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Oakland University’s partnership aids Pontiac’s revival

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Tonia Thibodeaux attended Pontiac Northern High School 30 years ago and remembers Oakland University was perceived as an expensive, elite school catering to students in other suburbs — not an option for youth in her impoverished community.

Though OU is five miles east of Pontiac, Thibodeaux said university officials did not visit her high school to expose students to nearby higher educational opportunities. And high school counselors did not encourage them to try to get admitted.

“We knew that we were not wanted there, so why should we even try, especially when we were not exposed to it?” said Thibodeaux, who went to Oakland Community College, then to Ferris State University.

But the relationship between Oakland University and Pontiac is changing. In 2014, the university based in parts of Rochester and Auburn Hills began a handful of programs with Pontiac schools and the city that laid a foundation for a partnership known as the Oakland University Pontiac Initiative.

Three years later, the initiative is thriving. The more than 32 programs include education and college readiness, job training, business startup support, neighborhood development, arts and culture.

It has led to more Pontiac school students enrolling at Oakland, the state’s seventh largest public university with 20,012 students. There is also a deeper university relationship with the community and a bigger contribution to the city’s fledgling renaissance.

Some say the partnership’s most important outcome is to provide hope in one of the poorest cities in Metro Detroit.

“Pontiac is the forgotten city in Michigan,” said Rick David, owner of Murphy House Bed and Breakfast in Pontiac and chief executive of the social service agency Lighthouse of Oakland County.

“We are in the shadow of the city of Detroit. They have so many foundations; Flint has Mott (Foundation), but Pontiac has no homegrown foundations. We need partnerships, like this one with Oakland University because ... here in Pontiac, there are more dreams ahead of us than achievements behind us.”

The partnership comes as universities around the nation are descending on Detroit to help in its revival. OU President George Hynd was strongly encouraged to get the university involved in Detroit when he arrived in 2014, but he thought Oakland should partner with Pontiac. It was closer to the university and smaller than Detroit, he said, but facing similar issues such as unemployment, vacant storefronts, poverty and struggling schools.

“The people who were encouraging me to get engaged in Detroit were looking right over Pontiac,” Hynd said. “Pontiac seemed as needy as Detroit. If we were going to build an engagement structure that works, it would be nice if we had a more well-defined community to work in.”

Crisis spurs change

The effort began when Pontiac — the county seat of Oakland County, one of the wealthiest in the nation — was under state emergency management because of financial issues. The school district also was financially troubled with a multimillion-dollar deficit.

Financial crisis enveloped Pontiac after several General Motors manufacturing plants pulled out of the region, resulting in thousands of job losses in 2005-10, officials said. Pontiac’s population fell in tandem, from 66,337 in 2000 to 59,525 in 2010, census figures show.

Housing values subsequently plummeted, property tax revenues decreased and state revenue sharing was slashed, creating a financial deficit that led to three emergency managers. The school district lost thousands of students.

It was 2013, and Kevin Corcoran had become the new dean of OU’s College of Arts and Sciences. He was meeting with Tom Kimble, a retired GM executive who had long supported Oakland.

Kimble asked Corcoran a pivotal question: Why doesn’t Oakland cross Opdyke — the county road akin to Eight Mile dividing Detroit and its suburbs.

“I have never seen the college go across Opdyke Road to help the city of Pontiac, and I haven’t seen a lot of students come to OU,” Kimble said to Corcoran. “... It is time that those bridges are broken down.”

While new to Oakland, Corcoran decided to make it his mission to lead the change.

“Like many universities, we sort of paid attention to ourselves,” he said. “We looked inward instead of outward.”

A series of conversations were held with community leaders. In fall 2014, the community was invited to a Saturday morning town hall meeting, and 120 people showed up for four hours to brainstorm ideas.

Another meeting was held a few months later in January 2015, and another 120 people showed up.

“We heard a really strong emphasis on increased access to college for young people,” said Robert Maxfield, the now-retired special assistant for the initiative. “Lot of emphasis on employability. ... Some interest in the arts, communication.”

The group identified four broad areas the partnership would focus on: K-12 education, economic development, communications and an area they referred to as “experiential learning.”

They wanted to quickly establish credibility for the initiative with some projects, so they turned to Pontiac schools.

Students were struggling with academics that made it difficult to pursue a degree at Oakland, Pontiac Superintendent Kelley Williams said. They were not prepared for high school algebra, for instance, and needed more parental participation in their education, she told initiative leaders.

“We wanted our students to have hope, go to college and pursue a career,” Williams said.

Oakland heeded the call: A summer workshop was held for seventh-graders on OU’s campus that has since expanded to include pre-algebra, geometry and computer science camps.

A “Parent University” also was created, based on a model in Grand Rapids, offering free classes to parents.

Among the parents who have attended is Treeve Cason, who has learned about where to get healthy food and how to cook it. She also got a book with suggestions on how to teach her three children.

“I hope (my kids) graduate from high school and hopefully they go to college,” said Cason, 32. “If they don’t, I hope they do something positive.”

Communication grows

The university also helped the city government as it emerged from state oversight. Mayor Deirdre Waterman took office with 30 full-time staff members — down from more than 800 employees when the city was at its peak in 1980s.

“That why the partnership with Oakland is important,” Waterman said. “It’s one of the innovative ways the city could realize some of its goals and strategies in the face of the limited manpower and resources.”

One project involved OU’s communication and journalism department, which helped Waterman communicate with city residents since she had no professional staff. Students reported and wrote stories on city happenings for a newsletter, The Spirit of Pontiac, mailed to 25,000 homes and businesses.

It has been an invaluable experience for students, said Garry Gilbert, program director and adviser to OU’s student newspaper, The Oakland Post. .

A newsletter story about a small group of Pontiac high school and OU students who created community service projects resulted in a $100,000 grant from a local business. AkzoNobel, a coatings, chemicals and decorative paints company, made the investment in the student nonprofit, the Leaders of the Future.

“We are very impressed by their proactive role to revitalize the city and are excited to amplify their work,” said Rick Rucoba, a spokesman for AkzoNobel, which employs 350 staff in Pontiac and Troy.”

OU has invested about $250,000, with some money from Pontiac and local hospitals. But it is working to get funding for projects to sustain them.

Though Pontiac High School remains in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools academically, its deficit has shrunk. Enrollment of Pontiac students at Oakland is steadily growing.

Meanwhile, downtown Pontiac is starting to show signs of life. The once-vacant Strand Theatre for Performing Arts has reopened after millions of dollars of investment. A cafe and upscale lofts have popped up. New restaurants have posted “coming soon” signs in vacant storefronts.

“Some might have argued Oakland was a complacent suburban university made up of primarily suburban students from the tri-county area,” former initiative chief Maxwell said. “...We’ve always aspired to be more than that, but we weren’t seen that way. This is a chance to establish ourselves.”