All hands on deck

Published May 17, 2016: The GradNation Summit brought students, educators and the community together to solve Greater Detroit's biggest education issues and put all kids on the pathway to college and careers.

Video by Charles Ashley, Story by Jessica Page-Carreras

In Michigan, nearly one out of every five high school students doesn't graduate on time. On top of that, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimates that nearly 60 percent of high school graduates nationwide are not adequately prepared for college.

At the GradNation Summit on May 5 in Detroit, hundreds of students, educators and community members came together to discuss the factors that cause both issues, as well as how community partners can partner to create solutions.

GradNation Detroit, then and now

National nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance, with the help of local partners, has hosted more than 100 GradNation summits across the United States. During the summits, each community addresses its unique barriers to student success.

In Greater Detroit, the issues are plentiful and complex: legislative battles, poverty and other social factors, quality of facilities, and safety of neighborhoods and schools.

America’s Promise Senior Director of Community Engagement Chrystal Morris Murphy recalled that in 2012, when Detroit’s first GradNation summit was held, the primary focus in Greater Detroit was on graduating more kids from high school. And, she said, that’s still the organization’s primary goal nationwide — specifically, to reach a national graduation rate of 90 percent by the year 2020.

But in Michigan, an equally large issue looms: The growth of highly skilled jobs is outpacing the rate at which young adults are getting the education, training and skills needed to fill those positions.

“We need students who can problem solve, who can think critically, who can communicate, who can innovate, and essentially who can take learning and life into their own hands rather than sit in nice, neat rows and fill in bubbles on a Scantron sheet,” said Ronda Alexander, who is the STEM Initiatives manager for Ford Motor Company's Next Generation Learning Program. “That’s not useful for our students.”

Students at the GradNation summit agreed, stating that mentoring programs are crucial to their success after high school.

“I’ve had a great experience at my school because of the teachers and administrators there who reach out to students to make sure they’re comfortable inside the school,” said Osborn High School senior Travon Stearns. “Keep mentoring programs, because they play an important role inside of our schools.”

But Ladell Watson, a junior at River Rouge High School, pointed out that great programs in schools only work if students take advantage of them.

“We have opportunities for our students, but ambition has to be there,” he said. “If Southeastern Michigan students develop ambition, they’ll succeed in life.”

Students attending GradNation take a tour of Wayne State University.

Looking beyond graduation day

United Way for Southeastern Michigan and its partners have worked for years on education issues in Greater Detroit. Since 2008, the focus has been on improving graduation rates – especially in a network of 15 schools that were identified as struggling to graduate students, and whose administration agreed to work to raise graduation rates.

“Together with our partners, our network of schools has achieved an average graduation of 80 percent,” United Way for Southeastern Michigan CEO Dr. Herman Gray said at the GradNation Summit. “But we have much more work to do.”

Looking forward, that work will center not just on getting more diplomas in students’ hands, but ensuring their success once they’ve moved their tassel.

“We need to ensure students aren’t just graduating, but that they’re graduating with a clear pathway – a realistic runway – to college and career opportunities,” Herman said. “We accept nothing less than creating positive trajectories for every student for their lifetime.”

Education Achievement Authority of Michigan Chancellor Veronica Conforme agreed, stating at GradNation that schools need to show kids all of their options and guide them to choosing a career or college pathway that is best for them.

“Our job doesn’t stop when they walk across the stage,” she added. “Our job is to ensure that they are on a pathway and that they have access to a job or to be successful in college.”

WXYZ-TV's Carolyn Clifford moderates a GradNation Summit panel featuring, from left, United Way for Southeastern Michigan President & CEO Dr. Herman Gray, Skillman Foundation President & CEO Tonya Allen, and Osborn High School student Travon Stearns.

Working together toward solutions

A common theme emerged from the thoughts of panelists and speakers at the GradNation summit: It takes the effort of everyone – students, parents, educators, community organizations and corporate partners – to create the right conditions for student success.

Educator and scholar Dr. Robert Simmons III, who was the keynote speaker for Detroit’s GradNation Summit, drove that point home and said that adults need to commit to helping youth in whatever ways they can, whether they work in education or not.

“We need more programs, but young people need your heart,” he said, of the adults who work with students. “They need your soul. And you need to bring your spirit and your energy to this work.”

In a similar vein, Herman acknowledged that the work being done by United Way for Southeastern Michigan and its Greater Detroit partners in the education sphere is about much more than what happens in schools.

“Everything we do impacts and influences how children are raised and what they ultimately become,” he said. “(The work we do) is really the work of providing a supportive environment for children; the right substrate to grow a productive, highly educated, skilled human being that will be prepared to live life in the 21st century.”

And, Robert stressed, the work is crucial to making sure an entire generation of students is prepared to lead our world.

“We are in a fight for the lives and souls of our young people,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Attendees of the Detroit GradNation Summit gather for a photo.