Imani Day, Gensler
Detroit public schools have been troubled for some time. Between massive depopulation, bankruptcy, and controversial policy about school choice, the degeneration of the city’s educational system was all but inevitable. Each of these challenges compounded the decline in state and federal funding for public school education. As the city of Detroit begins the long journey to resolve these complex concerns, instigative design and physical repair can be powerful tools to address the system’s problems. However, it will take a truly diverse team of activists to shift negative attitudes toward traditional public school environments.
Detroit is a city founded on the spirit of entrepreneurship and cultural innovation. From an automobile industry that mobilized the world to the birth of Motown and Techno, Detroit’s innovations have historically set cultural metronomes for people all over the world. We are now witnessing that innovation fuel the restructuring of the antiquated public school system. New educational perspectives and methodologies seek to teach young, bright students the value of their ideas, not only to their city, but also to the world.
Randolph Career Tech Center is a public vocational school that suffered for years from the economic downturn. It was built in the 1980s as a technology career program, but when the school failed to attract the number of students it needed to be viable, a traditional high school component was added in hopes of attracting more students. In 2016, enrollment hit a low of 167 (with 92 traditional high school students) in a facility built to serve 600 students. The facility was in desperate need of attention and repair, and the various curricula were not nearly as robust as they needed to be.
In late 2017, with revamped programs in plumbing and pipefitting, masonry, carpentry, HVAC, electrical, marketing, agricultural science and environmental technology, and computer-aided design, enrollment is at an all-time high of 310 students. That number will likely double as the school adds an adult night school for community members to learn skilled trades. In a city where nearly 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, these core skills are critical to empowering workers to earn livable wages, providing incomes high enough to lift families securely out of poverty, and put Detroit on the path to an educational comeback.
Fiscal pressures and a low population caused Detroit to hit a construction low in the ’90s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Many architects, skilled contractors, and builders left the city (and the industry) in search of steady work. Recently, however, construction has increased, resulting in a gap between the supply and demand of skilled labor. Therefore, it is imperative that the city strengthen its career and technical education centers to replenish the supply of skilled workers to the construction unions and companies.
The city’s workforce development team has invested in the facilities and programs that will train this next generation of trade professionals. In the fall of 2016, Gensler began its partnership with Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (DESC), DTE Energy, and Barton Malow to reimagine the future of vocational education in Detroit. Careers in construction are some of the most lucrative for young people in Detroit; many trained professionals go on to start their own companies.
The redesign of Randolph inspires pride within the youth of the city and creates a learning environment to stimulate and motivate this entrepreneurial spirit. The changes incorporate evidence showing that physical environments in which students learn can either optimize or derail their odds of academic achievement and lifelong success. Through a complete rebranding of school graphics to reflect a technical focus, Randolph will communicate itself as a credible educational resource in the construction community. In an effort to increase school pride and enrollment, vibrant environmental graphics were introduced in the central communal areas to reinforce the raised levels of expectation and encouragement for students to not only graduate, but to continue their careers through the program’s job placement initiatives and apprenticeships. In each room, specific trade logos adjacent to the entry indicate individual programs, their respective importance, and the school’s pride in the city’s revitalized built environment.
As the school continues to grow, the need for a central hub where the entire student body can assemble is increasingly apparent. By combining two classrooms, the “heart” of the school functions as an open, multi-purpose room for lunch periods, assemblies, and workshops. Decades ago, students painted murals of piping and tools around the school to convey the technical focus; today, Gensler reveals the technical nature of the trades in a more literal sense. By exposing ductwork and conduits in the corridors and entryways, students see their education directly reflected in their learning spaces. New lighting strategies brighten the space and highlight the newly exposed systems and branding. Local metal workers, graphic designers, and community members used raw materials and equipment to embody the technical focus. Licensed contractors and volunteer union workers, many of whom were Randolph graduates, helped to actualize the vision for the future of the school.
Randolph’s full revitalization was realized through $10,000,000 in raised funds and in-kind donations of time, design, labor, and materials. Several companies and aligned groups have come together to maximize the school’s full potential. Design is a mode of problem solving; in the case of Randolph, disrepair has played a significant role in fostering creativity and enthusiasm around a learning space. Through the intentional collaboration of policy, design, and advocacy, we can utilize the public school systems to support and empower Detroit’s next generation of leaders.
Imani Day is a designer with Gensler and an adjunct professor of design at the University of Detroit Mercy. She is also an editorial fellow with the Avery Review. Passionate about educational spaces and cultural work, Day moved to Detroit in 2015 to focus on community-oriented design projects.