Around 30 community members, led by state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), blocked traffic on Fort Street at a rally Tuesday evening in front of Southwestern High School, staging a sit-down to protest its scheduled closing.
The recent decision by Detroit Public Schools to keep operating southwest Detroit's Maybury Elementary School has emboldened parents and community members working to prevent the closing of the nearby Southwestern High.
"This is about bringing attention to an injustice," said Tlaib, herself a graduate of Southwestern, who called for the rally.
Police were on the scene when Tlaib sat down in front of traffic at 5:30 p.m. after giving a short speech to the gathering. Police cruisers were already parked in the center lane from an earlier effort to prevent members of the crowd from marching across the road. The crowd finally responded to police requests to return to the sidewalk after about 10 minutes of blocking traffic.
"I wouldn't do this if this was a school that wasn't working -- a school that wasn't graduating our kids," Tlaib told The Huffington Post, noting only eight students had failed to graduate during the previous year.
She also wondered how the district would accommodate future high school students.
"Forty percent of the population [of Southwest Detroit] are children, 18 and under," she said. "We're building K-8 schools all over the district right now. What high school are they going to [go to]?"
Southwestern is one of five high schools DPS plans to close next year as the district continues to cut costs and respond to shrinking enrollment. The district says it is closing Southwestern due to low enrollment.
"Southwestern High School has lost over 27 percent of its enrollment since 2009 and is expected to lose 31 percent over the next five years," said DPS spokeswoman Jennifer Mrozowski in an email. "The 583 students at Southwestern can be accommodated at Western International (800 empty seats) or Northwestern (1,000 empty seats)."
Mrozowski said the district believes it can handle stable or increasing demographics in southwest Detroit, but said the depopulation of other areas of the city has forced the district to make tough decisions.
"Rather than continue to support buildings that are far under-utilized, we will close, consolidate and merge schools, allowing us to drive additional resources to a smaller group of higher-quality facilities and to our students in those buildings," she said.
Mrozowski also noted that Southwestern appeared on the Michigan Department of Education's 2011 Persistently Low Achieving (lowest 5 percent) list for academic performance and was eligible for closure by the state or for transfer to the state's new Educational Achievement Authority district for low-performing schools.
Cheryl Elum heads Southwestern's Local School and Community Organization, a parent-teacher group, and has a 17-year-old son attending Southwestern. She doesn't think the district or its state-appointed emergency manager are being straightforward about motivations for closing the school.
Tuesday's protest was not the first action to keep the high school open. In April, students from Southwestern and nearby Western International High School walked out of class, demanding the former school be kept open. Community members who successfully fought to keep Maybury Elementary open have also participated in joint rallies with those supporting Southwestern.
Tlaib said the example parents set in saving Maybury inspired her to put a call out for the Tuesday rally. She said she is pushing to keep Southwestern open so that other young people in the neighborhood have an opportunity to become state representatives.
"Amazing people have come out this school: [neurosurgeon] Dr. Ben Carson, Jalen Rose, who is now an ESPN correspondent," she said. "They have done a phenomenal job in educating our youth here and they need to keep it open."
Rose, who went on to become a college basketball and NBA star after his time at Southwestern, awards a scholarship to a Southwestern High School student each year and recently paid to re-do the school's basketball court. Rose also runs a charter high school in Detroit.