Mumford in the news


Detroit News 4/19/2012

At more than 60 years old, Mumford High School is a ghost from an architectural past that defined Detroit and many of its public schools.

This once-exquisite Art Deco structure, known for its baby-blue limestone block front and its quirky burgundy, pink and blue tiles inside, has been reduced to a shell of its former self: Peeling paint, broken tiles and a rusted exterior reveal its age and apparent neglect.

Since 1949, Mumford has served more than three generations of students on the northwest side, near Wyoming and McNichols, and has a long list of famed alumni.

They include jazz musician Earl Klugh, Grammy-winning songwriter Allee Willis and film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose credits include the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film series and "Beverly Hills Cop," in which Eddie Murphy's character Axel Foley is seen wearing a "Mumford Phys Ed Dept." T-shirt.

By the end of June, however, the school building and its architectural features will be a memory, as a wrecking ball makes way for a new school, already being built on the same city block.

But some alumni want the school's history to live on. One is returning to Detroit to highlight Mumford's fate and remind others of its storied past as one of the city's most prominent high schools.

"Not only was it a great school at the time, it was an incredible looking school at the time," said Willis, a 1965 graduate whose songs have sold more than 50 million records. "Design is everything. I can't even stress to you how much the physical structure influenced me. It was all around fantastic."

Willis, who lives in California, is performing at 6 p.m. today at the school auditorium, giving a "Last Call Before the Wrecking Ball" greatest-hits concert to benefit the Mumford High Concert Choir.

Like other alumni, she wanted the school saved and is doing her part to remind people of its significance to the city and its contributions from graduates.

"My main thing is, I feel like going to that school is something that stayed with me forever," Willis said.

"I'm an unschooled musician. I'm going off spirit and guts. My message to kids is you can do whatever you want to do, it's up to you to find your own hook," Willis said.

"You have to take the guts you've learned from this school and spirit and just go out and make something. Anyone who goes to that school has a degree in soul," she said.

Decision sparks protests

At the end of June, the "old" Mumford will close, sending its students to a "new" Mumford High, a $50 million state-of-the-art facility for 1,500 students with a high-tech media center, modern science laboratories and a community health clinic.

The change also signals a new era for Detroit Public Schools, which is handing Mumford over to the Education Achievement Authority, a new statewide district charged with taking over low-performing schools and boosting student achievement.

The decision to tear down Mumford and send its students to the untested EAA has sparked protests from alumni, parents and students upset that the Detroit district is losing one of its signature high schools.

Helen Moore, a community activist in Detroit, said closing a school with a history further divides the community, which is watching its public school system being slowly dismantled.

Moving Mumford into the EAA, after Detroit voters approved a bond in 2009 to build a new Detroit Public School, breaks the trust in the community as well, she said.

"They went against the promise," Moore said.

District officials said the decision to replace Mumford was part of a districtwide effort to replace and modernize DPS facilities for 21st-century learning environments.

"In the case of Mumford, many obsolete systems required replacement, and heating, electrical, windows, IT and security systems needed upgrades," DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said. "The new school will provide state-of-the-art learning environments, address security needs, and provide energy efficiency and maintenance cost savings."

The school is among Detroit's worst-performing schools.

While 89 percent of its students graduated in 2010, only 8.2 percent of that class was proficient in math and just 13.6 percent proficient in science, according to data from the Michigan Merit Exam.

Demolition 'bittersweet'

Mumford, along with 90 other DPS buildings, was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Federal officials requested more documentation on Mumford before making a decision, but news that DPS would close and demolish the building ended the effort, led by the Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board.

Janese Chapman, a city planner who is part of the effort, said Mumford alumni contacted her, hoping to save decorative features, such as the Pewabic tile around the school's drinking fountains, from the demolition.

"Mumford is a wonderful school. It's bittersweet on a lot of levels for us," Chapman said.

"Schools are often the landmarks in a community. They were built as part of this whole school movement. DPS's were identified as some of the best built in that time. We have these wonderful buildings and they are being wasted away," she said.

Wasko said the district will try to save significant architectural artifacts that will be put on display either at the new school or with community groups.

Students ready to leave

Students outside Mumford on Monday afternoon were more than ready to leave behind the aging, hulking structure. Most were unaware of its historical significance.

"It's about time. We need a new building," Rob Benjamin, 17, said.

Jailyn White, an 11th grader who will be among the first class of graduates at the new campus next year, said she is ready to leave the old school. "It's a horrible building. It's worn out and ugly. The sinks in the bathrooms don't work."

Other students talked excitedly about new facilities and the promise of new teachers and a better education in the EAA, where students are expected to have a longer school day, a longer school year and individual learning plans.

Some students were asked whether efforts to save the building for historical purposes were misguided.

"I don't see the point in keeping it. They can come and get a brick," White said.

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