Detroit Charter School Overcomes Start-Up Challenges to Find a Trajectory-Changing Facility of Its Own August 23, 2022

In a Nutshell

What: An overview of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School’s evolution from a startup charter school serving 30 K-4 students in a leased facility to an established entity in the community with 160 K-8 students attending school in a recently renovated building the school owns. The new facility doubled the school’s space and is providing new opportunities to strengthen the school’s community-minded educational experience as it continues to grow.
Sector: Schools
Location: Detroit, MI (Islandview)
Size: 20,553 square feet
Cost: $1.03 million
Sources of Funding/Financing: IFF loan and agency equity
IFF Support: Development of a strategic facilities plan; predevelopment support; two loans totaling $250,000 to provide the school with working capital closed in September 2016 and November 2017; $950,000 loan closed in August 2020 that provided the school with capital for the acquisition and renovation of a permanent facility.
IFF Staff Leads: Lettice Crawford, Director of Lending – Michigan; IFF’s Real Estate Solutions team in Detroit
General Contractor: Lands Friend Builders
Impact: 72 new K-8 student seats created; 6 full-time jobs created

“One of the things about Detroit Summer is that it was the first time anyone asked me to exhibit the best part of myself, the part of me that wanted to make a difference,” said Julia Putnam in a 2013 interview with the Detroit Metro Times. “It’s where I learned how powerful it is to be of use to your community, and how important it is to young people to have adults honor and encourage that.”

Referring to her experience as the first volunteer in a multi-racial, intergenerational collective designed to develop future leaders while strengthening the community through acts of service, Putnam’s participation in Detroit Summer as a 16-year-old high school student was a defining moment that continued to reverberate long after spending five summers planting community gardens, painting murals, and learning the ins and outs of community activism.

Going on to become a middle school teacher, Putnam found herself several years into her career questioning whether the education system she was a part of was truly designed to prepare students for anything beyond the standardized tests and assessments used as benchmarks of success. Disheartened, Putnam turned to Detroit Summer co-founder Grace Lee Boggs, a lifelong advocate of the principle that when institutions oppress, people should create alternative institutions that uplift instead.

Encouraged by Grace to seek out other educators who shared Putnam’s feelings, a small group was formed that began to explore how schools in Detroit could better support students’ holistic development. By 2013, what were once theoretical conversations had gelled into something concrete: a new K-4 charter school on Detroit’s East Side focused not just on strict standards and test scores as measures of success, but on the school’s ability to nurture creative, critical thinkers prepared to contribute to the well-being of their communities and to strengthen their city for decades to come.

This August, as the James and Grace Lee Boggs School begins its tenth school year, it will do so in a facility it owns that’s twice the size of its original leased location and sits on an expansive property with plenty of green space – enabling the school to keep providing the place-based educational experience its founders envisioned in its neighborhood of choice even as it has more than doubled enrollment to 160 students and expanded to grades K-8.

How the Boggs School got to this point illustrates the unique challenges faced by startup schools and the value of working with partners that can help push through barriers in pursuit of a shared vision for stronger, more vibrant communities.

Creating community “solutionaries” through place-based education

Central to the Boggs School’s model is an intense focus on learning beyond the classroom, part of a place-based educational model that mixes traditional instruction with immersion in and service to the community. As Putnam, who serves as the principal of the school, describes it, “what we decided was that we didn’t want to teach just academic skills, [but also] how to fix things, how to create things, how to love one another, and how to be loved.”

This is accomplished in part by incorporating real-world questions students have about their experiences outside of school into the classroom environment. A student curious about an incinerator in their neighborhood, for example, can bring their questions to the classroom, spawning lessons like how to reduce pollution by adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. Through this approach, students not only learn about concepts that would be covered in a more traditional curriculum, but are empowered as “solutionaries” to use their newly acquired knowledge to educate others in the community to effect change. Community service is also an important element of the school’s approach, with students participating in activities like tending to a community garden.

Because connectivity to the surrounding neighborhood is essential to the Boggs School’s model, as is a welcoming, comfortable learning environment where students feel able to express themselves fully, finding the right location to launch the school in 2013 was critical. After searching for three years for a suitable facility to lease that was located in a neighborhood where the school could meaningfully benefit the community, the Boggs team settled on a 10,940-square-foot building in the McDougal-Hunt neighborhood and completed minor renovations with volunteers so that the former settlement house could be used as a school.

Though sufficient for its first few years, the Boggs School quickly outgrew the space as local families learned about the school’s approach to holistic education and enrolled their children. And, without air conditioning or a dedicated cafeteria for students, along with other inconveniences like shared bathrooms between students and teachers, it became clear that a long-term facility solution was needed.

