Fallen Spirit: When a City Loses its School District

n Ypsilanti, it was always the Braves, the Flyers and the Railsplitters. It’s how people in town, whether Ypsilanti proper or one of the surrounding townships, identified each other-all based on which high school a resident graduated from.

Ypsilanti High School graduated Braves, Willow Run High School, near an airport with the same name, graduated Flyers, and Lincoln High School had the Railsplitters, a nickname for Abraham Lincoln.

This was the tradition for decades, but now only one of those mascots remain. The Willow Run School District, saddled with a nearly $3 million deficit at the time, merged with the Ypsilanti Public School District in 2013 to form Ypsilanti Community Schools.

Gone were the old mascots (for a few short years before the merger, the Ypsilanti Braves became the Ypsilanti Phoenix as many schools nationwide reconsidered mascots with Native American faces); the combined district’s mascot became the Grizzlies. But the merger brought a new set of problems to Ypsilanti: Tensions between the two student bodies that went far beyond athletic rivalries, psychological impacts on students suddenly forced to change schools and families navigating difficult transitions after years of stability in their communities.

The Ypsilanti-Willow Run merger was one of many changes in school districts statewide that continues to impact families, particularly those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Some districts merge. Others, like Inkster Public Schools or the Buena Vista School District in Saginaw, close entirely. And others close schools while waiting for rescue: Highland Park Schools has K-8 education operated by charters but closed its only high school in 2015.


Most of these districts are populated, some with a majority, with Black students, bringing suspicion among families and community leaders in affected cities. “You are keeping kids in the ghetto,” one Buena Vista parent said at a 2013 public city meeting, The Saginaw News reported, when some students in that district were allocated to the Saginaw Public School District amid concern of gang violence.

Questions of bankruptcy have lingered around the state’s largest and undoubtedly Blackest school district, Detroit Public Schools, for months while other Detroit public schools in the Education Achievement Authority remain in limbo as that district loses favor among state leaders. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan continues to push to end state oversight of all of Detroit’s public schools while state legislators hammer out the best options for the two troubled districts. Whether closures of any more Detroit schools-dozens have been shuttered in the last decade-will come with these changes remains to be seen.

A ‘toxic brew’

Michigan isn’t the only state that’s authorized school district shutdowns. Texas disbanded five districts in a 15-year period-North Forest Independent School District, a majority Black district in Houston, was the most recent (2013), and La Marque Independent School District, another majority Black district, is scheduled to close at the end of this school year.

In larger cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York, shutdowns have hit individual schools, mostly in Black and Latino communities, displacing students from their neighborhood schools.

Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University in New York, began examining public school and public school district shutdowns across the country when he saw the process firsthand in the Bronx, where he collaborated on community history projects with neighborhood residents.

The New York City Department of Education began implementing a ratings system based on test scores in 2007 and started shutting down schools that underperformed. Naison says he worked in 20 Bronx schools in 2004; by 2009, all had been closed. He says 168 schools, nearly all with majority Black and Latino populations, closed in New York City after 2007 and 70 were in the Bronx.

“I learned this was extraordinarily common,” Naison says. “It’s happening in Washington D.C., Newark, Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and in smaller areas with majority Black school districts. Communities, teachers, parents-they have no power. What they want for their children, their votes … they no longer matter.”

Naison describes the removal of local schools as the start of a “toxic brew” that destroys communities. Schools begin eliminating art, music, recess and extracurriculars to focus more on test prep, then “failing” schools are shuttered or converted to charters that have no accountability to the local population. Students are then displaced from their neighborhoods as they’re forced to attend school elsewhere, and soon, entire households follow.

“Public schools have historically been places where the community could gather to talk about the issues of the day,” Naison says. “Charter schools divide the community-they’re no longer community facilities, and they basically view the community as toxic. Black teachers and other teachers of color are also disproportionally affected because they lose their jobs.”

In Inkster, which lost its district in 2013 when the state dismantled it because of massive debt, Naison’s “toxic brew” description is apt. Many of the district’s school buildings have been torn down, and others were absorbed by neighboring districts. Inkster students were sent to schools in the Romulus, Taylor, Wayne-Westland and Westwood districts.

“This has been devastating to us,” says DeArtriss Richardson, an Inkster school board member from 2008-12 and current city councilwoman. “When you lose your schools, you lose the pride of your communities. They’re killing a whole community by taking our school district away.”

Without a school district, few families looking for a new home in metro Detroit would consider Inkster, she notes, and families with means to leave will establish roots in other cities, further weakening Inkster’s community base. Teachers have lost jobs, leading some to lose their homes. And with the state demolishing most of the district’s former buildings, Richardson says a clear message has been sent.

