The first day of school Tuesday was a “new and improved” one for many students across Metro Detroit.
A new roof, expanded cafeteria, remodeled gymnasium and repurposed wood throughout the building were just a few of the updated amenities awaiting students entering the three schools that comprise the former Osborn High School, a Detroit Public School.
Students at Bloomfield Hills High School began classes at their long-awaited new building, completing the merger of the former Lahser and Andover high schools. In Madison Heights, students entered the nation’s first-of-its-kind Keys Grace Academy Charter School, which promotes the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac cultures.
Timberlery Williams, 18, a senior at Osborn College Prep Academy, is one of dozens of students who helped renovate the school over the summer. The other two schools occupying the building include Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, and Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy.
“I was here for the whole time the school was being upgraded, helping with the painting, working on the front office, videotaping interviews and cleaning out classrooms,” said Williams. “It’s like a total change at the school now, especially without the leaking roof.”
Williams and the other students can thank a nonprofit, Life Remodeled, which upgraded Cody High School in 2014 and spent months this year revamping Osborn with the help of partners including General Motors, Quicken Loans and the Skillman Foundation, among others.
Chris Lambert, CEO of Life Remodeled and in charge of the community rebuilding effort, stood in a school hallway smiling and observing the completed work. He said the only glitch was the gymnasium.
“The company working on the gym did not finish when they said they would, and that bothers me,” he said. “But the kids are fired up and ooohing and aaahing about everything and they’re feeling grateful and appreciative.”
Lambert said his organization paid for half of the roof and DPS will take care of the rest.
“I can’t say how much everything cost yet because we’re still working on numbers,” he said. “But it feels amazing to see everyone so excited on such an important day.”
Their work expanded into the community, with the help of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, headed by executive director Quincy Jones.
“We included over 302 blocks of blight removal and beautification, boarding up 472 houses in the surrounding neighborhood,” he said.
But Osborn, like many schools in Michigan, still struggles with declining enrollment.
DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said Osborn’s three schools had 874 students in the fall of 2013 and 790 in the fall of 2014.
“We are hopeful that the improvements made through Life Remodeled will assist us in retaining and attracting students, as it did when Life Remodeled worked with the Cody High School campus in 2014,” she said.
Principal Senta Ray-Conley said “a lot of love” was put into the building.
“So many people from the school and from the community devoted a lot of hours to beautify the school, and we’re so thankful our children can see and experience the difference.”
Junior Jalel Skiffer, 16, also helped with the upgrades.
“I helped make about 300 calls a day, asking for volunteers to help with the projects, and I also kept account of supplies given out, like lawn mowers and weed wackers,” he said.
Skiffer said many students once dreaded going to school.
“With all these improvements, it makes you want to come to school,” he said. “People stepped up and really showed they cared about Osborn.”
Across town at the Keys Grace Academy Charter School in Madison Heights, nearly 300 students posed outside for a group photo with staff members.
A huge banner draped from the top front of the building to the ground announces “Free tuition, transportation door to door, uniforms, books, backpacks and supplies, breakfast and lunch.”
The Chaldean community in Metro Detroit has grown to 150,000, believed to be the second largest in the world. The school is inclusive and welcomes all students in pre-K through 12th grade. Several of the students who showed up on the first day of classes included various ethnicities. They must become proficient in at least three languages — English, Aramaic and either Spanish or French — by graduation.
Parent Noora Jarjosa of Warren has three children enrolled at the school, a fifth-grader, third-grader and a 4-year-old in preschool.
“I really love the staff, the teachers and the fact that there will be a lot of one-on-one time spent with students,” she said. “My kids used to be in a public school where there were at least 28 kids in a classroom, whereas here, there will be around 15-20 kids in a classroom.”
School founder Nathan Kalasho said the school’s charter authorizer is the Madison School District.
“We want to create the most conducive environment for learning, and to promote education, culture and discipline,” said Kalasho. Asked what is different about this charter school, other than the focus on Chaldean culture, Kalasho said, “This is a family environment. We’re here to serve families first and foremost.”
Parent Lori Brown of Madison Heights enrolled her 11-year-old daughter at the school.
“I’m excited about the diversity and having my daughter interact with those from different cultures,” she said. “We’re new around here, we live around the corner, and when I saw the huge banner announcing the enrollment, I decided to bring my daughter here.”
Valantina Karkookly, 15, in the 8th grade, was among the crowd gathered on the lawn.
“I’m so excited to be here because it’s really fun and nice,” she said. “I like all the teachers so far.”
Inside an art class on the second floor, she worked on an assignment given by teacher Linda Berry. They were making scrapbooks of places that have been important in their lives.
Superintendent Randy Speck of the Madison District Public Schools, the charter school’s authorizer, also was on site at the school.
“It’s about shared values and the synergy between Keys Grace Academy Charter School and Madison Schools, and the opportunity to serve a greater educational community, specifically the Chaldean community,” he said.