03/23/2011 07:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Detroit's Reform Roller Coaster

The prevailing notion, at least nationally, is that Detroit is a lost cause. Families have been moving out of Detroit (and Michigan more generally) for years, one of the country's preeminent research universities continues to lose graduates to big cities, a recent New York Times article about Detroit highlighted the failed attempt to reform the city's education system, yet again, and the news from Lansing and Governor Rick Snyder isn't making too many folks excited about the future. Ugh.

The organization I co-founded, The Generation Project, connects passionate community members with high-need public schools through a unique, web-based giving platform that allows donors to specify exactly how they'd like their donation to be used. Of the six geographic regions where we operate, Detroit is the region in greatest need. In fact, we launched the first round of our pilot in spring 2009 in Detroit for this very reason. In a city where reform efforts often seem hopeless, we believed that if we could make our model work in Detroit, we could make it work anywhere.

Reform efforts in Detroit remind me of a roller coaster -- one of those old, rickety wooden types with numerous hills and valleys. They make our stomachs drop on the way down, provide intense anticipation at the peaks, and jar us just enough that we question whether we'll ride again.

Especially related to education, most attention in Detroit is on those deepest lows -- on the school closings, the dropout rates and the corruption. These juicy failures whet the appetite for more negative press and, in the process, solidify the belief that Detroit is doomed. We shouldn't ignore these lows. But in order to make any real progress, we need to focus on more than failure.

After an inspiring few days in Detroit meeting well-respected business and community leaders last week, I am reinvigorated. I have more hope than ever for Detroit's future and am excited to share some of the highs that, I believe, will help form the building blocks for future positive reform:

  • Skillman Foundation: If you know the Detroit education scene, you've heard of the Skillman Foundation. Their Good Schools initiative of the last seven years helps parents stay informed while recognizing those schools that are making the grade. Skillman studies education lows to inform their strategy and celebrates the highs through various initiatives and strategic investments. I am confident that they will remain a beacon of hope for education reform efforts.

  • Teach For America Detroit: As an alumna of the Teach For America program (I taught fourth grade in the Bronx), I am a little biased. But, the fact that Teach For America is back, and placed 100 new teachers in Detroit this year, is a positive signal that the city is open to approaches that have a proven track record of success and include individuals who aren't necessarily from Detroit.
  • MGM Grand Hotel and Casino Detroit: The Detroit casinos have been a valuable addition to the Detroit landscape. They draw Michiganders from across the state and rake in some serious dough. The MGM Grand has gone grassroots with its education reform efforts by adopting schools and getting employees involved in giving back their time and money. The electric personality behind this effort, Dee Dee Odom, gives me hope that more business leaders will prioritize giving back to their city as their companies prosper.
  • United Way for Southeastern Michigan: The United Way is taking a smart, targeted approach to their work. They ground strategy in research and focus on measurable outcomes. Plus, they do all of this with an 11-13 percent overhead rate. Our model at The Generation Project was originally a reaction to the opaque impact offered by the United Way (and similar organizations) of old. The ivory tower stereotype no longer applies. Now, we're hoping to partner with them and believe deeply in their mission and vision for Detroit.
  • This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. Other notable, interesting efforts:

    • Excellent Schools Detroit: The latest effort to bring Detroiters together under the reform umbrella. The coalition's goal is to provide an excellent school for every child in Detroit. Looks promising so far.

  • University of Michigan students: For years, University of Michigan students have volunteered and organized in Detroit. Through The Generation Project, thousands of Michigan students have made a difference for Detroit schools. Our most recent success was through a gift donated by last year's University of Michigan's Greek Week. Detroit's W.E.B. Du Bois Preparatory Academy recently received approval for a high school basketball team -- the first sports team at the school. This gift was made possible through a generous donation of $10,200 from Michigan's Greek community. And, next month, Pike Fraternity is hosting a comedy night with Pablo Francisco to raise funds for more projects in Detroit schools. They anticipate a total donation of around $20,000.
  • It's no secret that negativity breeds negative outcomes. Almost any self-help book will tell you that you have to focus on the positive to improve your life. It is critical that Detroiters (and local and national media) focus on positive change, especially when the ride is bumpy.

    The people of Detroit are their own greatest asset in the fight for the city's future. Everyone I meet who works in Detroit believes that the city can, and will, improve -- they have to. They stayed when so many left, and the ride is far from over. But there are more hills on the horizon and I feel fortunate to be part of the positive changes in Detroit.

    Community members and leaders aren't giving up on Detroit. And we won't either.

    Cross-posted from The Generation Project.