Mt. Morris Twp., MI—After more than 35 years of closure, Gillespie Elementary School’s doors are poised to reopen—but instead of chalkboards and desks, the building will soon house Flint-area families.

“We’re going to use our own Gillespie Elementary to revitalize the neighborhood behind our school,” said Leslie Key, Westwood Heights Schools Superintendent at a May 27, 2022 press conference. “We thought it was a great idea.”

The 24,000 square-foot Mount Morris Township school building is owned by Westwood Heights Schools, a public school district that serves a student body of nearly 75 percent Flint children according to Jamal Bransford, Westwood Heights’ public relations representative.

The district is partnering with Eco-Development Group, a Mount Morris Township-based developer, and Saginaw-based Youth Development Corporation, to transform the former elementary into a 27-unit apartment complex starting in the fall of this year.

“Our goal is to redevelop Gillespie Elementary School, an obsolete and dilapidated school building, into an eco-friendly, affordable, and sustainable living community that is adapted for healthy family outcomes,” said Scott DeSilva, President of Eco-Development Group. “Most importantly, we will provide students the education and experience needed for a career in the skilled construction trades while instilling a sense of confidence and community pride.”

DeSilva referred to the fact that part of the project’s build-out will be done by the district’s high school students in the Westwood Career and Technical Education program, which launched in 2021 and trains students in the skilled trades, such as masonry, electrical, plumbing, and drywall.

“This school district has decided to do some of the most creative and innovative projects,” said Eric Eggleston, founder of Youth Development Corporation, which will oversee the Westwood CTE students along with students from a U.S. Department of Labor YouthBuild program

Eggleston said Westwood CTE participating students will have the opportunity to receive up to 47 college credits for their work, making a degree quickly attainable upon completion.

“They only have to take five classes, and they have an associate’s degree,” Eggleston said, before thanking Saginaw-based Delta College for their partnership in the program.

The elementary school renovation is projected to cost $5 million, which is being sought from a variety of sources.

“One of the main sources is the MEDC,” said DeSilva, referring to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “We are applying for a large RAP grant, a Revitalization and Placemaking Grant.”

DeSilva said the partners were also seeking funding from Mount Morris Township’s $2.1 million American Rescue Plan allotment alongside his company’s more than $500,000 direct contribution to the project.

“And then at that point, if there’s anything left, it will go to private lending or public lending,” DeSilva said.

During a question session, some members of the audience voiced concern over students from surrounding school districts not being afforded the same skilled trade training opportunities. 

“My concern is, will we be accepting children from the Beecher School District?” said Catherine Oliver, who identified herself as a community activist in Mount Morris Township. 

“To be involved in the CTE program, either other school districts have to partner with Westwood, or their students have to be accepted into the Department of Labor YouthBuild program in order to be accepted into that program,” Eggleston explained. 

Superintendent Key said that Westwood Heights Schools would be happy to consider Memorandum of Understanding agreements with surrounding districts as part of this project.

“I just want to remind everybody as well, that this is the first of many projects that we are going for,” DeSilva added. “So our goal and I think the goal of the school and our whole team—is to create a situation where we make a model for this to happen again and again.”

DeSilva noted that roughly 30 units of housing were not going to be enough to solve affordable housing needs in the township or for nearby cities, just as one program for trade training would not be able to serve all of the area’s students.

“The need is much greater than any one project,” DeSilva said. “I feel that this project is bringing us all together to work together and to be able to expand on what we’re doing.”

DeSilva estimated that the Gillespie Elementary Development development would be completed sometime in 2025.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....