Historic Detroit

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Sampson Elementary School

The William T. Sampson School is one of the largest elementary schools ever built in Detroit.

The Detroit Board of Education bought the land in 1911 for $7,000 (the equivalent of about $218,000, in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation), and construction started the following year. The school was ready for students that same fall, with room for 500 of them initially. The Late Gothic Revival-style school, like many in Detroit, was designed by the firm Malcomson & Higginbotham. The cost of the school was $72,000 (about $2.25 million today).

The school was named after Naval Rear Adm. William Thomas Sampson (1840-1902), who served in the Navy during the Civil War and was decorated for his efforts during the Spanish-American War, particularly his role in taking San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, which sealed victory for the U.S. Sampson had no ties to Detroit, but was popular across the country for his heroics nonetheless. There have been four Naval destroyers, a steamship, a town in Wisconsin, a Naval training base, and schools in New York and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, named in his honor, as well.

The school initially was a simple, three-story block with 14 classrooms, a library, a kindergarten and a playroom. That was fine, at first, but the Midwest area of Detroit soon started filling out - and fast. When the school opened in 1912, the neighborhood around it was only sparsely built out and still had a considerable about of farmland. But just eight years later, the Board of Education built an addition to Sampson with six more classrooms - and then a year after that, in 1921, yet another addition, this one with 10 more classrooms, was tacked on. These two additions, constituting $360,000 ($11.3 million in 2023 dollars), added a combined 19 classroms, an auditorium and a gym. The school board also bought additional land for the school at a price of $66,081 (about $2 million in 2023).

But as Detroit's population fled in droves over the decades, Midwest suffered heavily. That led to Sampson losing much of its student body, and that, in turn, led to the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) moving in 2006 to close Sampson and merge it with Webber Middle School. Parents were, understandably, outraged.

In the previous 10 years, DPS' enrollment had dropped from 179,000 to 119,000, and the school district had already closed 35 schools in that time. Nevertheless, many of its remaining 232 schools were still under capacity.

In 2007, DPS Superintendent William F. Coleman said the cash-strapped school district - with a deficit in the hundreds of millions - would save nearly $19 million in staffing costs by closing 47 schools that summer and five more the following year. The move was to affect 23,246 Detroit schoolchildren.

"The level of closures proposed in this plan is unprecedented in the United States and no doubt will exact a heavy toll on all of us," Coleman said in a statement. "The tremendous underutilization of our buildings cannot continue. Spending money on empty spaces is unwise and steals valuable resources from the students and families who have stayed with the district."

In January 2007, Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) - a standardized statewide test - were released showing that Sampson eighth-grade math scores improved from 18 percent to 72 percent. Nevertheless, DPS closed Sampson in 2008, one of 195 public schools closed in Detroit between 2000 and 2015.

In 2015, Sampson was among 57 closed Detroit Public Schools properties given to the City of Detroit in exchange for forgiving millions of dollars in DPS' unpaid electrical bills. The 76,850-square-foot school and 2.52-acre site were marketed by the City of Detroit for redevelopment. An extensive report commissioned by the City pegged the redevelopment of Sampson at $16.5 million, though also cited that the neighborhood's real estate market is weak, with widespread abandonment and vacant lots where homes once stood.

In August 2023, Crain's Detroit Business reported that Sampson was among more than 20 former Detroit schools owned by the City that were already put out for bid for demolition. The Duggan administration is planning to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that was issued by the federal government to help municipalities recover from the economic downtown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last updated 06/08/2023