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Skillman CEO leads charge for change in Detroit schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

As a child Tonya Allen attended nine different schools in Detroit between kindergarten and 12th grade.

"My family experienced challenges, economic instability. As a result I know what it's like to switch schools often. I know the different between quality and no quality," said Allen, the 42-year-old president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation.

Today, two decades later, school-age children face the same prospects in Detroit, where education operates like a revolving door, with students attending multiple public, charter and private schools, in some cases in the same school year, in the search for a safe, high quality school in their city.

Allen is working to change that. She has been leading the charge on education reform in Detroit since 2004 on multiple fronts.

Allen orchestrated the development of a $200 million, citywide education reform organization called Excellent Schools Detroit. And she served as the architect of the 10-year, $100 million Good Neighborhoods program, which works to boost high school graduation rates, create safe routes to school and empower youth.

Allen is also leading 2015 efforts on President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper Initiative, a plan to change outcomes for young men of color in Detroit with $2 million in grants.

And now, Allen is deeply engaged in her biggest challenge yet.

Merging her educational work at Skillman with conversations from community leaders about the need to collaborate to fix Detroit schools, Allen convened the biggest education reform initiative in Detroit's history — the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

Created in December, the coalition of Detroit education, civic, business, religious, labor and community leaders gave itself a March 31 deadline to develop recommendations to the governor for improving education in Detroit.

Allen is as one of the five community leaders co-chairing the coalition, whose focus is to make a comprehensive and exhaustive study of how education is delivered in Detroit, who delivers it and what standards it demands to produce students ready for careers and college.

Its members must face what has failed in the past — Detroit Public Schools floundering under six years of state control, four emergency managers and a quarter century of drastic enrollment and economic decline; the reality of charter schools educating 55 percent of all school-age children in Detroit; and the recent Education Achievement Authority mired in controversy with minimal results.

Still, Allen says she is on the right path to not only change the conversation about education in Detroit, but to do something that will change the lives of children.

"I'm the most satisfied I've ever been in terms of the potential impact of the work and identifying the right issues to be working on," Allen says from her office near the Detroit Riverwalk. "Yes, I am exhausted ... but what makes this more energetic is that I think this work will have a greater impact than the work I have done before."

What makes this initiative different from others, Allen says, is the passion among coalition members to do work that results in real change. That means meeting 10 to 15 hours every week for the last dozen or so weeks.

"They believe this our shot to really change this. Many are more willing to put the time in. They want it right versus getting it done," she said.

The city's bankruptcy experience, Allen says, is compelling the group to work together, providing "a collective memory of our community doing something hard and successfully.

"We are relying on that collective memory. It's given us a new muscle to take on the most challenging and pivotal issue facing Detroit — that's how we educate children and how we sustain our city," Allen said. "Detroiters were tired of fighting each other. This has been a real opportunity to fight together for each other."

Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, says Allen is incredibly intelligent, relentless in the amount of work she will dedicate to the job and open to being criticized. She is willing to be first in terms of sharing what she fears, he said.

Varner, co-chair of governance for the coalition and a steering committee member, thinks Allen is doing more than anyone else to change the lives of Detroit children for the better. "She is all in — moving the lives of Detroit kids — she will work relentlessly about that," Varner said.

What makes her leadership valuable, he said, is that she is optimistic about a subject for which many hold out little hope.

"I've never been a part of anything like this. It's incredible. Really unlikely folks coming together to work together," he said.

Allen said she's had a few eye opening moments since the coalition began its work, including how current state policies are exacerbating enrollment problems in Detroit and elsewhere, causing instability at all schools.

"Charter schools are 20 years old and the only thing we have done is to lift the cap and allow cyber schools. We have never rethought what to do with them. Now they are serving half the population of students," she said.

Still, the city's fractured education system is not an indictment on school choice, Allen says.

"If we are going to have a choice system then we have support it so choice is real and equitable. The coalition is in full support of choice," she said.

Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, has presented research by her education advocacy group at coalition meetings. "The grace and leadership that she brings to the table to bring people together has been impressive," Arellano said of Allen.

For starters there are about 230 schools in four competing system across 138 square miles. Students often spend more than hour getting to school via city buses and up to two hours getting home. Then there is DPS' $170 million deficit that could take nine years to wipe out.

Arellano says the coalition faces difficult politics, an antiquated bureaucracy, a weak tax base, school talent challenges and a lack of targeted state investment in effective strategies to raise student learning.

"This is just the start of a long list of challenges that make Detroit's educational turnaround so tough," Arellano said. "The big question is, can a grand bargain be negotiated like the Detroit bankruptcy was? If it's going to happen, Tonya is the person to do it."

Allen, whose past work included positions at the Southfield Community Foundation, the Detroit Parent Network and the Thompson McCully Foundation, says she hopes philanthropy will play a role eventually. "It's a broad discussion on moving this forward," she said.

The Skillman Foundation's latest campaign, "Rise Together," focuses on post-bankruptcy Detroit, where everyone is ready to move on including neighborhoods where longtime residents have suffered through years of spotty city services.

Allen says neighborhoods are coming to life in new ways.

"As Detroit recovers, what will it require for us to do to ensure that every person is involved in the recovery? How can children participate in the new economy and how can they prosper?" she said.