Many people rightly believe that an education is one of the crucial keys to helping people escape poverty and build a sustainable income. Despite this notion, the city of Detroit has a rather dismal statistic haunting it. Nearly 25 percent of Detroit residents age 25 and older don’t have a high school diploma. That’s a problem, especially if the city wants to put its own citizens to work.
Ron Stefanski, Executive Director at Cengage Learning, has set out to solve that problem by creating Detroit Collective Impact, a program designed to reengage Detroiters with their education.
“We’ve developed an online, career focused, high school diploma school. It’s been nationally accredited, and we offer this program to, and it’s targeted specifically, at those who have dropped out of school. Our average aged student is around 27,” said Stefanski.
Detroit Collective Impact – Pathway to Education and Work program launched last year in partnership with McDonald’s, Michigan Virtual University, Matrix Human Services, and Kinexus. It started with 20 students and recently graduated its first student. The goal is to graduate 1,350 older youth and adults. The program typically takes 12-18 months.
Detroit Collective Impact gives Detroiters who never finished high school the opportunity to earn a career credential and accredited high school diploma via the Career Online High School. Stefanski and his colleagues have partnered with local businesses and social-service organizations to provide tuition assistance, onsite support services, and flexible learning options to broaden access to education in Detroit.
“The way it works, is we are broker partnerships with non-profits, corporations, public libraries, workforce boards, to create partnerships that provide scholarships for students, so then it’s at no cost to them to participate in the program,” said Stefanski. “We’ve done this nationally. A year ago, we launched a commitment to CGI America, The Clinton Global Initiative, to offer the program in Detroit, where I happen to live. I’m a resident of Detroit. It made a lot of sense to bring this to a city-wide focus.”
All of the students who are part of the Detroit Collective Impact have dropped out of high school at least once. Many of them are disenchanted with the traditional school system, which is what makes Detroit Collective Impact so fitting for them.
The school’s curriculum is “built around the factors that contributed to people’s drop-out. There are three factors that contribute. One, is the absence of applicabilities, students who are in high school decide the material is irrelevant for them, and so they become disinterested and drop out. The second reason why they drop out is because they don’t have support. They don’t have a mentor, a parent, a caregiver, a teacher, or a counselor that’s looking out for them when it gets tough. We don’t have someone pushing them through. The third reason why people drop out is they’ve been told they’re a failure. They fail a class, told they’ve failed it, they can’t do it.”
And what about the dropouts that Detroit Collective Impact works with? Are they the stereotypical dropout that most of us picture? Not at all.
“When you meet these folks, it really smashes the myth we have about high school dropouts. We have this myth in America and in Detroit certainly, that people who are dropouts are involved in drugs or are pregnant teens. There are a lot of people who are not part of the high school system because it doesn’t work for them. The one size fits all educational model we have in our school system doesn’t work for a lot of kids.”
Stefanski understands more than most that education is the key to helping Detroit’s recovery. He grew up on Tappan Street on the East side of Detroit. His family moved to the suburbs in the 70s, but his grandmother, Vicki, refused to leave her home on Eastern. In 1991, Vicki Stefanski was found murdered in her home.
The killer was her newspaper delivery boy, a 14-year-old middle school dropout. Heartbroken, Stefanski decided he would one day use this tragedy for the city’s good.
Stefanski touched on this tragedy, “In my own personal history, my Grandmother was murdered in the city 25 years ago by someone who had dropped out of school. I saw, first hand, the profound impact that someone not being in an educational environment had on their own personal behaviors, their own sense of opportunity, their own ability to make their way in the world. This is a city-wide problem that we can solve by providing greater access to education.”
He strongly believes that Detroi’ts comeback will be strengthened and sustained by its residents’ education.
“We have 80,000 adults in our city that don’t have a high school diploma. I really believe if they had a high school diploma, we would see improved, up-scaling of their skills and experiences, so that they could get better jobs. I think if we really want to see the city continue on it’s turn-around, we need to provide more access to more educational opportunities.”
Stefanski has a message for young people who are thinking about dropping out of high school. “Find someone to talk to that can help you understand the importance of sticking with it. I would start with a guidance counselor, I would start with a family member, I would start with a school administrator. From there, I’d talk to one of our staff members who say, ‘You know what? There are ways that you can and will be successful at this. This will be essential to your own development and your own ability to navigate in the world, and what you’re coming into.”
To learn more about the Detroit Collective Impact program and Career Online High School, check out careeronlinehs.org.