NAACP reviewing Grosse Pointe school closure decision

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Two women hug after finding out that two elementary schools, Trombly and Poupard, will be closed after it was voted on by the Grosse Pointe Public Schools' board on Monday night.

Grosse Pointe — A civil rights organization is reviewing a decision by the Grosse Pointe Public Schools' board of education to close two elementary schools, one of which primarily serves low-income black students.

The school board voted Monday night to close Poupard Elementary School in Harper Woods and Trombly Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Park to address K-12 declining enrollment and as part of a districtwide grade reconfiguration that will also move fifth-graders to its middle schools.

Cynthia M. Douglas, president of the NAACP chapter for Grosse Pointes/Harper Woods, said on Tuesday she was disappointed with the decision to close the schools and to not take the advice of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to hold off on a decision amid allegations of racial bias.

"We believe with them (the board) there are other underlying issues that needed to be addressed that have not been," Douglas said. "We are reviewing the decision, and we are talking to the executive board. We are not sure at this point if any action is going to be taken by the NACCP.

"We are not saying they violated anyone's civil rights at this time. The process (for school closure) seemed to be flawed."

More: Video with racist slurs surfaces in Grosse Pointes amid school closure tensions

Harvey Savage addresses the Grosse Pointe Public Schools' Board of Education during public comments Monday.

Douglas said she was especially concerned over the fact that Poupard holds a large Head Start program.

At Poupard, which has about 304 students, about 77% of students are African American and 64.8% are economically disadvantaged, according to state data records.

Trombly is 73.4% white and 16.53% economically disadvantaged.

"It was very emotional last night. ... I don’t know if a delay would have made a difference," Douglas said of Monday night.

"They invited us to the table as well as the Michigan civil rights department; so two of the biggest civil rights groups are here. And you don’t take their recommendation when you call them in to do this. ... What is the point?"

On Monday, state civil rights department director Agustin Arbulu urged the board to first adopt a "racially conscious" approach to reconfiguring schools before making any closure decisions for the district.

On Tuesday, Arbulu said he was disappointed the board chose to close schools and reconfigure the district instead of researching issues further and listening to concerns about the impact of both decisions have on young children

"We disagree with the board's decision," Arbulu said. "I am encouraged there were board members who expressed interest for many of our recommendations, especially in their interest to provide assistance to ameliorate the negative impact their action will take on students, on parents and on the community."

Grosse Pointe Public School Board of Education President Brian Summerfield

Arbulu, who was invited by the district to get feedback from the community on the process of school closure decisions, addressed the board for 90 minutes on Monday in what was at times a scathing rebuke of what he called the district's and the community's history of bigotry and exclusion.

"Their inability to step outside their shoes is always difficult," Arbulu said Tuesday. "But the world is changing. I've gotten emails from concerned parents that the process did not allow for all the voices to be heard."

Citing findings from four public listening sessions and written comments from parents and community members, Arbulu told the district the community perceives the process for deciding the fate of the schools "lacked transparency" and the "effective involvement" of the people most impacted by the reconfiguration.

Arbulu recommended the school board take action to improve the process and ensure the concerns of all stakeholders were considered. Among the recommendations were to consider closing a middle school instead of closing one or more elementary schools and retaining the current grade configuration, and adopting a racial equity lens to guide the decision-making on reconfiguration.

Arbulu said some board members might be empathetic.

"But they are driven by their own mindset? How do you include these other voices in the community and how do you go about healing? What do they ... have in mind?" he said.

Both schools are expected to close by the 2020-21 school year.

Grosse Pointe Public Schools Superintendent Gary Niehaus listens to comments during Monday night's meeting.

GPPSS Superintendent Gary Niehaus said the district's administrative building is also expected to close along with the two elementary schools. The building is now going through the request-for-proposals process.

"We will not get to those until the first week of August. Our intention is to sell the building and move out," Niehaus said.

Asked what the district will do to help heal the community, Niehaus said it will take people getting involved in the process.

"Healing takes involvement. So involvement of our community, of our building, of our students, and when we heal, we have positive conversations about what our needs are," Niehaus said.

The district has been using an equity adviser on contract for the last three years, Niehaus said, and will continue to use that person who comes to the district through Wayne RESA.

"We can always use more help. It may be worth our effort to find our own," he said.

Niehaus said the district began talks on closure preparations at its last meeting and has a lengthy list of ideas to consider.

"One thing I would like to do is to get an equity lens and go through each of these," Niehaus said. "It will be stuff we will crystallize and bring to the board in August and early September. These are worth some town hall meetings."

Board president Brian Summerfield said on Tuesday the list of schools to close was narrowed to four choices before Monday's evening: Mason, Poupard, Trombly and Maire.

"Dr. (Christopher) Lee made the motion to insert Trombly and Poupard; it was supported. Anyone could have made the motion and inserted the words of the school," Summerfield said.

As far as moving ahead, Summerfield said the district has a lot of work to do to transform into a K-4 and 5-8 district.

"I think the administration needs to move quickly with implementation plans and provide other details we left aside while we were trying to determine which configuration to go with," Summerfield said.

Those details include the layout of the fifth- and sixth-grade classes in the middle schools, course structures and other matters, he said.

A company that specializes in heat maps hired by the district is working on a new boundary line map that should be ready by early fall, Summerfield said.

The board's action Monday night comes after 15 years of declining enrollment and a move to restructure the district without opening its doors to Schools of Choice students.

Declining K-12 enrollment has meant financial losses for the affluent Metro Detroit district, school officials said. With each student equal to around $10,000 in school revenue, the district's average 100-student drop per year is $1 million lost. 

The Grosse Pointes' schools are not alone. Statewide K-12 student enrollment has been on the decline for years. Enrollment is forecast to drop another 10% through 2025 in southeastern Michigan. 

Four years ago, Ferndale Public Schools merged two elementary schools in an attempt to desegregate classrooms and create a level education field for its youngest students.

At the time, Kennedy Elementary School was majority white and not economically disadvantaged, while Roosevelt Primary School was majority black, a majority of students lived in poverty.

William Good, a spokesman for Ferndale Public Schools in Oakland County, said in the years since the board voted to restructure its elementary schools, the district has seen steady growth in enrollment, which is contrary to what some warned would happen. 

"In our enrollment office, we are constantly reviewing trend data," he said. "We have found that the best enrollment indicators for the health of our district are to track student retention rate, new resident enrollment and the size of our incoming kindergarten class."

Last summer, the district saw its highest student retention rate in the past decade, Good said.

"This year, our new resident student enrollment is 50 students greater than our previous high over the past five years. We will also have our largest incoming kindergarten class in recent memory starting school in the fall," he said.

"Some in our community warned that restructuring our schools would have a negative impact on our resident enrollment. Four years later, we have more than enough data to show that our restructuring did the opposite and is leading to significant growth."

Some with ties to the Grosse Pointes' district remain angry at how it handled the closures. Others, such as Mike Testa, a 1994 graduate of the district, believe the district will need new ideas and programs to boost enrollment.

"You can influence how this is implemented," he said. "You do have the power, and you can influence how things are implemented."

But Testa said the process was mismanaged by the administration and that the board didn’t push back enough.

"I don’t agree with the outcome as it doesn’t fix the problem and likely future closures will be needed," he said. "This will be a big transition with many changes that will have a lasting impact."