School's Out Forever

By James Griffioen


PHOTOS AND WORDS BY JAMES GRIFFIOEN

A school computer lab with relatively modern hardware. Thieves have removed any precious metals from the CPUs and monitors, rendering them worthless.

In the last half-century, Detroit lost more than half its population. Those leaving the city were mostly white people who fled to the suburbs. As a result, the tax base was destroyed and the black population that remains has had to govern a 139-square-mile city with limited resources.

With an aging infrastructure built for twice the existing population, the school district has to shut down and vacate school buildings every year. In 2007, the school board awarded a contract for securing, cleaning and removing supplies from closed schools to a Philadelphia-based company with ties to school board members. However, the work at many closed schools was simply never done. As with any buildings left unsecured in Detroit, thieves looking for metal immediately broke in to steal copper pipes and other valuables. These “scrappers” are like locusts. In 2008, I went into several schools closed the previous year to find buildings stripped of metal but left with libraries full of books, computer labs upturned, art classrooms full of supplies, and administration offices filled with confidential and sensitive student records.

It goes without saying that the city’s schools are in a bad way. Only recently, a principal at one Detroit public school asked parents to send toilet paper and light bulbs to school with their children because the district could no longer provide those necessities. Most students are not allowed to bring textbooks home, if their school has textbooks at all. The Detroit Public Schools are allotted more tax dollars per pupil than any other district in the state, and yet none of the money actually reaches those students or their teachers. It disappears in a morass of bureaucratic waste and corruption.

People tend to have a visceral reaction to the sight of books piled ten feet high and left to rot in a windowless warehouse or strewn about a classroom floor. They seem to have more sympathy for books than for the children who’ll never have the chance to use them. Half of Detroiters cannot even read. Unemployment is above 20 percent and our streets are filled with hopeless people. When I see schools left like this, I know exactly what waits for many of these kids. I see it every day on the streets.


A school cafeteria trashed by vandals with hundreds of Styrofoam food trays (provided by the same school services company that was supposed to secure and remove supplies from this school).


“Living the Dream”. Several boxes of books commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. found in the Detroit Public Schools’ Roosevelt Warehouse, where tens of thousands of other textbooks and countless other supplies have sat rotting for more than two decades.


A box elder tree grows from a soil made of ash and pulp from science textbooks in the Detroit Public Schools’ Roosevelt Warehouse. A man’s body was discovered in a frozen lift shaft here. It is assumed he had been there for some months as his face had decomposed.


Photo documentation of fight injuries found in the principal’s office. The report in the student’s own handwriting says: “This is what I was at my locker and the 8th Grade Hall and so she came up to me and said you said you ain’t like me I said if I did what you gonna do about it then she hit me…”


The floor of the principal’s office was littered with reports of injuries to students resulting from accidents and conflicts with other students.


The floor of this school’s front office is littered with several decades’ worth of student records and report cards.


A rubbish bag in the principal’s office revealed files of evidence photos of items confiscated from students, in this case after a dice game.


Snow fills a former school library after vandals broke the floor-to-ceiling windows.


A school art classroom ransacked by vandals has cupboards and a closet still well-stocked with art supplies; the closet still had a six-foot pile of unused paper. Art programmes have been among the first cut by Detroit Public Schools under its current budget shortfall.


At the end of the 2007 school year, Jane Cooper Elementary (built in 1920) was left unsecured in the middle of the wasteland where a middle-class neighbourhood once stood. It took “scrappers” only a few months to strip the building of every last ounce of metal and leave it looking as though it hadn’t been occupied for decades.


This tiny box elder sapling took root in a pile of mouldy books and ash inside the former Detroit Public Schools book depository.

 

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