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Turning Around Dropout Factories

A collaborative effort in southeastern Michigan is pioneering a cost-effective “third way” to improve some of the lowest-performing schools.

Chances are that money is tight in your community. Maybe the recession has led to layoffs and other cuts in your schools. But we're pretty sure things are not as bad in your schools as they are where we live.

Every September for the last 40 years, kids in southeastern Michigan have returned to slowly failing school systems. In 2009, only 3 percent of Detroit's fourth-grade students rated proficient in math on the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress; Detroit scored lower than any school district in the history of the exam. As few as one in three students graduate from high school, and even those who do face bleak prospects. And, judging from ACT scores, few high-school students are ready for college in reading (11 percent) or math (2 percent).

We wouldn't blame you for looking at this bleak picture and feeling hopeless. But Detroit has another story to tell as well. Over the last three years, the city has created pockets of hope for children and their parents.

In 2008, United Way of Southeastern Michigan pulled together the school districts, city leaders and philanthropic community. With the Skillman Foundation, the coalition raised $5 million to begin to turn around southeastern Michigan's 30 worst-performing schools—known as "dropout factories."

We describe our goal as "80-80-80"—80 percent of students pass their classes; 80 percent attend class each day; and 80 percent stay in school and graduate.

We funded five schools the first year and today can point to early signals of success.

One such signal is dramatic improvements in attendance, often seen as an early indicator that a school is turning around. At one of our first schools, Detroit's Cody Academy of Public Leadership, an unprecedented 85-plus percent of students came to school every day.

School culture is also changing. Schools that were seeing two or three fights per day two years ago now have two to three fights per year. Kids have gone from wanting to see themselves as the toughest student to wanting to become college-ready.

But maybe the most telling is that parents across the city are trying to get their kids into Cody Academy or one of the other turnaround schools.

How are we accomplishing these changes—at a modest additional cost (about $500) per student? We view our approach as a "third way" in public education—neither traditional schools nor charter schools.

Come visit and you will first notice the small size of the turnaround schools, each with no more than 450 students. But the real paradigm shift is the mentoring and counseling built into the curriculum.

Teachers are committed to instruction as well as advising and supporting students on personal and social issues. The plan also requires finding great principals, giving them significant authority and bringing them into a network of shared beliefs, plans and values. And equally important is what we have done to ensure that key stakeholders at the district and community levels embrace a willingness to change.

Early on we started with a good plan—adopted from Mass Insight—that was also easy to communicate. We pitched it to the governor, regional chambers of commerce, churches and schools. We built broad support for the dramatic changes we knew we needed to make.

Eventually, as the schools were being closed down and reopened, it became crucial to engage three groups in particular: parents, school-district and civic leaders, and the broader community.

Parents: When they learned of the turnaround plan, many parents feared that the new schools would not accept their children or that important decisions would happen behind closed doors without their input. We allayed those fears, and by the end of year one parents were seeing how their children were progressing. They became our biggest champions and our most effective voices.

School-district and civic leaders: Another hurdle was a widely shared sense of hopelessness and apprehension. All but a few of the foundations we approached said, "Great plan—but it is never going to work." And when the school district's central office saw the early success in our turnaround schools, administrators there started impugning the progress. Some made excuses for why they themselves had not succeeded.

But as with the parents, results have become our most convincing argument. GM North America made a $27 million investment when it saw the steep drop in absenteeism. And eventually naysayers lost their voice because their legitimacy is based on the voice of parents, who were now aligned behind the schools.

The broader community: Partnerships with local business and civic organizations provide crucial resources such as new technology, college tours and internships. Each school also partners with an outside organization experienced in running high-performing schools.

In addition to resources, keeping the community actively engaged in school reform is key to sustaining the political will needed to maintain progress over time. One example is the schools' Champions Councils. Parents, community members and civic leaders meet monthly to hear from students and teachers and to review school data. Between meetings, they act on priority-issue areas such as student safety.

Detroit knows that when things appear bleakest, often the greatest commitment and riskiest changes are the way forward.

For example, to fulfill its commitment as nonprofit partner to Cody Academy, United Way of Southeastern Michigan has broken with 100-plus years of tradition and now puts its funds into schools rather than specific services. Principals decide what services are needed.

And this spring our regional turnaround coalition committed to a second cohort of turnaround schools. As the 2011-12 school year begins, we have 17 new schools on the turnaround plan, all aiming for an 80 percent graduation rate for 12,000 students in southeastern Michigan. We believe we'll make it.

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