Three weeks into the school year at Spain Elementary-Middle School, the teachers are starting to get used to their new classes. Students are starting to get back into the swing of things.
And now it’s time for something unexpected: A PR blitz.
The school in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood last year became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Detroit Public Schools.
Photos of its dangerously buckling gym floors ricocheted around the world when teachers throughout the district started calling in sick to protest deteriorating conditions, freezing classrooms and filthy bathrooms.
Major news outlets like CNN came to document Spain’s shuttered gym, its unsafe playground, and its musty smells. And when Mayor Mike Duggan took a tour, he spotted a dead mouse on the floor.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Just as the school started getting some good news, just as it got a shoutout from comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who partnered with Lowe’s to lavish the school with $500,000 to repair the leaky roof and damaged floors in the gym, the school’s beloved and dynamic principal, Ronald Alexander, was hit with bribery charges.
He was among 12 Detroit Public Schools principals charged with taking bribes from a corrupt school supply vendor. He was ordered this month to spend a year in prison after pleading guilty to pocketing $23,000 in bribes.
It was devastating for everyone, said fifth-grader Antonio Overstreet, 11.
“I thought the school was going to close because we didn’t have a principal.”
But now, it’s a new year.
It’s also a new district. The Detroit Public Schools Community District was created by state lawmakers over the summer to give Detroit schools a chance to recover without the burden of paying off years of crippling debt.
And in some ways, Spain is a new school, transformed by a $1.2 million renovation, partly funded by The “Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Lowe’s.
“It was a bad year last year and not just for Spain. It was a bad year for the district,” said the school’s new principal, Frederick Cannon. “But this is a new year.”
That’s why, on Monday, Cannon opened his school doors to the news media and spent the morning giving TV interviews, showing off his school’s sparkling new gym, its renovated playground, and its brightly lit hallways that smell like fresh paint.
And that’s why the school plans to open its doors again on Wednesday to the business community to show people who work at nearby Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center how much the school has changed.
Spain still faces tremendous challenges — starting with just getting enough students to be able to pay the bills.
Enrollment is down this year, in part because of last year’s turmoil but also because of dramatic change in the neighborhood, Cannon said.
Midtown has transformed in recent years as new shops and restaurants have sprouted up. The new Whole Foods market is just a few blocks from the school and hundreds of new condos are being built, not only in midtown but in nearby neighborhoods like Brush Park and Eastern Market.
Rising prices means longtime Spain families have scattered to more affordable parts of the city while new residents moving in are mostly young adults without children.
But while that’s concerning and is hurting enrollment this year, Cannon says it’s also an opportunity for a school that was once known across Detroit as a top performing arts school.
“Everyone who played an instrument or danced, they went to Spain,” Cannon said. “I have rooms full of orchestra equipment and band equipment. This was serious business and these rooms were just sitting there. My vision is bring that back and once again become the performing arts school for Detroit.”
Spain’s building is not fully occupied. It has an entire floor that’s not being used. Cannon sees that as potential to add programs and rebuild the school, both for the families who attend today and for the new residents moving in who may not have kids yet but may someday be looking for a local public school.
“We want to reestablish ourselves as the jewel of midtown and give them the educational option when it’s time,” Cannon said.
Spain is one of three district schools that is now offering Montessori classes to kids in preschool and kindergarten — a program that is one of the district’s key initiatives to attract middle-class families.
In addition to rebuilding the performing arts programs, Cannon says he created new computer labs and is adding resources to help bring up test scores, which have been low in recent years.
In most grades, fewer than 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficient in math on the state’s M-STEP exam last year.
By inviting parents who work at the bustling neighborhood to tour the school on Wednesday, Cannon says he hopes some will appreciate the convenience of a school near where they work.
But, until he can bring test scores up, convincing middle-class families to take a gamble on the school could take some work.
Though Spain may have gotten a makeover, the federal civil rights lawsuit filed earlier this month alleged horrendous conditions that continue in other schools throughout the city.
The news of the lawsuit — broadcast widely — was yet another public relations stain for a district that was already being shunned by families with other options.
But Cannon says he’s convinced that things are turning around — and he’s hoping that by showing off his sparkling new school, he can help change some opinions about the district.
“This is a place where kids can come and be comfortable and be happy,” he said. “It’s a clean, safe environment.”
Montessori teacher Kellie Stevens says she sees a big difference in the school this year.
“Our school looks like a school now,” Stevens said. “It smells like a school now and we’re just very excited about the school year.”
Students, too, say they’re excited.
Overstreet was dribbling a basketball in the gym Monday morning, right by the spot where the gym’s bulging floor used to trip him and his classmates and send their ball flying off in the wrong direction.
Now, he said he loves playing basketball in gym class. The school now even has a certified gym teacher, which it didn’t have last year.
“We have a new principal. We have a new fresh gym and now everything is brand new,” Overstreet said. “Last year, we started out pretty lopsided. This year, we’re starting out nice and straight.”
Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Content republished here with permission.