02/14/2012 11:01 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2012

Handled Sensitively, Good School Programs Have Moved, Grown, Successfully

In the half-week since Detroit Public Schools announced school changes for the 2012-13 academic year, some attention has centered on the plans to move achieving school programs, intact, into larger, better facilities, renaming the program at the new site after the successful school.

This fall, Ludington Magnet Middle School will move 2.4 miles west to the current Langston Hughes Academy building where there will continue to be both an application and neighborhood component to the enrollment, all under the Ludington framework. On the other side of town, Mason Elementary School, strongly supported by its community, will relocate about a dozen blocks east along E. Outer Drive to the current Farwell School, where Mason's successes will have an impact.

In these cases, the transitions will take careful planning, some of which is starting even today with parent leaders and organizers. Like any factor of change, it will not be necessarily easy. But in both cases, the school district is able to reduce its overcapacity in classroom seats and square footage, saving dollars for the classroom.

The moving, "lifting up and moving down the street," of strong school programs is one of the success stories of recent school closure and consolidation programs undertaken by DPS. Examples include Marcus Garvey Academy, Dixon Educational Learning Academy, John R King Academic and Performing Arts Academy, Burton International School, and Hutchinson at Howe.

I asked the principals who managed those successful moves about their strategies and lessons learned. These are indeed good lessons.

Principal Ora Beard oversaw a move of the respected Dixon School from a small brick building at Tireman and Auburn to the expansive Lessenger Middle School campus in the Summer of 2010. Enrollment is now approximately 750 students. This past Friday, she stated that establishing the right climate and culture are paramount. "When I received the news that we were merging with Lessenger, I knew I had to do something... I invited the Lessenger children to be a part of the summer program at the old Dixon School even though I knew we were moving into the old Lessenger School. I needed the children to bond as one moving to the new building... I met with both schools' parents to ensure the expectation that "ALL" children were part of the new plan. At the end of summer school I had a big family style barbecue outside of the old Dixon."

Principal Beard says that on September 6, 2010 when the school opened in the new building with an enrollment of 800 strong, "no one even mentions the old Dixon or Lessenger, we are a community of learners, the 'Dixon Educational Learning Academy."

James Hearn, this year's Coleman A. Young Foundation Educator of the Year Award recipient, moved his 266-student school into the former Butzel Middle School building, opening the new Garvey School on the first day of classes in the fall of 2009. Now 600 students are educated there.

He said at the time, "We had a clear plan and mission and vision and articulated that to parents and staff." Reflecting this past weekend, three years after the move, he said, "Once a relationship of trust is built and mutual respect shown consistently, a dramatic change in school culture will occur."

At JR King, a great little elementary school that moved into the old Cerveny Middle School, the school brought its curriculum along, worked with the district to make a number of bond-funded capital improvements, and today enrolls more than 1,000 students nearly requiring a wait list.

I grew up in the old Lessenger attendance boundary, and have lived for the past 26 years within blocks of old Butzel/new Garvey, and as a result have a pretty good sense of the conditions evident at the schools under their former construct. The former Cerveny's reputation was consistent with both schools. The three former middle schools were arguably among the worst schools here or anywhere in terms of preparing students for the 21st century and in terms of keeping them safe and secure at the present. The results of having moved a good school program to these sites have been remarkable, and credit is due the strong building leaders who carried it out. Parents at Mason and Ludington should have great hope that results will be equally as strong, if not more so given lessons learned, this time around.