Designing Schools to Energize Kids


Designing Schools to Energize Kids

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, Oct. 17-23. 2010

Sixteen seniors in the architecture department of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana visited the Boggs Center recently. They came with their professors, Wes Janz and Andrea Swartz, to prepare themselves for a national competition to design a new grade school on a site they will determine.

Most entries, they expect, will feature sites in exurban areas or in downtowns of cities in relatively good shape because that is what most architects do.

These students and professors, however, are interested in “distressed areas” and have been visiting Youngstown, Camden, Flint, Gary, and other Midwest cities going through shrinkage and decline.

Professor Janz, a University of Michigan graduate and registered architect, says that he is exhausted with all the talk, especially from academics and community “leaders,” about abandonment, despair, loss of hope, decline, etc. So he is more than ready to join a journey alongside those who believe in the people that remain, and in starting there, from the ground up with what is going well, with who remains and with their potential.

In his visits to leftover places with leftover people in cities all over the world, Janz has been impressed by the powerful commitments people make to stay in places of crime, arson, and job loss. He believes we have a lot to learn about design, materials etc. from the dwellings these people construct. He also believes schools are an important part of the glue that holds a neighborhood, a city and a life together.

His website,, declares that “We can’t not change the world.”

These Muncie, Indiana, visionaries could have gone to Indianapolis which has around 12,000 abandoned houses and a public high school dropout rate of about 50%.

But they came to Detroit because in our Michigan Citizen columns they found a challenge to the status quo, the power elite, and the Fordism era approach to public education of the George W. Bush and the Barack Obama White House and also a promising reconceptualization of soaring drop-out rates.

These were some of the questions they discussed with Shea Howell, Larry Sparks and myself:

  • How do we design schools that energize students by connecting them with their communities and also invite community residents in to learn and to teach?
  • What should be on the grounds of these schools? Should there be greenhouses and gardens as well as playgrounds?
  • How do we structure classrooms to encourage imagination and vision?
  • What kinds of schools will prepare kids to make a life and not just a living?

I am encouraged by the growing number of individuals with special skills who are inspired by what we are doing to make Detroit a 21st century sustainable city and want to make the journey with us. I hope that this will motivate more Detroiters to remain here to redefine, rebuild and respirit our city instead of seeking their individual fortunes in 20th century cities that continue to prosper.

Architects are especially welcome because their role is to re-imagine space.

I often recall Professor James Chaffers’ class in Urban Design and Social Change in the University of Michigan architectural department. Jimmy and I spoke to that class every fall for nearly 30 years. Jackie Victor was a student in the class In 1988, the year that Jimmy talked about Rebuilding Detroit: an Alternative to Casino Gambling. After Jackie graduated, she and Ann Perrault founded the amazing Avalon International Breads bakery which has sparked the revitalization of the “Midtown” area at Cass and Willis. ——–

Bill Ayers, the author of countless books on education and co-author of the Boggs Center pamphlet, Another Education is Necessary, has retired from his position as Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Saturday, November 6, 6-10 p.m., his pals are hosting a retirement party for Bill at the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., Chicago, ______

My USSF Conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein can be read at

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