Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

Our history in K-12 education

A good education unlocks many doors.

Rose Skillman founded The Skillman Foundation because she was able to unlock a lot of doors in her lifetime. And as she did, she looked behind to see all the people—all the children—who were shut off from the paths she walked. As the daughter of a cattle rancher, she knew hard work, and she knew privilege. She dedicated herself and her fortune to give more children more keys to unlock possibilities for their future.

Rose supported a range of child welfare and education programs. When she passed away, 23 years after founding The Skillman Foundation, we continued to uphold her loving pursuits. How we went about this—what we invested in and how we sought to expand possibilities for children—changed over the years in response to changes in needs, context, and opportunities.

This is a review of landmarks in The Skillman Foundation’s efforts to improve and expand educational opportunities for kids. We’ve broken this information up into five acts that walk through some of the most significant contributions the Foundation has made to public education in Detroit.

These efforts are representative, showing how The Skillman Foundation responded to the needs of children and community as context and needs shifted. This is not inclusive of all of the many ways The Skillman Foundation has championed Detroit youth, including extensive investments in youth development, youth employment, youth and community leadership, and neighborhood safety.

Let’s get started with Act One….

Beating the Odds:
Scholarships for Gifted Students

2012 Skillman Scholars stand with Skillman Foundation leaders

The Context

In the 1950’s, Detroit and its school districts began losing population and funding due to federal programs and racial discrimination. By the 1980’s, Detroit became the largest majority Black city and Metro Detroit became the most sprawled metro area in the U.S. 

As Metro Detroit sprawled, access to opportunities sprawled with it, and transportation systems (or a lack of them) kept many Black Detroiters out of the suburbs. This exacerbated tense race relations between the city and the suburbs. Meanwhile, the rise of gangs and the 1980’s crack epidemic led to Detroit’s international reputation for being a violent, dangerous place. In the 1990’s, the local and national economy was stable, and for the first time, Blacks were joining whites in leaving the city in large numbers.

Our Education Efforts

When Rose Skillman passed in 1983, her lawyer, Leonard Smith, became president of the Foundation and continued to carry out her legacy by making grants to the same and similar organizations. This was largely supporting the most vulnerable youth and the most gifted but under-resourced youth.

From 1985 to 2016, the Foundation provided scholarships to brilliant youth—primarily from Detroit and Pontiac—to attend Metro Detroit’s elite private high schools including Country Day, Roeper, Liggett, and Cranbrook. This was the longest running program in the Foundation’s history.

We developed close relationships with these students, understanding their goals as well as the hurdles that stood in their way. Scholars had to keep a high GPA to receive continued Skillman support, and we also required them to participate in extracurricular activities. The Foundation has long understood that afterschool experiences are also integral to a young person’s development.

Skillman Scholar Sydney James Harcourt performing in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton

By 2007, 184 Skillman Scholars had graduated high school. The Foundation had invested an average of $115,000 per student.

After several years of offering high school scholarships, we began to provide college stipends to top universities as well.

Skillman scholars have gone on to lead roles, from Broadway to the board room.

The Foundation helped these youth beat the odds, but the odds themselves remained unchanged.

Changing the Odds:
Comer Schools Initiative

Martin Luther King Jr. School in New Haven, CT – one of the founding
  schools in the Comer School Development Program​

The Context
Detroit Public Schools enrollment declines that began in the 80’s worsen in the 90’s with allegations of mismanagement, teacher strikes that made national headlines, the creation of charter schools, and “school choice” laws that allow students to attend public schools outside their district, taking funding with them and away from their neighborhoods. These shifts make it increasingly challenging to enact school improvement plans at scale.

Our Education Efforts
How could the odds be changed for Black and brown kids? In the 1990s, The Skillman Foundation set out to influence systems change, including K-12 education reform, and focused our grantmaking exclusively on Detroit youth. In 1994, we launched one of Detroit’s first comprehensive school reform efforts: The Comer Schools Initiative. The Foundation invested a total of $18M in the initiative, with $15M granted directly to Detroit Public Schools. At the time, this constituted the largest and longest single grant commitment made by the Foundation to date.

Schools were able to opt in to the program and the Foundation worked to include parents in the changes. We also convened other area funders to take part—including the McGregor, Joyce, Kellogg, Kresge, and Mott foundations. And we elicited corporate involvement through Detroit Renaissance and the Detroit Chamber, initiating cross-sector conversations about the imperative for school reform. The Comer Initiative resulted in 4th grade reading and math scores rising significantly higher in those schools than the Detroit Public Schools that did not take part in the program. However, innovations and improvements in individual schools did not scale across others and educator turnover meant new best practices were short lived.

