June 17, 2010 at 1:00 am

30 closing DPS schools say goodbyes

Sad Bunche teachers, students say campus felt like home

Saying goodbye to Bunche Academy
Saying goodbye to Bunche Academy: Parents, teachers and students regret the permanent closing of their neighborhood school.

Detroit -- It was a day of celebration and grief at Bunche Academy.

In the balloon-adorned auditorium, fifth-grade girls beamed in white dresses and boys stood proud in their ties as they graduated Monday from the elementary school. Parents snapped pictures and cheered as their children walked the stage. Teachers gave moving remarks about each student and showered them with hugs.

On the other side of the school, associate teacher Nicole Bills couldn't hide her sadness as she began packing up her colorful classroom for good.

"I can't believe Bunche is closing," said Bills, a former Bunche parent who was so moved by the staff she earned a degree to work here. "It's hard to focus completely on your job responsibility when you are thinking this school is closing and we're moving somewhere else. This is where the foundation was laid for me."

The enthusiasm of the end of the school year will be tinged with sadness today at Bunche and 29 other Detroit Public Schools that will say their final goodbyes on the last day of the school year.

Despite rallies, letter-writing campaigns and pleas to Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, these schools are left with the burden of a district grappling with a deficit topping $300 million and plummeting enrollment.

About 11,100 students attend the schools that are being closed. It's unclear how many will transfer to another DPS school, or whether this latest disruption will cause them to turn to charter schools or suburban districts.

The schools closing this year join nearly 150 others that have been shuttered districtwide since 2003, but somehow the routine of closures hasn't made it any easier. Tearful teachers and staff are packing boxes. They're waiting for moving instructions and wonder if their supplies will be delivered. They question the closure decision, which was finalized just last week. And they're scared and uncertain how they and their students will fare next year.

"It's going to be extremely chaotic this school year because of so many school closings and so many parents scrambling," said a tearful Barbara Marten, a Bunche kindergarten teacher for 28 years. "Since we also have five charter schools in the neighborhood, most of us are afraid that our kids are going to go there."

Big on camaraderie

The burden falls heavily on the youngest of children, with about two-thirds of the closures among neighborhood schools serving students in pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade classes.

One Bunche student, Derrick Lee Jr., 5, said he's sad about leaving the school he loves and moving to another. The district plans for Bunche students to transfer to Duffield pre-K to 8 a mile away.

"I don't like that school because it's different things and I don't want different things," Derrick said.

Bunche, a 54-year-old higher-performing school, is a beacon for the neighborhood and its 270 students, many say. It's surrounded by some blighted lots, but also by newer construction.

The school has low enrollment, but it's big on camaraderie. It's a place where the principal and the janitor greet each child by name. The nurturing environment has helped generations of students succeed, with Bunche fifth-graders besting state averages on the MEAP test.

So when the school landed on the closure list in March, parents and the community rallied to keep it open. Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he tried to stay out of the school closure fray but pushed hard for Bunche to be spared because it is a school of excellence.

"They are a phenomenal group there," he said.

Aisha Kimpson, Derrick's mother, pleaded with Bobb to keep Bunche open. Kimpson says she felt at home the first time she visited the school.

"I have no doubt that they love my children," said Kimpson, who has two students at the school.

Instead of Bunche, 20 other schools were removed this month from the closure list, including Carstens Elementary, a high-performing but low-enrollment elementary that teachers at Bunche feel is comparable.

"I don't understand why," Kimpson said.

Bunche was targeted because of declining enrollment in an under-capacity school, DPS officials say. Bobb supports a pre-K to 8 school model, and moving the pre-K to 5 Bunche to Duffield furthers that goal -- though Bunche parents worry about their kids adjusting to a "mega-school campus," Kimpson said.

Duffield will be renamed Bunche and is scheduled to receive $10 million in improvements from the Proposal S bond program, DPS officials say. The combined enrollment of about 650 students can easily be accommodated at the Duffield site, which has a capacity of more than 1,100, district spokesman Steven Wasko said.

"This move follows very closely the very successful models of moving high-achieving programs to other nearby sites from last year, notably Garvey and JR King, where in cases, the learning environments and culture at the new sites have been completely transformed," Wasko said.

Last-minute plans unsettling

What makes the closings especially difficult is the rush, Bunche principal Marvin Franklin said. As recently as Tuesday, Bobb changed the closure list again by removing Barsamian Preparatory Center and Hancock.

Announcing the plan so late didn't give students a chance to become familiar with Duffield and didn't give parents a chance to build relationships with the new school, he said.

Franklin is not sure whether he'll move to Duffield and become principal there next year. The district has yet to announce principal assignments. If he is in charge, he would have liked to have spent the last few months introducing himself at parent meetings at Duffield, giving out his phone number and planning for a seamless merger, he said.

He worries the chaos of the decision will tempt parents to choose the five charter schools in the neighborhood.

"As an administrator, we need to have enough ammunition to give the parents, so they can feel good about whatever it is that you are going to do," Franklin said. "...When you have this kind of last-minute stuff, the parents throw their hands up and say 'forget it.' "

Bunche parent and alumnus Ridgeley Hudson isn't sure where his son will go next year. He's considering a charter school.

"It's a great school," Hudson said of Bunche. "But without the children here, it's nothing but a building."

Staff assignments unknown

It's unclear how many of Bunche's staff will go to Duffield. If there's a surplus with the combined faculty, those with lowest seniority will be reassigned.

Four teachers had decided to retire before the closing was announced, Marten said. But now, she and another teacher have joined them. Marten wanted to stay, but the thought of packing up and building respect in a new school was too much.

"It's very sad for me," Marten said. "This had been my home for a very long time."

In the cheery Bunche auditorium, Duffield principal Kenneth Jenkins introduced himself at the graduation ceremony and encouraged parents to support the transition to Duffield. "They are coming in to a great school," he said after the event.

The theme of the graduation ceremony was a message that seemed to apply beyond the fifth-grade class, to Bunche as a whole and to the entire district: "The book is still unwritten."

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Siblings Jordan, 12, Peyton, 9, and Derrick Lee Jr., 5, leave for school Monday. Peyton and Derrick go to Bunche, which is closing, while Jordan goes to Spain Middle School, which will stay open. / Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
Derrick Lee Jr., 5, gets a hug from longtime Bunche teacher Barbara Marten, ... (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)