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Detroit School Repair Program:
A Model for Others


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A marathon ten-week summertime effort resulted in some major improvements to Detroit's public schools. But the effort could not have succeeded without the cooperation and involvement of the city's business community. Organizations from Northwest Airlines to the Detroit Pistons provided personnel to see the program through in this renovation blitz that could serve as a model for other cities and towns large and small.

What do you get ten weeks later when you mix top executives from the public and private sectors, 19 contractors, and 102,000 gallons of paint?

A facelift for Detroit's 263 public schools!

The summer of 1999 will long be remembered as the summer of a marathon fix-up program that targeted the most unsightly problems in all of Detroit's public schools. During the summer, 7,000 classrooms were painted; 10,000 sinks, toilets, and urinals were replaced or repaired; 2,000 broken windows were fixed; and more than 75 roofs were patched.

"Once contractors got into the schools and they realized they could make a difference -- particularly for the young people and the teachers -- the industry got turned on. It's been exciting to watch."

--Don Shabilo,
Barton-Malow Company

Detroit's schools were in sorry shape -- and no one knew that better than David Adamany, the schools' interim CEO. Late last May, Adamany appointed Wayne County Executive Mike Duggan to head a massive school renovation campaign. Everybody involved -- including Duggan -- knew the task would be an uphill struggle.

"I had a good sense of how bad things were," Duggan told Education World. The schools were in deplorable shape, and the school system lacked the [personnel] to get the job done. In addition, no one believed that Duggan could persuade contractors -- busy in the midst of a building boom in the city and leery of getting involved with the school bureaucracy -- to drop what they were doing and join this last-minute effort.

"Voters approved a bond of $1.5 billion in 1994, but when I started here in the middle of May only $35 million of that had actually been spent," recalled Duggan. "So it wasn't that the money had been misused. The money hadn't been spent at all, largely because of the Detroit Public Schools' bureaucracy, which basically defies you to get things done."In spite of the lateness of the hour, Duggan sensed that he knew the community -- including the contractors and the business community -- and that this massive fix-up program could succeed.

And, one quick step after another, it did!


Long known as a hands-on leader, Duggan began the massive effort by pulling together a team of local leaders known for their abilities to get things done. Signing on to the effort was

  • Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, Jr. An airport security expert, developer, and local attorney, Hollowell helped plan the best way to pay for repairs. In addition, he put together one of the key pieces of the effort -- the Adopt-a-School Program.

  • Jim Greenwald. A vice president with Northwest Airlines, Greenwald is responsible for all NWA's building projects around the world. Prior to joining Northwest, Greenwald built "hundreds of hotels" as an executive with Marriott Corporation. "He knows how to get a big job done well," said Duggan.

  • Wayne Doran. The chairman of Ford Motor Land Development Company, Doran had seen through such projects as Detroit's riverfront Renaissance Center. His extensive contacts in the local construction industry would prove vital to the success of the program.

  • Dan Kleber. Director of operations at Detroit Metro, Kleber oversees many of the airport's security systems. He would serve as a security consultant, studying the schools' security systems and making recommendations.

In addition, executives signed on from Barton-Malow Company, Michigan's largest general contractor, and from Dumas Construction Services. Among other elements of the program, they helped manage the bidding process.

But putting together a top-notch team of community volunteers to lead the effort was just the first step. Much more community and business involvement would be required if this major repair endeavor was to succeed.


Northwest Airlines was among the first local corporations to join in the huge school repair effort. In addition to Greenwald's commitment, Company officials donated the time of NWA employees to track repairs at five Detroit schools. Those NWA employees were Duggan's "eyes and ears," checking in with contractors at least once each day and faxing daily reports of progress and obstacles to Hollowell.

Once Northwest and a few others had signed on, Hollowell and Duggan took their plea to the community. And the response was nothing short of tremendous! Companies and community members signed on by the dozens. Among the companies were automakers Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler. Compuware Corporation signed on too. The Detroit Pistons adopted two schools. The staff of the Univeristy of Detroit's Jesuit High School took on a nearby elementary school. Michigan Governor John Engler's staff adopted a high school and Mayor Dennis Archer's staff agreed to keep tabs on an elementary school. The Detroit City Council adopted a high school. The state's two senators, the secretary of state, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and the Detroit Free Press embraced schools. Churches, block clubs, and neighborhood organizations joined in the effort too. In all, 178 "sponsors" signed on.

"Some sponsors had special attachments to certain schools," Hollowell told the Detroit Free Press. "Their eyes lit up when they talked about going back to where they went to school."


Of course, the whole program would have fallen apart if Duggan and his team hadn't been able to persuade contractors to participate in it. To encourage participation, procedures were streamlined and bonuses were established for work completed on time. In the end, 19 contractors joined in the effort.

Many contractors joined in once they went out and saw the schools, said J. L. Dumas of Dumas Construction Services. "Many of them came from the school system, and they were very disappointed in the [condition] the schools were in."

"I saw an opportunity to put something back into the community," said Ed Bailey of E. L. Bailey Company. "These contractors live in or around the city of Detroit," said Bailey of the team of 19 contractors who tackled the monumental task. "They have kids going to these particular schools, and I think that they wanted to see something happen."

Bailey joined with his brother Clark's construction firm to tackle the Westside constellation of schools, which included Mackenzie High School. (Schools in Detroit are organized by "constellations." Each constellation includes a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools.) IBM was the corporate sponsor at Mackenzie High School, and the company's Lenora Hayes was in the school almost every day in her capacity as its sponsor. "The contractors we were working with [were] always very pleasant, very informative in terms of the things that were being done," said Hayes. "They've even gone the extra mile, saying 'We'll try to take care of this [too].'"


What could have been a major issue in the fix-up program became one of its biggest assets. The city's building trades staff served as the "contractor" for schools in the constellation on the northwest side. Those schools included Bow Elementary School, where the principal, Dr. Harden Graves, describes the results as "outstanding." Graves had known many of the building trades staff for years and was eager to give an opportunity to "old friends to come back into the buildings to do the repairs they've always wanted to do."

"I feel a sense of pride because I remember walking in these hallways when I was a little kid and Dr. Graves was my principal," said DPS building trades worker Charles Hammons. "I feel pride in being able to give back to the community that helped me get where I am right now."

Joining workers at Bow and other schools were about 100 students from the city's building trades or computer-aided drafting school programs. Among the students was Brian Lewis, a recent graduate of the city's Randolph Vocational Trades Center. "I was thrilled to be working in construction, to get to do some of my trade and to learn about other trades," said Lewis, who worked on repairs at Mackenzie High.

"They did a great job," added Dumas. "It was a great learning experience for them."


Much more work remains in Detroit's schools. This summer's program was just the first phase. And, for the most part, the program went off without a hitch. As with any large-scale program such as this, a few problems arose, but they were all cleared up by the time schools opened their doors, said Duggan.

"I've talked to a lot of kids in the course of this summer who are in the schools, and they can't believe that they are important enough that these hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers did this work for them," said Duggan. "What this summer's repair program is saying to the kids in the community is 'You're important and we care.' ... And if we accomplished that, that's more important than anything else we did."

Related Articles from Education World

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 10/11/1999
Last updated 03/20/2009