This school demonstrates both the achievements and failures of public education in Detroit in this new millennium. Detroit’s public schools were traditionally administered by an elected school board, not by the city’s government. Enrollment in those public schools reached a peak of 300,000 students in 1966 as “Baby Boom” children studied their lessons. But the population of Detroit dropped sharply, the birth rate plummeted, and after about 1995, charter schools began to enroll a substantial fraction of Detroit children. By 2015, enrollment in Detroit’s public schools had fallen to 44,000—a decline of 85 percent in fifty years.
By the late 1990s, there was much consensus that the public schools in Detroit were not doing an acceptable job of educating children and that controls on finances were weak, to say the least. As a result, the state of Michigan stepped in, took over Detroit’s public schools and made the elected school board a sine cure group. Of course, Detroit residents protested since the principle of local control of local education is widely upheld in this nation. And Detroit property owners continued to pay their substantial property taxes to support a school system over which they had no authority.
In 2008, the state of Michigan agreed to return control of Detroit’s public schools to the elected school board. That did not work out very satisfactorily. The tests scores of Detroit Public School students remained very low and there were widely held beliefs that controls on financial expenditures were weak and insufficient. In 2011, the state of Michigan once again appointed an Emergency Manager to run the schools, and once again, sent the elected school board went to the sidelines with nothing to do.
Most people believe that state control of Detroit’s schools has been disastrous. Not only did state administrators greatly run up the debt of the schools, test scores did not improve. Despite those dismal outcomes from state control of the city’s schools, there were some highlights.
Dr. Clara Smith was appointed principal of this school in 2010 when the state ran the system. In an effort to improve the school she was given a great deal of control over how the school would operate and who would teach there. This appears to be an attempt to minimize suffocating bureaucratic procedures. Apparently, the strong efforts of Dr. Smith paid off. The Mackinac Center is a policy institute in Michigan that frequently condemns government-run institutions, particularly the public schools. I think it is accurate to see them as strongly supportive of the effects to create state-funded charter schools in Michigan as an alternative to public schools.
In 2013, they published a long essay in their magazine greatly praising Thirkell School and Dr. Smith. Ninety percent or more of the students enrolled at Thirkell came from low-income families yet their tests scores on the Michigan Education Assessment Program were above the state average. A Mackinac Center analysis looked at student test scores and then took into account the socioeconomic status of the children. They found that Thirkell was among the highest performing schools in the state. They attributed this to the herculean efforts of Dr. Smith and pointed out that Thirkell and a few other Detroit schools could achieve a great deal if talented principals were given the opportunity to really administer their own schools.
In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out a study of expenditures by the state-run Detroit Public School system. They knew that individual principals had a great deal of discretion in how they spent monies to buy supplies and equipment for their schools. They identified a suburban vendor who charged the Detroit Public Schools about five million dollars over nine years but, apparently, delivered only $2.7 million of goods. He had worked out an arrangement with principals whereby they would order goods from him, he would deliver much less than ordered and then split the difference as a cash payoff to the principal. Twelve principals and one assistant principal were indicted on these corruption charges.
Dr. Clara Smith was accused of taking $194,000 in bribes. She originally argued that she had invested these monies in resources for Thirkell school and her students and claimed to have receipts showing that was the case. She eventually produced receipts showing that she spent $40,000 of the $194,000. She was convicted and sentenced to two years in a federal penitentiary for her felonious misdeeds. Thirkell now has an acting principal. I do not know if Dr. Smith will be eligible to return to this school in 2019 or so.
Alas, I do not know which architect designed this impressive building or exactly when it was built. In 2016, the enrollment of 650 young students included 635 African-Americans, 7 Hispanics, 4 Asians and 4 whites. The large catchment area for this school includes part of Detroit’s North End neighborhood, the Virginia Park Historic District and the LaSalle Gardens neighborhood. As gentrification occurs in those residential areas near Midtown Detroit, I wonder if the composition of the student body will change.
Each year the state of Michigan identifies those schools whose average students' test scores ranked among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the entire state. If a schools falls into that group for several years, the local school board is encouraged to close it and send the students to nearby schools whose students have higher test score or make some other fundamental shift. In January, 2017; the state identified 38 schools in Detroit where the tests scores were so very low that the school "should be" close. Thirkell was on that list so it may be closed in June, 2017.
Architect: Unknown to me
Date of Construction: Probably late 1920s
Use in 2016: Detroit Public School
Mackinac Center Report on Thirkell School: https://www.mackinac.org/19136
Website for Thirkell School: http://detroitk12.org/schools/thirkell/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 11, 2016
Description Prepared: December, 2016
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