The loans from IFF had lower interest rates and didn’t require us to jump through all of the hoops that we had to previously to bridge the funding gap at the start of the school year

Through a referral from the Skillman Foundation – one of the school’s early supporters – school leaders began working with IFF’s real estate team to develop a strategic facility plan. Once completed, the plan identified options for the school to absorb continued growth in enrollment by increasing its square footage and adding amenities to improve students’ and teachers’ day-to-day experiences in the space. Unable to reach an agreement with the owners to purchase its facility before investing in a costly expansion project, however, the Boggs School was forced to pivot – turning its attention instead to additional spaces near the school that could be rented temporarily while securing a permanent location.

All the while, the school was experiencing a financial challenge unique to new charter schools in Michigan working to build capacity. Due to the timing of state funding for charter schools in the state, as well as the formula used to determine how much public support charter schools receive, the Boggs School had to rely on a personal loan to get through its first nine weeks in operation. In its second and third years, the school received loans from the state and a credit union, respectively, to bridge the gap until funding arrived in late October.

Seeking to help the Boggs School accelerate its growth and to strengthen its financial position as school leaders worked to identify and purchase a permanent facility, IFF provided bridge loans to the school of $100,000 and $150,000 in the next two years that provided the working capital needed for the school to operate without any constraints until state funding arrived each fall.

“The loans from IFF had lower interest rates and didn’t require us to jump through all of the hoops that we had to previously to bridge the funding gap at the start of the school year,” says Amanda Rosman, who co-founded the school with Putnam and Marisol Teachworth and now serves as its executive director. “That helped us build our fund balance and get to the point where we were able to cover our costs at the beginning of the school year without financing, and we’ve done that ever since.”

A permanent facility brings long-term stability and new opportunities for growth

Boggs School leaders scoured Detroit in the ensuing years – looking at roughly 10 options before learning about an alternative high school near its original facility that was planning to vacate its property. After touring the 20,553-square-foot building, they knew they had finally found the future home of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.

Close enough to its original location for almost all existing students and their families to conveniently remain with the school, and providing the square footage needed to accommodate future growth, the facility was also located on a 2.5-acre property with ample room for outdoor learning and community engagement. Nearby were a variety of learning opportunities for students, including Earthworks Urban Farm and The Heidelberg Project, a free-flowing urban art installation using found objects and the built environment. As an added bonus, the facility was also within sight of the longtime home of James and Grace Lee Boggs where the school’s founders first met – now a center for community leadership named in the Boggs’ honor. With the help of a $950,000 loan from IFF, the Boggs School purchased the facility in August 2020 and immediately began renovations.

“The building was one story, which is a big deal for elementary schools, and the size of the entire property gave us a lot of space to spread our wings,” says Rosman. “The fact that it was already a school when we moved in was also important. We loved our old building and retrofitted it to meet our most pressing needs, but it wasn’t built to be used that way.”

Rather than spending all our time thinking about our space and how to make it work, we can focus on pedagogy and culture-building

With a vision for the facility as the foundation for its place-based educational model, the Boggs team enlisted Lands Friend Builders to convert several existing classrooms into dedicated spaces for art, music, and small group meetings, while also partitioning three large computer labs to create classrooms. Carpet was added to classrooms to create warmer, more inviting learning environments, and safety features like cameras and an intercom system were installed. The facility was also made more accessible by converting a closet into an ADA-compliant restroom.

Cosmetic upgrades included repainting the entire facility and inviting a local artist to add engaging doodle art throughout the building. Repairs were made to select building systems, along with masonry repairs on exterior walls. Outside, work is now underway to build a new playground with the help of a Kresge Foundation grant, in addition to expanding an existing garden on the campus that will be used as a teaching tool.

“One of the things we’ve heard from kids and adults when they visit for the first time is that it feels like a ‘real school,’ which no one ever said when walking through our first facility despite how beloved it was by our school community,” says Rosman. “Having such a small space before created anxiety in so many ways. Beyond the physical limitations, it created challenges in instruction and safety. Rather than spending all our time thinking about our space and how to make it work, we can focus on pedagogy and culture-building.”

So, too, can the school’s leaders devote time and energy to continuing to expand the school in the years ahead. With a capacity of 210 students, the new facility can still accommodate an additional 50 students – welcome news in a neighborhood with limited options for quality K-8 education. And, by virtue of owning the facility, the Boggs School team is building equity and positioning itself to further strengthen the educational experience for students. Now contributing each month to a facility fund to ensure the school’s long-term sustainability, planned upgrades in the future include the construction of a freestanding multipurpose building behind the school to house a gymnasium and auditorium.

“In starting this school, we had to constantly break through barriers to prove ourselves,” says Rosman. “After years of planning for the school and working on purchasing a building, it’s a huge sigh of relief to have our forever home and to be able to lay down roots permanently in a neighborhood that offers so much for our students.”

Learn about additional schools in the Midwest supported by IFF with flexible capital and real estate expertise