Barbara Montgomery, 38, and son Ernest Roberts, 9, a fourth-grader, walk home from Legacy Charter Academy, which has nearly 400 students. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)
Detroit-- Atkinson Elementary School was just around the corner from Barbara Montgomery's home, allowing for a quick daily walk to drop her son off at kindergarten and making it easy for her to volunteer in the classroom and cafeteria.
So when Detroit Public Schools closed the building in 2007 along with 32 others in the wake of declining enrollment and deficit troubles, Montgomery and her son were upset. The closure meant walking a mile to Van Zile Elementary on Outer Drive.
But this year, Montgomery's son, Ernest Roberts, is in fourth grade and back at the neighborhood school. It's been renovated for $6 million and reopened as Legacy Charter Academy.
DPS sold Atkinson to the charter operator this year for $600,000, marking what observers call a significant policy change under Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb: selling shuttered schools to groups that will compete for students.
"We are all glad," Montgomery said. "Everybody is just happy."
The 79 charter schools in the city have drained the public school system of students since Michigan allowed the creation of charters in 1994. Last year, 44,375 Detroit students enrolled in charter schools netting about $336 million in state money. Charter and public schools receive funding based on enrollment.
DPS has lost roughly half its enrollment in the past decade, down to about 85,000 students in 2009 -- a rate of decline exceeding the drop in the city's population.
Facing a $363 million deficit this year and a surplus of real estate after closing more than 150 schools in the past decade, Bobb tossed out a policy of not selling buildings to charter operators and recently sold them three former schools.
In addition to Atkinson, the former Winship school, 14669 Curtis St., was sold to University Yes Academy for $440,000 and the former Vincent Academy, 7600 Goethe St., went to Covenant House Academy East campus for $230,000, according to the charter operators. Covenant, a DPS-chartered school, had been leasing the building from the district.
The school district also leased a newly closed school, Bunche, to Ross-Hill Academy, another DPS-chartered school.
DPS has been selling facilities to charter operators as well as others. In the first year of Bobb's term -- March 2009 to March 2010 -- the district sold 11 vacant school properties for more than $4 million. In the year prior, no district property had been sold or leased, according to DPS.
'A new day'
"It really is a new day" for the district, said Joel Landy, a Detroit real estate developer who owns three former district schools. "They are for the first time selling them to charter schools because there's no other agenda other than educating kids and that's an amazing thing."
One of Landy's buildings, the former Jefferson Middle School on Selden, has become a charter -- the Detroit Midtown Academy -- because he bought the school in 1991, before the public school district was threatened by the charter movement.
Bobb has said he welcomes the competition from charter schools, believing changes at DPS, such as new academic programs, can lure students back to the public schools.
"The seriously flawed notion that refusing to sell to charters over many years somehow slowed down the competition is simply that, flawed, and did nothing whatsoever to curtail what was arguably the largest charter expansion in history occurring right here within the city limits," district spokesman Steven Wasko said. "Now DPS can receive much needed revenue from building sales at the same time that it can reduce its large inventory of real estate and the associated costs of attempting to maintain properties."
But others disagree about the sales to non-DPS charters.
"It's a bad business decision on the part of the emergency financial manager," said Anthony Adams, president of the Detroit Board of Education. "It makes no sense for us to sell buildings to schools that are taking students out of our population. We need to be attracting students back to the district."
New charter schools weaken the nearby public schools and contribute to the loss of enrollment revenue, said Russ Bellant, co-chairman of the board's facilities transition committee.
"It's a bad policy change," said Bellant, parent of a 2009 DPS graduate. "I think the original policy was the correct one."
Celebrating the community
Legacy Charter Academy opened Sept. 7 as a kindergarten to fifth-grade school with nearly 400 students. It will add a grade each year until it offers kindergarten through eighth grade.
The interior of the school was gutted. A wing was added. Lead and asbestos were abated. New plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling and technology were installed. The crushed marble terrazzo flooring was polished.
Leaders at Legacy were careful to honor the historic architecture of the building, which was built in 1927 and is under consideration for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The original "Edmund Atkinson School" stone engraving on the exterior of the castlelike building was preserved. Legacy leaders opted to put their sign on the side instead.
"We are investing in the community. We want to become part of the community and Atkinson is part of the heritage and history of the community," said Legacy principal John Cogley. "We are very proud of that. We wanted to celebrate that."
Robert L. Calvin, 70, has lived across the street from Atkinson for 30 years and is pleased to see the vacant school revived.
"I think it's good for the neighborhood, it will be good for the community," Calvin said.
Catholic schools converted
Until now, charter school operators often turned to former Catholic schools in the city for a site. Legacy is operated by National Heritage Academies and it's the first in a DPS building. National Heritage's six other schools in the city are in former Catholic schools.
Since 2001, 30 Catholic schools have closed in the city, according to the Archdiocese of Detroit. Nearly 70 percent were sold or leased to charter schools, spokesman Joe Kohn said. A Catholic education is distinct from a public charter school education, Kohn said, so the archdiocese doesn't view charters as direct competition.
One of the four new charter buildings this year, YMCA Detroit Leadership Academy, 13550 Virgil, was once St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School. YMCA and its donors spent about $1 million to buy and renovate the school. It plans to open as many as five more kindergarten through eighth-grade schools in Detroit that will feed into one high school, said Daniel Maier, executive vice president of YMCA Detroit.
The district's former Winship school received a $5.5 million renovation and opened in the fall as the University Yes Academy with a sixth-grade class of 100 students.
The charter will add a grade every year until it reaches the 12th grade. Its opening is part of a growing movement in the city -- funded by foundations and supported by Bobb and Mayor Dave Bing -- to bring 70 schools to the city by 2020.
"Robert Bobb is not afraid of the competition," said Doug Ross, CEO of New Urban Learning, which helped launch the charter school. "The district is in desperate need of money. Instead of letting these schools rot, Bobb had the courage to do what was best for kids."