Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

Education leaders say change is on the horizon

Detroit is home to nearly 120,000 school-aged kids. Its school landscape consists of close to 200 K-12 schools across Detroit Public Schools Community District, charters, and private schools. Additionally, the city’s education system includes early childhood education providers, afterschool and summer programs, educational authorities, teacher recruitment and training programs, researchers, and advocates. There are many moving parts, all focused on strengthening educational opportunities for Detroit kids.

Across these networks and sectors are dedicated individuals. A first-year teacher getting to know their students. A seasoned principal who brings a powerful enthusiasm to every school year. An educational researcher digging deep into school attendance data. A parent leader organizing families around the changes they want to see in their schools. A policy advocate who helps carry those voices to lawmakers in Lansing and beyond.

On a stop on our Listening Tour, Skillman Foundation President & CEO Angelique Power and Vice President of Program & Strategy Punita Dani Thurman met virtually with a group of local education leaders. The 18 leaders who joined us represent a swath of the champions in our city and state’s education system. Attendees were:

Dawne Bell, Early Childhood Investment Corporation; Rajeshri Bhatia, Grand Valley State University’s Charter School Office; Beth Gonzalez, Wayne RESA; Greg Handel, Detroit Regional Chamber; Arlyssa Heard, parent leader; Armen Hratchian, Teach for America; Darienne Hudson, United Way for Southeastern Michigan; Sarah Lehnhoff, Detroit Education Research Partnership at Wayne State University; Curtis Lewis, Black Male Educator Alliance; Brian Love, Education Trust Midwest; Terrence Martin, American Federation of Teachers and Detroit Federation of Teachers; Angelique Mayberry- Peterson, Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education; Michelle Richards, State of Michigan Governor’s Office; Erin Skeen Pratt, Michigan Afterschool Partnership; Denise Smith, Hope Starts Here; Molly Sweeny, 482Forward; and Adam Zemke, Launch Michigan.

Below are a few key takeaways from our conversation.

Our education system needs a reset, and it’s on the horizon

These folks shared ways they’re working in partnership with others to think big and rebuild an education system where all kids are prepared to be the problem solvers and innovators our economy and society need. The changes they stressed revolve around equity, ensuring the differing needs of children are acknowledged and met. They spoke of equitably funding schools, adding more resources for students who require extra support to excel; providing students with the academic, social, and emotional supports needed for their individual growth; helping colleges and universities be better prepared to work with students from different racial, economic, and geographical backgrounds; and making teaching a more appreciated and supported profession. Many in this group also mentioned interconnected issues they’re working to address so kids can attend school ready to learn. This includes access to affordable early childhood care, health care, and reliable public transportation.

Students, families, and educators are holding power

These leaders are ambitious and optimistic—and they credit these qualities to the kids they work on behalf of. They spoke of being energized by the prevalence of students, families, and teachers exerting their voices and pushing for improvements. Some nodded to an uptick in advocacy as a result of the COVID pandemic, which exacerbated challenges and inequities across schools and communities. As a result, many see this moment in time as a golden opportunity to band together behind public will and reimage public education to better serve children in Detroit and across Michigan.

The Skillman Foundation’s role

Attendees commented on the Foundation’s ability for bringing people from all walks of life—students, families, educators, business leaders, nonprofit professionals, government officials, etc.— to the same table to make collective decisions. But it was also raised that some of the education systems change efforts we’ve been a part of have had too little input from students and families. Several attendees asked that we do better, upholding the importance of community-led decision making.

Moving forward

Our conversation ended just as it felt like it was beginning. It was akin to glimpsing the tip of an iceberg and knowing the great mass and weight that lay underneath. A great mass of hope and of heart that pulses with life. The energy and vigor possessed by these education leaders was palpable. We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with them, in response to the needs and priorities named by Detroit youth.

The Skillman Foundation

The Skillman Foundation is a grantmaking organization established in 1960 by Rose Skillman. We have granted out more than $730 million and have served as a vocal advocate to strengthen K-12 education, afterschool programming, child-centered neighborhoods, youth and community leadership, and racial equity and justice.

We are in the process of developing a new strategic framework, co-designed with Detroit youth and their champions.

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