08/28/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

Turning Schools Around

Great things are happening in high schools in and around Detroit. We have made tremendous progress in a very short period of time in transforming the high school experience for thousands of young people in some of our toughest neighborhoods and communities.

By our count, there were 30 high schools in our region among the 2,000 high schools in America labeled "Dropout Factories" that began with a 2004 John Hopkins University study, followed by a 2006 study "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts," which cited school's failure to graduate more than 60 percent of their freshmen class for three or more consecutive years. At that time, we set a goal of turning those schools around within 10 years or, alternatively, shutting them down.

Where are we four years later? Only 22 of those schools remain open. Of those, 18 are on the path to turn around -- meaning that they will have graduation rates of 80 percent or higher for the freshmen who enter this year. We are confident of this because 12 of those schools are in United Way's networks of turn-around schools. Those schools share three core strategies (based on a model from Mass Insight):

  • Hire great leaders with the autonomy to made decisions for their schools.
  • Ensure that each teacher has personal relationships with and accountability for a group of 20 or fewer students over four years.
  • Work in collaboration with a network of other schools to align community partners and share and learn best practices to keep all kids on track for success.

This past year, a new school system was established in Michigan, the Education Achievement Authority, to transform persistently low-achieving schools, and we believe that the six Detroit high schools moved into this system will achieve at least 80 percent graduation rates because of their commitment to and execution of these strategies.

We have overcome huge challenges in the last four years to get here, including:

  • Creating the belief that this work can be done.
  • Changing state laws and local collective bargaining agreements for site-based management, funding for turnaround schools and alternative-certification pathways for teachers.
  • Sustaining the momentum of the work despite continuing changes in leadership and governance structures of Detroit's schools and surrounding districts.

On a daily basis, our kids and therefore our schools face an onslaught of challenges stemming from the ravishing effects of poverty and the culture of violence in the neighborhoods around them. A recent story in the Detroit Free Press captures the impact of a senseless killing of a good young man in one of our schools, as well as the caring power of the adults in that community to make their school so much better in spite of this. I am so proud to be a partner and friend to the principal, Tanya Bowman, and the other leaders and teachers in our high school networks throughout our region who are on the front lines every day making miracles happen for our kids.

The biggest challenge we face now is giving our kids systemic exposure to the broader world. We have thousands of adults who care deeply in our region and want to help, and we have thousands of kids who need those relationships and real world experience in a professional setting. Our challenge is to create those vibrant and accessible on-ramps so that those two worlds can come together in life-changing ways. We think this is going to be the lever that accelerates the success of our kids, our schools and our city.

Join panelist Michael J. Brennan, Model D and HuffPost Detroit Wednesday, Aug. 29 at YouthVille Detroit for a free speaker series on Innovation in Education.