Cooley High School

In the 1920’s, Detroit’s public school system was growing at an unprecedented rate. While downtown had a long history of higher education, starting with Cass Technical High School, options in the suburban parts of the city were more limited. On the northwest side of the city, Burns Elementary School served as a partial high school, with 350 students enrolled in 9th and 10th grade studies in 1926. To relieve overcrowding, and to provide 11th and 12th grades locally, the board of education began planning for a three-story high school at the corner of Fenkell and Hubbell Avenues.

Even as the school was under construction in 1927, the district realized that enrollment would far outstrip the designed capacity of 1,500 students, and additional units were planned. The first unit of Thomas M. Cooley High School was completed and opened in September of 1928 a cost of $753,270.

The school was an architectural masterpiece, designed by the firm of Donaldson & Meier in the Spanish Baroque style with orange Flemish-bond brick and ornamental terracotta features. Cooley’s floor plan, which followed an E-shape that put the classrooms in outer wings that connected to a central core that housed the auditorium, library, offices, and athletic facilities was duplicated in other high schools built throughout the city. Thomas M. Cooley, the school’s namesake, had been chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court Justice from 1864 to 1885.

The first addition to the school was a 1,000-seat auditorium in 1930, followed by a gymnasium and pool in 1931. Enrollment quickly grew to over 3,400 students, making it one of the biggest high schools in the city.

In 1961, the demographic makeup of 40 schools in northwest Detroit around Cooley was less than 1% black, largely a result of attendance boundaries that had been drawn to exclude black neighborhoods. But by 1968, black enrollment in the Cooley constellation had risen to 52% and court-mandated integration was rolled out across the district. The school board re-drew Cooley’s attendance boundaries to decrease segregation in 1967, and overnight the previously majority white school became mixed – half black, half white.

The shifting demographics of Detroit and the social changes that came with it were felt most strongly in the public school system. A 1969 article in The Detroit Free Press titled “Inside Story of Strife at Cooley” interviewed students about a series of racial fights that had broken out at the start of the school year. "'When the black students came to Cooley about five years ago, the whites used to gang up on them and the blacks couldn't fight back,' says a young black girl. 'Now they can fight back and they're not taking the stuff they used to. Nobody complained when it was the blacks getting whipped, but when it's the whites the problems start,' she said.” On the other hand, white students say the blacks are 'trying to take over the school.' 'We finally decided to fight back,' said one white youth.”

The article painted a bleak picture of student life at Cooley, where resources were stretched thin and disputes between parents and administrators bled into the lives of students. It was the start of “white flight,” where an economically empowered and socially mobile black middle class left the inner city for neighborhoods that until a few years’ prior had been closed off to them. White families, fearing integration began leaving for the suburbs in droves, leading to a decrease in enrollment.

"Integration lasts from the time the first black family moves in until the last white family moves out," a black mother told The Free Press. "When the last white goes, and they will probably go, Cooley's standards will start to drop and our kids won't learn anything. When that happens, there won't be any place for us to run," she said. "We have to make it here in Detroit. There are no nice suburbs we can take our kids to."

She turned out to be half-right. White families did leave the area in droves, and by 1980 enrollment mirrored 1964 – 94% black, and 6% white. Cooley continued to struggle with racial issues, leading to sit-ins by students in 1971 to protest disciplinary policies. But in 1973, Principal Walter Jenkins, a graduate of Miller High School and former defensive end for the Detroit Lions football team took over and began steering the school in a different direction.

"We're not on a Ford assembly line, we're dealing with human beings," Jenkins told The Detroit Free Press in April of 1980. "Our business is that the students are here to learn, and our job is to teach them. But we couldn't even begin to move if we had anarchy in the building."

Under Jenkins the school focused on improving discipline and academic programs, hiring new teachers that were invested in reaching students from different backgrounds. The construction of the Delbert E. Roberts vocational wing in 1972 reduced overcrowding. Gangs were pushed out, and test scores improved through the early 1980’s. The school was considered one of the best in the city, a safe learning environment in a school district that was leaving behind many students.

By the 1980’s though, Detroit Public Schools was in the midst of a downward trend that would eventually lead to the state taking over on two different occasions. Cooley was one of the largest high schools in the State of Michigan, with over 3,400 students in 1983. In 1989, that number had fallen to 2,500, and by 1997 it was 1,400. The closure of nearby Redford High School in 2007, which sent some students to Cooley briefly slowed declining enrollment, but by 2010 it was expected that enrollment would drop below 1,000 students.

Though the school was losing students, the district was investing money into the increasingly empty building. The auditorium was renovated in 2004, the towers restored in 2006, and the roof was replaced as part of $12.8 million dollars in improvements. A health clinic was added, and the vocational wing was converted into a special needs school.

In 2010, DPS announced that it would be closing 42 schools due to low enrollment and high maintenance costs. Cooley High School was on the list. Despite renovations just a few years’ prior, the 83-year od school had significant maintenance problems. Enrollment was barely 1,000 students in a building designed for 3,400. Over the protests of students and alumni, who offered to revamp the school, Cooley was closed in June of 2010.

Cooley High’s post-closure story differs from other cases in Detroit. Though the neighborhood around the school had lost some population, it remained active and watched over the school closely. The running track and athletic fields continued to be used regularly, and for several years the school was well-secured.

In 2012, Nicole Pitts and her husband LaMar Williams got lost on the way to work and stumbled across the school. Williams, a native Detroiter had watched as his former high school, Mackenzie (which opened the same year as Cooley), was closed and later demolished. Pitts has a background in historic preservation, and together they decided to try and save Cooley.

The Cooley Reuse Project spent the next five years building up support for an ambitious redevelopment program that would convert the school into use for apartments, co-working, mental health, and community services. They raised money and enlisted the help of foundations and companies to develop a plan that would benefit the community while saving the building.

Raising money and finding investors took time, however. Detroit Public Schools was an unreliable seller, slowing the process despite a fundamentally strong proposal. As the years ticked by and DPS held out for a better offer, the elements worked their way into the building. Paint began flaking the walls off in large sheets. Water began to pool on the new roof, and without routine maintenance, leaked through to the rooms below. Despite cameras and boards, scrappers slowly made inroads on the building’s electrical system, and whole parts of the building started to go dark. Police made arrests but the district was watching over 70 vacant school buildings. Things began to fall apart.

Over the winter of 2016 and the summer of 2017, the building declined significantly. Vandalism became a serious problem, with graffiti appearing on the walls inside and out. Scrappers began to gut the classrooms. Despite the setbacks, the Cooley Reuse Project continue to push forward, raising money through crowdfunding and finally securing a purchase agreement. But in August of 2017, school officials told Pitts that the school was no longer for sale, and would be redeveloped by the district instead. The building was now fully open to trespass, and was being scrapped on a daily basis.

On the morning of September 29th, 2017, the Detroit Fire Department was called to Cooley High for a reported fire. Arriving companies found the auditorium fully engulfed in flames, and quickly called for a second and then a third alarm. After several hours they brought the blaze under control, but the damage had been done: much of the auditorium had been destroyed by the fire, which had burned all of the seats down to their metal frames. Firefighters kept the fire from spreading to other parts of the building, limiting it to just the auditorium. Chilling photos posted on social media showed row after row of chairs going up in flames.

While the fire did not appear to compromise the structural integrity of the building, it has dealt a major setback to any redevelopment.