Building networks of child advocates:
Good Schools, Good Neighborhoods, Good Opportunities  

Students with former NBA star, Jalen Rose, outside of Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a Detroit charter school opened in 2011 with the support of The Skillman Foundation​

The Context

The creation of charter schools and “school choice” laws in Michigan greatly influenced families in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Many parents were dissatisfied with the quality of DPS schools and enrollment began a steady decline. By 2004, only 65% of Detroit school-aged children attended a DPS school. Meanwhile, charter schools had waitlists, though they were not performing significantly better than DPS.

The Great Recession hit Detroiters hard. From 2000 – 2009, the median income of Detroiters declined from $38k to $26k. This is compared to a $80k to $62k decline in Oakland County over the same period. Black migration out of Detroit accelerated. 

Our Education Efforts
Perhaps the largest landmark initiative of The Skillman Foundation to-date was the Good Neighborhoods Initiative. This actually started as: Good Schools, Good Neighborhoods, Good Opportunities.

Good Schools was a multi-faceted approach to strengthen a declining K-12 system. We celebrated and invested in schools that were excelling. And we supported innovation in improving schools. These investments included support for charter schools.

Why support charters? With Detroit families turning to other school options, the Foundation made the

decision that we would not be beholden to a district or institution. We said: We will invest wherever Detroit children are, and we will strive to give Detroit families the educational opportunities they deserve and demand.

 Our Good Schools Guide became the first effort to provide families with a full directory and transparent assessment of the city’s schools so parents could make informed choices about the best educational options for their kids.

During the Good Schools Initiatives, education grants accounted for 27% of our giving. Most of this was directed toward Detroit Public Schools.

Children and community members at a Good Neighborhoods Initiative Community Celebration in southwest Detroit, 2006

On the whole, the Good Neighborhoods initiative set out to improve conditions for children living in six Detroit neighborhoods where 30% of the city’s children lived. $120M was invested over 11-years. 

The largest percentage of Good Neighborhood Initiative dollars—$60M of the $120M—was invested in community leadership. This included leadership development for individual resident leaders who would champion youth for decades to come, as well as in the establishment of neighborhood organizations that helped rally community voice and action around goals residents set themselves.

To further address some of the deep inequities experienced in Detroit, we also made Program-Related Investments and Mission-Related Investments to help Detroit schools and nonprofits find financial footing. PRIs and MRIs are financial tools used by foundations to deploy more assets beyond the grantmaking budget.

The Good Neighborhoods Initiative also continued the Foundation’s heavy investment in youth development experiences that happen outside of schools, like afterschool and summer programs and paid work experiences.

Boys of Color 2003 Summit hosted by The Skillman Foundation

During this time, The Skillman Foundation also became nationally recognized for our investments and civic leadership focused on boys of color. Former Skillman President Tonya Allen reflects that this started when a mother at a community meeting said to her: “Please protect our boys. Please protect our Black boys.” The Foundation worked with nonprofits, clergy, city officials, the police department, and more. Together, they put Detroit on the map for the being the number one city focused on racial justice for boys and men of color.

We did all of these things because Detroiters told us where we were needed most. The Good Neighborhoods Initiative began with two years of resident engagement, trust building, and co-designing. The following three years were spent investing heavily in neighborhood leadership and organizational capacities. And through the duration, we stayed in partnership with community.

A look at the data tracked across the Initiative shows that some child well-being conditions improved across the targeted neighborhood. Notably, the high school graduation rate rose from 65% to 81% in GNI schools. Afterschool opportunities expanded. Neighborhood safety was improved. This took the concentrated focus of a broad network of community organizations and activated residents.

A struggle for local control:
Emergency Management of DPS, Education Achievement Authority, Excellent Schools Detroit, and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren

Former Governor Rick Snyder and Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visit Thirkell Elementary School in Detroit, 2013

The Context
By 2010, the city’s population dropped below 750,000 – a critical threshold for being considered a big city – and the city no longer received extra federal funding due to decreased population. 

From 2010 – 2015 both DPS and the City of Detroit head toward bankruptcy and multiple, sometimes conflicting, efforts begin to do damage control. DPS ranks last among big-city districts in academic performance, and the Education Achievement Authority is announced to take full state-control of the worst-performing schools. Former Governor Snyder pushes for the cap on charter school development to be lifted. At this time, 14 different charter school authorizers, majority of which were not based in Detroit, were opening and closing schools in the city with little coordination and community input.

Our Education Efforts
The stability and progress brought on during the Good Neighborhoods Initiative was fragile. Systems were broken. The City was broken.

For the first time, DPS took part in a national assessment that compared its test scores to other big-city districts, the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Detroit ranked dead last. The Skillman Foundation, under the leadership of Carol Goss, assembled education stakeholders every Friday to form shared understanding and plans.

These Friday meetings turned into an education boot camp with Detroit education, government, community, and philanthropic leaders around the table. This group came up with the plan for Excellent Schools Detroit, which was established as a nonprofit in 2010 to work with these leaders and sectors and enact a plan to dramatically improve all Detroit schools. The plan involved public will building, talent development, new school creation, accountability, and early childhood education. Tonya Allen sat on the board.

