Howes: Marygrove schools partnership builds on neighborhood foundation

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Marygrove's Detroit schools partnership units Kresge Foundation with the University of Michigan to improve public-school teaching in Detroit, rebuild the surrounding neighborhood.

Detroit — The city's neighborhoods are in play, finally.

Three months after Ford Motor Co. confirmed plans to convert Corktown's dilapidated Michigan Central Depot into its center for mobility and self-driving vehicle development, a consortium backed by $50 million from the Kresge Foundation is planning a cradle-to-career educational complex on the campus of Marygrove College at Wyoming and McNichols.

"It's fair to ask, 'Will it work,'" Kresge CEO Rip Rapson said Thursday. "The answer is unequivocally 'yes.' The time for the pivot to the neighborhoods is now" in what he called "an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization."

The symbolism is striking. The Detroit Public Schools Community District board, burdened with a legacy of underperforming schools and labor troubles, is wagering it can create a new model for traditional public education by partnering with the University of Michigan's School of Education, Starfish Family Services and Marygrove to teach local students and teach their teachers.

Borrowing from the residency programs used in medical education, the Ann Arbor university founded 201 years ago in Detroit would leverage its reputation and expertise in what President Mark Schlissel calls "teamwork in service to the public." The result would be community redevelopment anchored in education.

Kresge would fund construction of an early childhood center. DPSCD would operate a K-8 school and a high school carved from the former Bates Academy on the east edge of campus. UM would run an undergraduate "residency" program for aspiring teachers. And Marygrove would continue to offer graduate courses and professional development.

The outcome touted Thursday was far from guaranteed less than two years ago. That's when Marygrove faced financial collapse because of plunging enrollment and punishing debt, a cash drain stemmed only when Kresge stepped in and stabilized the college's operations pending discussions about its future.

Now the college, founded in Monroe in 1905 ostensibly to train teachers, is partnering with some of the region's heaviest heavyweights to build a new kind of urban education. It's expected to preserve Marygrove's historic mission and speed neighborhood improvements that locals like Martin McNeeley already see happening.

"Thank you for saving my neighborhood," the Marygrove graduate told Kresge's Rapson. "I've been here for 50 years, and I've seen it decline. I see it coming back" with new streetlights, regular trash pickup, street repair and snow removal. "The last two years, it's been beautiful."

That's a start. Even as downtown and Midtown attract billions in private investment — from mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family to big corporate relocations and small business investment — neighborhood residents and the civic groups representing them routinely pose a question: what about us?

Five years after the city's historic bankruptcy filing, growing evidence suggests it's their turn. In partnership with residents and businesses, Ford says it will invest $740 million to build out the Corktown campus. Kresge is spearheading numerous community initiatives. A JPMorgan Chase program continues to invest in small-business creation.

And neighborhood reinvention figured prominently in Mayor Mike Duggan's re-election campaign for two reasons. It's politically potent in a city that struggled for decades to provide basic services, and, second, it's the next obvious step in the city's revitalization.

Reinvesting in downtown and Midtown, essentially the spine of Detroit, helps bolster tax base, fuel economic activity and create tax-paying jobs. Reinvesting in neighborhoods and improving traditional public education strengthens community and gives Detroiters a reason to stay, to reap the benefits of rising property values.

"What this town needs to be shown again and again is you can take big ideas and make them real," said Rapson, a prime mover behind the "grand bargain" that helped settle the city's bankruptcy settlement in near-record time. "So many people are waiting to see efforts like this fail."

Sad, but true. They're the same folks who doubt the city's revival can maintain traction; who predict a new school board and yet another new school superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, can't succeed because others have failed; who don't understand that the difference this time can be found in leadership — in City Hall, in business, in philanthropy and in public education.

Marygrove is not the first Detroit icon to trace this familiar arc. A storied campus opened in 1927, on the cusp of Detroit's Golden Age, teeters on the edge of financial collapse, a victim of changing demographics, unrealistic management and an unwillingness to reckon with the times. It happened to General Motors Co., to City Hall, to the city's pre-eminent arts institutions, to Marygrove.

Each were forced to reinvent themselves, to balance aspiration with financial reality and potential community support. Each required their leaders to embrace their predicament as it was, not as they wanted it to be.

The heart of the so-called "P-20 Partnership" is Detroit's reconstituted public school district. It's backed by Kresge's money, the University of Michigan's commitment to train teachers to teach Detroit's youth — and the courage of its leadership to develop a new model for educating the city's kids, right in the heart of a neighborhood.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM