Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lessons from a Detroit Carcass

Detroit Southwestern High School, 1969; 
Yale 1973; Univ. of Michigan
School of Medicine - Neurosurgery 1977
The PHOTO ESSAY version of this content can be found by clicking HERE.

How Neglect Can Teach Detroit about Investing in Children

In a perverse way it is fitting to examine the remains of a high school whose mascot was a Prospector and whose most famous graduate is running for President of the United States. After all, prospectors explore in the name of advancement as evidenced by Detroit Southwestern graduate and presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson.

My expedition of the lifeless corpse reveals a different reality - one about about unforgivable failure and the absence of optimism that we expect schools to nurture.

The photographs of Detroit Southwestern High School included below were taken this summer, three years after the school closed. The school fell prey to scrappers around the same time the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. Once the heart of the neighborhood, Detroit Southwestern High School became a two-story symbol of failure in a broken city.

The sign in front of the shell that was Detroit Southwestern High School 
reminds me of Chernobyl - frozen in time. It reads, "Good Attendance 
Equals Good Grades"  How about no attendance? What does that equal?
The filthy soot of abandonment and the feculence of neglect cover the campus. Beyond the broken glass and empty door frames there are relics of life - grade scales on the wall, motivational posters about teamwork and notebooks with messy scribbling. Empty lockers and leaves dancing to the wind whistling through the hallways where boys and girls used to laugh made me feel hollow.

Detroit's 139-square miles includes more than 140 schools 
that have closed in the last decade. 
All over Detroit dozens of abandoned schools are windowless tombstones casting shadows that reach into the yards where Detroit kids imagine the future. When hopelessness claims chalk boards and school libraries, the community suffers. When a demoralizing sense of desperation takes root in children, the causalities are measured in lost opportunities and crime rates.
Kids on a playground in Detroit. Scrappers stole the swing-set chains.

Inside the schools that remain open, inadequate health and safety standards are a constant reminder to Detroit students that education has little value and their school may be left for dead, just like the others. The media-hyped comeback for the Motor City should also include a realistic accounting for the despair of Detroit children who have been suffering for too long. Thankfully DPS teachers are fighting for social justice and drawing national attention to this crisis.

Imagine the anguish for children who are tempted by messages that they are expendable. This week Ellen DeGeneres generously stepped up to help Spain Elementary School in Detroit with a half million dollar donation. She demonstrated that she understands Detroit children are important. Her actions deserve praise and I am hopeful it is a call to action for others to be heard in the political process. We need to speak out and encourage solutions for the hundreds of Detroit children who are being cast aside and deprived of a quality education.

If we fail to stand up to the injustice, more schools will become soulless shells serving as harbingers of a failed social contract.
Vandalized schools remind children that neglect is normal and abandonment is part of their fate. When the stench of failure hangs in the air, children facing tough odds do not care about assurances from politicians. They deserve action, not well wishes and comments about who deserves the blame.

In too many Detroit classrooms where ambition is supposed to meet academics, a revolving door of substitute teachers and high classroom sizes leads to lost opportunities.

A lack of educational resources and incomprehensibly poor special education services tells Detroit students that they are not worthy. School is merely another stop in a long line of confusing set-backs.

Meager access to twenty-first century technology hurts Detroit children. Students are at a disadvantage when educational needs become an afterthought because the priorities demand we tackle health and safety issues first.

Rodents, broken windows, mold, heating and cooling issues and unsafe playgrounds are proof to Detroit children that their needs have been forgotten by elected leaders. Worse yet, student success goes in the loss column when appointed officials balance budgets by trimming the "excess" - things like academic materials, improved technology, additional highly qualified teachers and adequate pay for professional educators.

Sure, a resilient plant can grow out of the hood of a car, 
but why should it have to?    
Hundreds of dedicated DPS teachers have joined community leaders and families as the last line of defense in the battle for Detroit's future as elected and appointed officials have shamefully failed to solve countless problems. These courageous Detroit teachers deserve credit for drawing national attention to government failure. 

The determination of Detroit teachers confronting injustice inspires people throughout Michigan. Beyond the professional contributions Detroit teachers have made to enrich lives, they have demonstrated that their collective call for action is born out of warranted concern. Their critics may frame their cries for help as an inconvenience, but DPS teachers refuse to back down in their effort to serve others.

Let me be clear that the photographs offered here represent failure on many levels but they do not represent the deplorable conditions within currently operating DPS schools. By examining photographs of Detroit Southwestern High School, a school that that was bustling with students for more than seven decades, we can gain insight to the education crisis facing Detroit. I hope my photography will help you see what is at stake for Detroit.

Improving Detroit schools and standing up for the children in our largest city is vital to the future of Michigan. The politics of choosing sides needs to be replaced with the politics of urgency and compassion. 

The discourse about how quality schools fit into our communities needs to include solutions regarding the massive educational inequity we see across Michigan. The conversation about making education a priority for Michigan in the future begins by working together to fix Detroit today.

Detroit is much more than a collection of photographs or front-page stories about lost hope or revitalization. The conflicting narratives are a reflection of the complexity of the Motor City. In order for Michigan to thrive, we must value education with action, not just political talking points.

My aim is not to tell you who or what Detroit is or can be, but to invite you into a conversation about the role education will play in the future of Michigan. In light of the Flint water crisis and the dreadful state of too many Michigan school districts, we need to work together to heal our state.

"Seek Knowledge. Think College." 
As if it is really that simple...  
From the dirt roads across rural Michigan to urban neighborhoods and every suburb and town in between, Michigan children deserve advocates who will invest in their future. Our leaders need to gain trust by putting children first and reaching out to people who suffer in silence. Detroit Public School teachers have provided all of us with a blueprint for that advocacy.

Turn down the volume on the noisy politics out of Lansing so you can hear the cries of Detroit children who deserve the promise of opportunity.

Detroit Southwestern High School

Home of the Prospectors

Photography By Nick Gregory

Hard fall, Detroit Southwestern High School
4 the kids, Detroit Southwestern High School
Im dead, Detroit Southwestern High School
Detroit vs You, Detroit Southwestern High School
Passing time, Detroit Southwestern High School
When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, Detroit Southwestern High School
Ghost, Detroit Southwestern High School
Auditorium, Detroit Southwestern High School
Class dismissed, Detroit Southwestern High School
No Excuses, Detroit Southwestern High School
We are what we repeatedly do ... Jalen Rose, NBA star.
Detroit Southwestern High School Class of 1991
Monday Notes: For we are all equally human, 
Detroit Southwestern High School
Schools out, Detroit Southwestern High School
Success, Detroit Southwestern High School
Detention, Detroit Southwestern High School
Lost and found -
The caged bird sings at Detroit Southwestern High School
Authors Note: If you like photography, check out this Pulitzer Prize winning photo essay by Manny Crisostomo set at Detroit Southwestern High School in 1988. Schools are the lifeline of our communities and his incredible work honors that fact.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. Gregory is a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.


  1. Very interesting indeed and I would hope many would read and encourage parents to Rise Up and fight for their children's education!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment and look over my work. I appreciate it.