The State of Michigan also enacted a national education reform plan, which was to improve the lowest performing schools by assuming state control of them. The idea was that this would allow more money to go directly into classrooms and that it would offer greater autonomy to help ensure student achievement increased. This system was called the Education Achievement Authority, or EAA, and it started in Michigan with a set of Detroit Public Schools. The EAA was governed by an 11-member board, with two members appointed by DPS, two members appointed by Eastern Michigan University, and seven members appointed by the governor. Roy Roberts, the first Emergency Manager of DPS, served as the EAA’s board chair. When he left, Skillman President Carol Goss served as board chair.

As parents’ confidence in Detroit Public Schools continued to dip, so did student enrollment, and the district’s debt continued to rise. 

The movement of students across schools—charter and DPS—picked up speed. Conversations about predatory enrollment practices and the pushing out of special needs kids were prevalent among parents. For schools, the movement of students made it hard to plan, budget, and staff. For advocates like The Skillman Foundation, the transience made tracking the academic improvement of students and schools all but impossible.

Dan Varner, Former CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit and member of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren

Detroit Public Schools was catapulting toward bankruptcy and would be insolvent by the middle of 2016.

What could be done?

The Skillman Foundation convened a diverse cross-section of grasstops and grassroots leaders, coming together as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. The Coalition called on Mayor Duggan and Governor Snyder to listen to Detroiters and make the city’s schools whole again. It demanded that the State assume responsibility for the debt incurred largely under the State’s watch. It demanded that control of the public school system be put back in the hands of Detroiters. And it demanded that accountability measures be put in place for charter schools. After about 18 months of pressuring state lawmakers, drafting recommendations, and holding testimonies and rallies in Lansing, it got two of these three.

Former Skillman Foundation CEO, Tonya Allen, speaks at a Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren meeting at Fellowship Chapel Church, March 2015

The Coalition’s work resulted in $670M from the State of Michigan to resolve DPS’s debt—more money than the State of Michigan gave to the Detroit municipal bankruptcy—and it restored control to a locally elected school board and new superintendent, Dr. Nikolai Vitti.

Who has opportunity in Detroit?
Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children

Detroit schoolchildren participating in after school activities

The Context

At the same time of historic population decreases in 2010, the white population in Detroit begins to rise. The city becomes a “hot spot” because of inexpensive real estate and corporate investment rebuilding a vibrant downtown core. Meanwhile, more philanthropy emerges in the city. Mayor Duggan is elected with promise to invest in downtown and “priority” neighborhoods. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District is launched as a debt-free district.  Things look to be on the rise, but for who? A narrative about two Detroits, a “new Detroit” and “old/legacy Detroit” begins, asking who has opportunity and will benefit in Detroit’s resurgence.

Our Education Efforts
The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren turned its sights to changes Detroiters could lead. This cross-section of grassroots and grasstop leaders identified several core issues to be tackled, including third-grade reading, attendance, educator recruitment and retention, and college and career pathways. If this list sounds familiar, it may be because these focus areas are reflected within our Opportunity Agenda strategy, along with our steadfast support to bolster Detroit’s afterschool system.

The Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children wasn’t about us at The Skillman Foundation setting the agenda. It was born from a hivemind of local practitioners and stakeholders coming together to put forth the key challenges they saw. It was about setting shared goals that would be reached in partnership with many others. And it was grounded in our history of efforts, our learnings, and our strengths.

At the start of the Opportunity Agenda, we supported a number of emerging collaborations including Every School Day Counts Detroit (focused on attendance), 313Reads! (focused on literacy), Teach313 (focused on educators), and Detroit Drives Degrees (focused on college and career). Additionally, we continued to nurture the development of Detroit Children’s Fund to attract more private, corporate, and philanthropic funding to Detroit schools.  

Over the past few years, we’ve continued to make shifts in our strategy in accordance with shifts in the context. The biggest shift of all—COVID. We flipped into urgent-response mode, asking our nonprofit and school partners what they needed, and we moved rapidly to fill gaps.

In September of 2021, Angelique Power stepped in as the leader of The Skillman Foundation and took this question—What do you need?—further, holding a listening tour to hear directly from Detroit youth and the adults closest to them.  

Moving Forward

This reflection of The Skillman Foundation’s history in K-12 education helps us understand where the Foundation has been as we consider how we must move forward to meet THIS moment in time. Some of the lessons we took from this review are:

  • Support the immediate needs of children and commit to long-term systems change.
  • Understand that improving metrics, like academic scores, takes many moving pieces and partners working in alignment; and that not everything that matters can be measured.
  • Listen to Detroit youth and support them and their adult champions to design and move solutions.
  • Put Detroit kids above all, always.

The latest info about how The Skillman Foundation is supporting Detroit youth and their champions can be found on our blog and grants list (the latter is updated quarterly).

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