“It’s saying you’re never going to have a school district in Inkster again,” she says.

Hardships also fall on the students forced to attend school away from home, such as Richardson’s granddaughter, who boards a bus at 6 a.m. for a half-hour trip to Oak Park High School and often doesn’t arrive back home in Inkster until 6 p.m. She chose Oak Park for its performing arts programs, offerings she could have had at Inkster High.

But Richardson’s granddaughter might be one of the luckier students-for those who can’t easily stay after school because of transportation issues, the loss of local schools has taken away their opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities or other afterschool programs.

“There’s no evidence this works,” Naison says of the exam-heavy focus of school reform initiatives and corporate management. “I don’t know of any culture that’s tested its way out of poverty.”

Deep impact

Richardson is working to bring national and international attention to the issue as a violation of human rights. She’s working with the Inkster Listening Project, a grassroots effort through the Detroit LIFE Coalition, to document the stories of students, teachers, families and others who have been displaced by the district’s dissolution.

Jeannette Hadden, an Ypsilanti Public School District parent turned Ypsilanti Community Schools parent, knows some of those challenges firsthand. An Ypsilanti Brave-locals live and die by the newly adopted motto “Once a Brave, Always a Brave”-Hadden was raising her two sons in the Ypsilanti School District when the merger happened with Willow Run.

Her then-middle-school-aged son was a student at the former West Middle School in YPSD, but the merger closed that school and allocated all junior high-aged students to the former Willow Run High School across town.

“It was a mess. It was just a mess,” Hadden says. “Emotionally, it was a whole lot more traumatic for everyone involved.”

Peri Stone-Palmquist is executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, who works with parents like Hadden whose students are faced with difficult situations in school environments.

One of the more the common ailments Stone-Palmquist sees with families whose schools or districts close are transportation challenges-“especially in Detroit with the school closings,” she says-which can affect attendance. Spotty attendance can discourage achievement, which can eventually prevent graduating altogether.

Another issue for families is their students not building friendships and relationships due to constant “school hopping.” In years past, particularly in tight-knit communities like Ypsilanti and Inkster, kids could have the same classmates from elementary school to high school.

With constant closures, however, “It disrupts community in a different way. How are you able to develop those relationships if you’re only at a school for six months or one school year?” Stone-Palmquist says, adding that teachers in transitioning school districts often don’t stick around long either, leading to staff turnover.

“My son ended up basically failing the eighth grade because of the merger,” Hadden says. “When he got over there, his whole demeanor just changed. For the eighth grade, he started doing things that were not normal. Just completely failing.”

Because Hadden’s son’s grades slipped in middle school, he was placed into a “recovery” program in the new Ypsilanti Community High School when he started ninth grade. That didn’t help matters, Hadden says.

“He said, ‘Mom this school is for bad kids and since they put me over here, I might as well act like them,’” she says. “He was bringing home completely F’s.”

Hadden says she sought counseling outside the school for her son and eventually got him out of the recovery class and back into classes with the rest of the student body. “My son is doing a lot better now, but it took a whole lot of effort,” she says.

But she says she knows other parents are still transitioning. Like in Saginaw, Hadden says there are gang problems in Ypsilanti that were only exacerbated by the district merger.

“It’s a lot of different things that are going on with those situations. Nobody seems to care about what happens to the kids or what happens to the families when you tear these schools apart,” Hadden says.


The Michigan Department of Education monitors “deficit districts.” If they’re unable to get out of the red, the state can appoint an emergency manager to oversee finances, call for a dissolution of the district or approve a merger with another district. As of March, MDE flagged these districts.

DEEPER DEFICITS Projected to end FY with a greater (worse) deficit:

 FY 2015 debtFY 2016 projected debt
Detroit Public Schools$216M$335M
Flint Community Schools$5.6M$14.5M
Beecher Community School District$1.8M$2.3M
Mt. Clemens Community Schools$1.4M$1.5M
South Lake Schools$1.1M$1.4M


REDUCED DEFICITS Projected to end FY with a lower (improved) deficit:

 FY 2015 debtFY 2016 projected debt
Pontiac School District$33.4M$30.6M
Benton Harbor Area Schools$14.8M$13.8M
School District of the City of Hazel Park$8M$6.4M
Westwood Community School District$2.9M$1.9M
Garden City School District$3.2M$1.6M
Bridgeport Spaulding Community School Distrct$1.7M$400,784


Shannon Shelton Miller is a frequent BLAC Detroit contributor and native Detroiter. Follow Her on Twitter at @ShannonSMWrites. Aaron Foley is editor of BLAC Detroit follow him at @AaronKFoley.

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