Pershing High School on Detroit's east side was built to serve more than 2,200 kids. Today just 314 are enrolled.

When Pershing High School opened in 1930, it was designed to serve more than 2,200 students in what was then a fast-growing part of the city’s east side.

Today, the school serves just 314 kids. That means Pershing is more than 85 percent empty.

It’s a similar story at Southeastern High School, Davis Aerospace High School and scores of other schools across the city that now serve just a fraction of the students they were designed to educate.

Some schools, like the Douglass Academy for Young Men, now house district offices. But other schools in Detroit have mothballed wings, darkened hallways and costly building expenses that threaten to exceed the state funding that’s based on how many students are enrolled.

The half-empty buildings across the city represent one of the thorniest dilemmas facing the new Detroit school board and Nikolai Vitti, the Florida superintendent chosen last month to lead the district. (He is now negotiating his contract.)

Any decisions could be politically damaging for the board, and potentially harmful to communities already burdened with derelict vacant school buildings. Although many districts across the country have shuttered underused buildings, Detroit’s history with school closings makes doing that difficult.

“The district closed 134 schools in seven years and I think anyone observing that process would agree it was extremely devastating to the community and to the educational ecosystem,” said Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, referring to closings by state-appointed emergency managers that accelerated enrollment declines in the district and left dozens of school buildings empty.

In some neighborhoods, past school closings have already forced children to travel long distances.

That history of closings is part of why local schools advocates were so relieved last week when state school officials formally scrapped plans to shutter 24 Detroit schools because of low test scores. But state superintendent Brian Whiston set off a fury when he said the district would close some schools “based on their enrollment numbers.”

Whiston was referring to the high number of Detroit schools that are less-than-fully occupied.

A Chalkbeat analysis comparing school capacity to student enrollment found that 43 of the 103 school buildings in the main Detroit district and in the state-run Education Achievement Authority are at least half empty. Only a handful are full.

The state-run EAA is scheduled to dissolve at the end of June and the schools, which were historically part of the Detroit Public Schools, will be returned to the main district.

Chalkbeat Detroit

One reason the school board chose Vitti last month was his claim that he had turned around schools in Jacksonville and Miami without ever closing a building.

But maintaining that track record in Detroit will require Vitti and the board to dramatically — and quickly — increase the number of families that choose traditional Detroit public schools. Or they’ll have to come up with other ways to make better use of half-empty buildings.

“The board is asking these same questions,” Meriweather said. “How do you repurpose space or how do you use space differently?”

The district, together with charter school and community leaders, is working with a non-profit real estate consulting firm called IFF to conduct a city-wide analysis of where schools need to be.

That analysis, which is expected to be completed later this year, will go beyond simply looking at student enrollment and building capacity, said Kirby Burkholder, IFF’s Vice President and Eastern Region Executive Director.

“In Detroit, we definitely have more building capacity than we have students, but for us it’s never the only thing we think about,” said Burkholder whose organization has done similar studies in cities around the country. “The question is: Where are the quality seats?”

The IFF analysis will look at where families live, where buildings are located, the condition of those buildings and the quality of the schools inside them, Burkholder said.

“It’s not as simple as saying ‘we’re going to close or not close,’” Burkholder said. “There has to be this nuance, a thoughtful, informed, collaborative approach that’s grounded in data.”

Once that analysis is complete, the district might decide to close schools but Meriweather said she hopes the district will come up with other options.

Meriweather cited the Douglass Academy, which houses district offices, as an example of ways the district can use vacant school space.

The district is also consolidating some programs, putting the Turning Point Academy, a treatment program for emotionally impaired students, into the nearby Henry Ford High School.

Durfee Elementary-Middle School will move next year into nearby Central High School and the Durfee building will become a business incubator run by a nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

At the Fisher Upper Academy on the east side, the Ford Fund is converting what used to be classroom space into a community center that will offer services such as job training and a food bank and will operate in partnership with the school.

Meriweather, whose term as interim superintendent is due to end when Vitti takes over July 1, said she has urged the district to address its building surplus with “thoughtful planning.”

“I hope that the way any of these conversations proceed will be markedly different from the way things were done in the past,” she said.

“I hope that there will be a great thoughtfulness put into this … These conversations need to be around making sure that we provide the best possible opportunities for kids.”

For a look at how well Detroit school buildings are being used, here’s a sortable list of the number of students enrolled in Detroit schools, according to recent state data, compared to official building capacity, according to a recent district financial report.

Detroit schools, by the numbers


Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. Meet the local writers of Chalkbeat here on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.

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