Williams said she initially sent her son Elijah, now a 17-year-old sophomore, to the nearby high school. It’s close enough that Elijah could walk home. But he struggled there. “I was getting in trouble,” Elijah said. “The environment at Central is not good.” So when his basketball coach at the high school got a job at a charter school in northwest Detroit, Elijah followed him.
Meanwhile, Williams initially enrolled 14-year-old Edmond at a school in Southwest Detroit where she worked and enrolled another son in a nearby school. (She let 15-year-old Emmanuel, who has fallen behind academically, make up his lost credits by taking online classes.) But when she lost her job at the school, which has been struggling and might close this year, the drive to Southwest Detroit became much more of a challenge. Now, if her husband can’t take Elijah to his northwest Detroit school, she makes a half-hour trip to drop him off and then comes back for Edmond. All of the transit and waiting in-between can take hours; luckily, she has family members who sometimes help out.
“It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel,” Williams said. “But I’ve been blessed with my car … I just really thank God for me and my husband because we just had to go above and beyond for the kids.”
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Dawn Wilson, Johnson’s neighbor in Brightmoor, knows what it’s like to go to a nearby school. Her daughters attended a small pay-what-you-can religious school around the corner from her home when they were younger. “I loved it. It was like family,” said Wilson, a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s schools. “We would walk there and the teachers lived in the neighborhood. There were a lot of community events and everyone would come.”
The closure of that school kicked off a decade of bouncing her five children around to a motley mix of public, charter, and parochial schools that, one by one, disappointed Wilson and her kids. One school was too violent, Wilson said. Another had five principals in four years. One charter school changed management companies in the middle of the school year. Every year, she drives a different route, taking kids to different schools, while watching as schools in her own neighborhood have emptied out and become vacant and derelict.
“Look at this! This is a sin and shame,” Wilson said as she gave a reporter a tour of her neighborhood’s abandoned schools.
Hubert, one of the bygone Brightmoor schools, has been open to trespassers and scrappers. At Houghten, another Brightmoor school that the city began to demolish this week, a roof collapse makes the building look like it has been bombed. “If you ever want to break a community, just start by breaking down the school system and eventually you’re just going to have deserts and graveyards,” said Arlyssa Heard, the policy director 482Forward, a parent-advocacy organization.