deterred Douglass students from feeling optimistic about the school’s current plans.

For Naim Bellamy and other students, there’s little concern about the school’s identity drastically shifting.

“It’s still going to be a good school,” said 10th grader Dominic Hunt.

Jonathan Zook, another 10th grader, looks forward to the move. He first heard about the plans for a new building and a new school identity when he was a freshman. 

“The name change wouldn’t really change anything,” Jonathan said, “as long as it’s still named after a Black figure who’s motivational.”

Now, he and other students are looking forward to learning more about Ernest Everett Just.

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

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