On the Ground: Reinvesting in power of education

In 1994, 167,000 students were enrolled in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Today, only 49,000 students attend school in the district. That's a decline of nearly 71 percent--a decline that has far outpaced the city's population loss between 1990 and 2010, a period when the city's population shrank by 30 percent. Of course, students were not the only thing the school system lost. Since 1994, two thirds of Detroit Public Schools have been closed, leaving 167 vacant buildings and lots (if buildings have been demolished) throughout neighborhoods across the city.

Stories like this one in the Detroit Free Press, which report that Detroit taxpayers owe millions for school buildings that are vacant or already demoed, go beyond overwhelming. But one group in Brightmoor, the Friends of Vetal School, is not willing to be lost in these grim statistics, and is not willing to lose the school building that once anchored the neighborhood on the edge of Brightmoor and Rosedale Park. They believe, in fact, that the school building can become an anchor for the neighborhood once more.

As recently as the early 2000s, over 1,000 students were enrolled at Peter Vetal Elementary, but the school closed in August 2011 as the most recent victim of a decade long reorganization of schools in the neighborhood. Today, there is only one operating elementary school in Brightmoor, Gompers Elementary, a new building that cost $26 million to build and consolidated the populations that attended Harding, Hubert, Houghton, Healy, Vetal, and the old Gompers Elementary Schools--all of which sit derelict except for Harding, which has been demolished.

The footprint of the Vetal school is massive at 72,000 square feet. The grounds take up an entire city block. Needless to say, the vacancy of the building has a huge impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

When the school first closed, it was monitored by Detroit Public Schools security guards. It was during that period that Rev. Keith Hill signed a lease-to-own agreement with DPS. His vision was to move his church, Kindred Ministries, into the 300 seat auditorium and transform the rest of the building into a trade school. The idea came from his personal background as a skilled tradesman. He has owned and operated his own business, the Sunshine Painting Company, for 32 years. During that period, he also worked as a painter for the Ford Motor Company and a steel worker.

"It really came from my life," says Hill about his plan to open a trade school at Vetal. "At 15, I got hired at Jones and Laughlin Steel. Back in my day, we had shop classes. When I got hired, I had preliminary skills to start with." Hill, 60, credits the foundational knowledge he gained in school (he graduated from DPS's Cooley High School) as paving a way for his successful career.

"Everyone is not college bound, but everyone can learn a trade that will enable them to be a successful adult."

Hill had a list of closed schools, storefronts, and churches to inspect as potential locations for his trade school, but when he toured Vetal, he knew instantly that this was the place.

The school was in great shape when he first toured it, but between the time Hill signed the lease and got access to the building, misfortune struck. Scrappers got in and did a number on the building's plumbing, heating, and electrical systems, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

"I was in my darkest hour," says Hill about finding out that scrappers had caused such damage. "I was in the sanctuary praying for help. Then, when I went to my car to leave, I found a note on the windshield."

The note was written by Jeff Adams, an entrepreneur and Chairman of the Board of the Brightmoor Alliance, who lives three blocks from the Vetal School. He had been watching the school since it closed and noticed Hill's van parked in the back one day. He raced home to type a note saying that he was interested in ways to help do something with the massive building.

Adams was concerned about the effect that the school's vacancy was having on the neighborhood. "Basically, there are a couple of components that make up a vibrant neighborhood. A school is one of them. When you strip that away, a neighborhood will start to disintegrate. By restoring this building, we can bring some vibrancy back to the neighborhood," says Adams.

Hill and Adams got in contact, then formed a group in July dedicated to preserving and repurposing the school. They called the group Friends of Vetal School.

Next, Adams got in touch with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) at the University of Detroit-Mercy, the group that was tasked with the community engagement aspects of developing the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, to help form ideas to reuse the school and stabilize the neighborhood surrounding it.

DCDC convened several workshops and focus groups in which residents shared their ideas for the school and neighborhood. DCDC then drafted a plan, which was presented to the community three weeks ago.

Virginia Stanard, Director of Urban Design at DCDC, says, "The hope for these buildings relies on the community coming together. The neighbors have really rallied around the Vetal School."

DCDC worked to relate plans for the Vetal School to the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework's and the Community Development Advocates of Detroit's typologies. "We asked, 'How can this be an anchor for the notion of productive learning?' Wouldn't it be great if the learning of these trades utilizes the community as a laboratory? It can be a model for how we tackle these kinds of buildings in other communities," says Stanard.

Now that the Friends of Vetal School have a plan, the real work can begin. Hill and his wife Jacqueline have already invested $20,000 of their own money to have power restored to the building, but much more will be needed to make their vision a reality. "It will take labor, money, and prayers. We need help," says Hill with a smile, who remains optimistic despite the setbacks. The community keeps him going, inspiring him to keep up the work. "This community is ripe for a person with a vision."

To find out how you can help the Vetal School from getting lost in the statistics, contact Keith Hill at kindred6986@gmail.com.

Matthew Lewis is Model D's On the Ground project editor.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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