Image: School closing
Fabrizio Costantini  /  for msnbc.com
After a petition drive failed to save her school from closure, RaShanda Sherrer of Detroit will say goodbye to Cooley High, where two generations of her family were educated.
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msnbc.com
updated 4/1/2011 12:57:04 PM ET 2011-04-01T16:57:04

Cooley High School, Detroit’s third-largest public high school and a neighborhood institution since it opened one year before the start of the Great Depression, will close its doors this week, ending a family tradition for students like RaShanda Sherrer.

“This was our home, our family, our future," said RaShanda, a junior and A student. "Everyone in my family has graduated from Cooley. I'll be the first one in two generations to not graduate from there. It's part of my history. It’s not fair.”

After a petition drive failed to save her school from closure, RaShanda will say goodbye to friends at Cooley on Thursday, the school’s last day. Less than two weeks before the end of the school year, Detroit school officials announced a final list of closures in a plan to ease a budget crisis amid declining enrollment.

Cooley High, where RaShanda's family proudly carried the torch of Cardinals pride, is one of the city's oldest high schools and among 32 to be shut down by year's end; 13 more will close over the next two years.

"What you see in Detroit is a microcosm of what's happening in the country," said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "We thought to bail out our banks and the auto industry, but bailing out our schools? That stops at the front door."

School officials say Cooley High had to close. The building is crumbling, there aren't enough students to fill its classrooms, and it would cost too much to fix all of its problems.

Under a $1 billion, five-year plan — paid for in part by federal stimulus money — the Detroit district will renovate many schools, consolidate some and eliminate others. But Domenech said schools like Detroit's and others across the nation also need more funding to keep teachers employed.

"It's been chaos," said Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. "No one likes to see a school close because all these schools are anchors in a community. But difficult decisions needed to be made."

Video: Wave of Detroit schools to close for good It’s another blow to a city mired in financial difficulties and despair. Economic collapse has made the city one of the poorest and most dangerous in the U.S. A third of the city is vacant.

"We've been in crisis and hardship for quite a while," said Kimberly Kyff, a teacher at Jamieson Elementary School on Detroit's eastside.

Not only is Kyff's school closing this year, but the 2007 Michigan Teacher of the Year and 14-year veteran has been laid off.

"You always hope it will get better," Kyff said. "But you also wait for the other shoe to drop. It's been a constant struggle."

Other cities also face hard decisions
School districts nationwide have become hard-pressed to meet budgets. Cleveland has ordered 16 schools closed and Kansas City will close 26 of its 61 schools.

Nationwide, 275,000 education jobs were lost this year, Domenech said. In Detroit, 1,983 teachers have received pink slips, Johnson said.

More doors will close in the Detroit School District, which has 90,000 students. Initially, the city’s emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, had proposed closing 44 schools out of 172. After public objections, Bobb spared 11 schools.

RaShanda headed a petition drive to save Cooley and collected 375 signatures, though she knew it wouldn't be enough.

"You know the old saying that you never realize what you had until it was gone? Well, it’s true," the 16-year-old said. "Our school is beautiful. Our teachers are wonderful. Cooley students are great and they do care. Now, it’s all over."

At Jamieson, home to 453 pupils in an area plagued by drugs and violence, Kyff is determined to keep the last day of school cheery for her second-graders.

"We will have a fun day," Kyff said.

Last week, children spent hours working up performances and skits for the end of the year. They painted rainbows and wrote poems. And they helped pull weeds in the courtyard, even though the plot will soon be untended.

"You don’t know if you want to make a big deal out of the last day, because there is still summer school," Kyff said. "You don’t want to stress out the children too much, but we are shutting down."

When one boy learned Jamieson will close, he rushed to Kyff's side. "He hugged and hugged me and asked, 'Who is going to love me now? Who is going to take care of me?’” she said. "Our students are sad. Our parents are sad. I am sad."

Kyff said parents have streamed into her class since the final list of school closings was announced June 7.

"They don't know what to do," Kyff said. "One child said his mom was going to look up a new school from the phone book. Another wanted to know where I was going.”

RaShanda's last day
At Cooley, RaShanda will focus on friends and teachers.

Some classmates will transfer to other high schools and others will enroll in charter schools. Many teachers will call it quits.

RaShanda says she'll collect their names, numbers and e-mails, and take photos of those who helped her. An athlete who stands 6-foot-1, she’ll huddle with teammates on the softball and volleyball teams.

Caroline Lipscomb, RaShanda’s ninth-grade math teacher, stayed after class for two months to help her learn graphing functions and simplifying polynomials. She's been a strong math student ever since.

"We sat down after school and had a conversation," RaShanda recalled. "She told me not to get down about it, the fact that I was having trouble in math. She said there's nothing we couldn't get through. That lifted my spirits. At that moment, I knew I belonged to Cooley."

Anchored at Hubbell and Chalfonte streets, the three-story Mediterranean Revival-style school was built in 1928 to serve Detroit's burgeoning northwest side. Once, more than 3,000 students were enrolled. Today, there are 1,032.

“It was a fine neighborhood," said RaShanda's mother, Teresa Sherrer, who graduated from Cooley in 1984. "Most people have lived in the same homes for decades. I've lived in mine for 44 years. People lived, worked and went to school in the same neighborhoods. Looks like that is changing."

Sherrer will tackle another challenge and help her daughter find the right school for her senior year.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us this summer," she said. "We will move on, and RaShanda will too."

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