The Marygrove College campus will get a new batch of freshman Tuesday, but these students aren’t ready for college just yet.
They are ninth-graders in the inaugural class of the high school portion of the School at Marygrove, a partnership between the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the University of Michigan and the Kresge Foundation, which has committed $50 million to a project to transform the longtime Catholic college into a community hub of learning and neighborhood revitalization.
The 120 freshman enrolled at the School at Marygrove join thousands of other students who return to classrooms across the state Tuesday. Many private schools returned to class in August as did some public schools, which received special permission from the state to start before Labor Day. But for most kids in Michigan, Tuesday’s the day school starts.
The School at Marygrove will eventually serve what organizers call P20, for pre-school to age 20, sometimes dubbed cradle-to-career. It’s a partnership that includes a child-care component, after-school and summer programs and a teacher residency program, where rookie teachers can hone their craft by working with more experienced mentors.
“I would say it’s a place to concentrate on best practice, to connect district work with research, so that we can scale what we learn and do there,” said Detroit public schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He added that the teacher residency program will provide a pipeline of teachers to Detroit schools at a time when all districts are struggling to fill teaching positions.
U-M will offer dental and medical services there in addition to a counseling center. The City of Detroit also is involved, incorporating the project into a larger effort to revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding the campus at the southeast corner of McNichols and Wyoming.
“One family in particular said to me, ‘What’s the catch?’ ” said Nir Saar, principal of the new school, who met last week with families of the incoming class. “This sounds too good to be true.”
‘Elegant place to learn’
Like Detroit’s other high schools that require an entrance examination — Cass Tech, Martin Luther King, Renaissance High and Southeastern High — students at Marygrove had to test into the program. They were given points for their test scores and their grade-point averages, but for the first time, geography was considered as well.
“What makes this school different than the other four examination schools is that you get bonus points based on where you live,” Saar said. “Students that live within 1 mile of the school get prioritized.”
That’s part of the effort by the city and Kresge Foundation to revitalize the Fitzgerald and Bagley neighborhoods, which surround the school.
Marygrove College noted on its website that it was sometimes billed as “Detroit’s most elegant place to learn.” The buildings and 53-acre campus show why.
The high school will be housed in the college’s liberal arts building, which retains the architectural glamour of its jazz-era roots.
The building was completed in 1927. Carrara and tavernelle rose marble is found on the floors and on some of the walls and pillars. Leaded glass windows, trimmed in English oak, bring sunlight into the Tudor Gothic-style building.
Outside, ivy climbs the limestone walls toward the slate roof. Hundred-year-old oak trees shade a grassy grove that will serve as a playground for the new early childhood center. A bell tower chimes the hour.
For years, the campus was a liberal arts college run by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But declining enrollment and rising costs forced the order to wind down the college. It closes officially in December.
But the campus will remain an education center.
Engineering and social justice
The high school portion of the School at Marygrove will emphasize engineering and design as well as social justice.
U-M is helping to design the curriculum that is intended to attract students into the engineering field and to put that knowledge to work solving social justice problems.
“We’re developing problem solvers,” Saar said. “We believe that students are capable of identifying important problems and finding beautiful solutions to those problems.”
Saar said an example might be air pollution as part of the science curriculum.
“We’re learning about different kinds of particulate matter, atoms, molecules, things like that,” he said. “But we’re learning about them in the context of air pollution. We’re looking at how air pollution is different. How is it different in different geographic areas? How is it impacting those populations? Why is it idisproportionately impacting certain groups of people of color?”
That kind of study can lead to discussions about environmental justice, redlining in housing and other social justice topics, he said.
Saar acknowledged that it took some convincing to get parents and students to buy into the concept of an entirely new school. Not every student is interested in engineering and social justice, so he emphasized the holistic approach to learning that the school offers.
The school told parents that their children would have access to special programs and then took them to U-M for a two-day retreat to experience it. The school promises after-school programming, and at orientation, parents and students got to see some of the offerings.
“When you make promises and then deliver, I think you start to build trust,” Saar said. “As the trust is built, I think the word of mouth got around that, ‘hey, this is the real deal.’ “
The sales pitch worked. More than 1,000 students who took the test to get into the district’s examination schools listed Marygrove as a choice. Because of size limitations, the school was able to accept only 120.
The small size means the school will not field sports teams of its own, but athletes can participate through nearby Mumford High School.
Another innovation at the school will be a 9 a.m. start time, which is later than most traditional high schools. Research shows that teenagers can benefit from later start times, Vitti said.
One parent who is excited about the new school is Sam Boyd, whose twins, Kennedy and Caleb, will be part of the inaugural class.
Boyd grew up in northwest Detroit, graduated from Cass Tech in 1993, and still lives in the neighborhood less than a mile from the Marygrove campus.
His kids most recently attended the Roeper School, a private school in Bloomfield Hills. But they were familiar with the Marygrove campus from attending summer camps and Saturday classes there, he said.
“We were interested in one of the examination schools within Detroit Public Schools for high school,” he said. “We live very close to the Marygrove campus and that sparked our interest.”
Boyd said he’s tried to make sure his children are politically engaged and socially conscious and the Marygrove school’s emphasis on social justice was a big selling point.
Kennedy Boyd, 14, agreed.
“Engineering isn’t just about computer science, it’s about solving issues,” said Kennedy, who plans a career as an environmental attorney. “That goes hand-in-hand with social justice.”
Other things about the school attracted Kennedy as well, including the proximity. Roeper was a 30-minute commute. The 9 a.m. start time sounds good, too, she said.
“I like it because it means I can get more sleep,” she said.
Caleb plans to be a journalist and said he was curious to learn how the curriculum would balance engineering and social justice.
“We went to U-M on the engineering tour and it was more apparent how those two go together,” he said.
Neither of the twins knows any of their future classmates yet, but they said they aren’t intimidated by meeting new friends.
Caleb said he applied to Cass and Renaissance as well, but he liked the scale of Marygrove. It is similar to the experience he had at Roeper and he thought that would make the transition to high school a better one.
“It’s kind of ideal for me,” he said.
‘We can be worked with’
As important as the new school is for the students, it’s also a major step forward for the district as well, Vitti said.
The partnership with U-M and the massive commitment from the Kresge Foundation show that the district is regaining credibility in the community after years of state oversight, student flight and school closings, Vitti said.
“When they came to us and said, ‘We want this to be a traditional public school,’ that seemed to send a strong message throughout the philanthropic community and even the business community,” Vitti told the Free Press. “Most people were whispering in their ear, ‘If you want to do this, do it with a charter school. If you want to do this, do it with a private school.’
“This is important because it signals that we can be worked with,” Vitti said. “There are a lot of people that avoided working with the district and they would go to individual schools because of relationships with principals.”
Vitti said the district’s effort beginning last year to equip all schools with hydration stations, which provide filtered drinking water for students, raised more than $2.4 million in private funds in a matter of weeks.
“I think the water hydration stations is an example that happened after the Kresge situation,” Vitti said.