A foundation, a district, and a university unite in Detroit to build one of the nation’s first ‘cradle to career’ schools

The long-term vision for a new “cradle to career” school in Detroit is sweeping and ambitious.

When it’s up and running, the school coming to the campus of Marygrove College in northwest Detroit will be one of the first in the nation to serve everyone from babies to graduate students, simultaneously educating children, giving high school students the opportunity to earn college credits, and training teachers in an innovative new way.

The still-unnamed school, which was formally announced Thursday in a press conference at Marygrove College, is a joint effort between the University of Michigan, the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Kresge Foundation.

It will be a very different kind of school — made possible with a $50 million investment from Kresge that the foundation says is the largest philanthropic investment ever made in a single Detroit neighborhood.

“I’m really excited about this on so many different levels,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. “We’ve had examples of partnerships over the past year but this is probably one of the most defining partnerships we’ve had.”

The school is major coup for the district, which gets a chance to demonstrate its ability to launch cutting-edge new schools even as it works to stabilize a long-troubled school system. It’s also significant for Michigan, which is trying to reinvent teacher training in the United States, and marks an important moment for Kresge as the institution leads the way in both early childhood education and supporting the neighborhood near Marygrove. (Kresge is also a Chalkbeat funder).

Many of the details of the new school are still being worked out but plans are for the high school to open first, welcoming its first class of 50 to 100 ninth graders next fall. An early childhood center and the kindergarten will open in 2020, and new grades will be added each year until the school has approximately 1,000 students in the preschool and K-12 grades in 2029.

The school is the result of multiple initiatives, all coming together at once.  

One initiative came from the University of Michigan’s school of education, where Dean Elizabeth Moje has been trying to change the way teachers are trained.

Instead of having teachers do a few months of student teaching before being handed the keys to their own classrooms, Moje wanted to find a way to continue supporting new teachers through their first years in the classroom. She designed a new kind of school, modeled on the way teaching hospitals train doctors, where future educators would do internships and student teaching while in college or graduate school, then stay on for three more years as teaching “residents.” Residents would be full-time employees of the teaching school, paid like any other first-, second- or third-year teacher in the district, but they would continue to receive guidance from veteran “attending” teachers.

Moje’s vision called for faculty from across the university to get involved in the school in various ways, including people from the business and engineering schools, as well as its schools of social work and dentistry.

Moje took her idea to Vitti, who had arrived in Detroit last year making bold promises about transforming the district. Early in his administration, Vitti talked of giving every school in the district a distinct identity that could help attract new students.

The two agreed to partner on a new K-12 school. The district will operate the school, host student teachers from the university, then hire them for at least three years after they graduate. The university will run the residency program in the school. Though the district will make final hiring decisions, it will work with the university to recruit and hire teachers, making sure veteran educators are qualified to coach less experienced colleagues.

The district and the university will collaborate on developing a new engineering, urban planning, and business-oriented curriculum for the high school that will have a social change focus.

“It’s not just engineering with a math, science, tech lens,” Vitti said. “It’s about having a skill set to give back to Detroit as an engineer. … It’s thinking about what does this mean in the context of improving my community in a sustainable, long-term way?”

That high school will include a dual-enrollment program that will enable students to take college courses, possibly offered on campus by the University of Michigan or another college or university.

“We’re exploring connections with two- and four-year institutions,” Moje said. “The plan is to be able to get the kids to a place where by their junior and senior year, they’re taking college courses.”

Dual enrollment and early college programs that let high school students earn college credits are common in high schools across the country, but are currently only offered in a handful of Detroit schools.

The third crucial force behind the new school is the Kresge Foundation, which has been heavily involved with Marygrove College since 2016, when leaders at the storied college first contacted the foundation for help weathering a financial crisis.

Wendy Lewis Jackson, who is the managing director for Kresge’s Detroit program, said the foundation had been supporting the college’s efforts to reinvent itself as an educational anchor in the neighborhood even before the unexpected announcement last summer that the college would abruptly shutter its undergraduate programs while continuing to offer graduate programs. That announcement shocked and angered Margrove students and the surrounding community. It also left some buildings on the campus vacant.

By November, Kresge, the district, and the university were engaged in serious negotiations about creating the new school, Jackson said. It will occupy the building on Marygrove’s campus that was the original home of the Bates Academy, a selective district elementary school that’s now in a different location.

Kresge has also been focused in recent years on early childhood education. The foundation partnered last year with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (also a Chalkbeat funder) on the Hope Starts Here initiative, a 10-year effort to improve the lives of young children in Detroit.

It seemed natural that the new program at Marygrove would include an early childhood center that would address many of the needs identified by Hope Starts Here effort including programs that support children’s physical and emotional health.

The center will serve babies, toddlers — even expectant mothers, Jackson said.

“It’s a comprehensive approach to early childhood that focuses on prenatal to age five and that will include comprehensive wraparound services focused on health and human services,” Jackson said. “How do you support the whole child and the family during these crucial years?”

The new early childhood center is one of three early childhood “hubs” that Kresge plans to build across Detroit in coming years. The hubs will not only serve young children in their communities, they will also aim to be resource to other preschools and programs in the neighborhoods, providing services such as a teacher training.

Kresge had already committed $25 million to building the three preschools as part of its commitment to Hope Starts Here.

The $50 million Kresge announced Thursday morning will go toward renovating buildings for the school and the early childhood center as well as operational support for the Marygrove Conservancy, the nonprofit agency that now owns the buildings on Marygrove’s 53-acre campus, Jackson said.

The early childhood center will be run by the nonprofit Starfish Family Services. It will have a mix of Head Start seats for children whose family incomes or circumstances qualify them for the free federal preschool program, as well as private seats that families with more means will pay for.

As children get older, graduates of the early childhood center will be largely guaranteed a place in the school’s kindergarten and upper grades.

“The idea is that it will be a seamless opportunity for children that starts in the early childhood center and moves into K-12 and beyond,” Jackson said. “The partners are all committed to making sure there are enough spaces available for students and families that live in the Marygrove community to be able access these educational options.”

Admissions to the high school will be competitive in the early years, with students being selected using a process similar to the one the district is now using to decide admissions to selective schools like Cass Technical High School.

But as the school grows, the high school will ultimately be filled mostly with students advancing from lower grades who will be chosen using a lottery system that will favor students who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Plans call for 80 percent of kindergarten seats to be set aside for neighborhood children.

Some other details are still falling into place including the role that different University of Michigan departments will play.

Departments that could be involved include the schools of social work, nursing, dentistry, engineering, business, information, pharmacy, and architecture.

The business school has talked about offering courses like financial literacy to students or possibly working with students and the nearby community to help launch small businesses. The engineering school is exploring a number of possibilities, said Alec Gallimore, dean of the university’s engineering department.

“For us it could be anything from rocketry to video games,” he said. “This might be a really nice vehicle for some interesting collaborations.”

The School of Social Work not only plans to train some of its students to become school social workers in the new teaching school, but social work dean Lynn Videka said she is also hoping to raise private funds to pay for a social work residency program.

A residency would enable some graduates of her program to stay on for a year or two after earning their Masters in Social Work while they work toward fulfilling the requirements they need to become fully licensed social workers.

She sees this school as the perfect place to train professionals who will be coming through a new joint program on treating children who’ve experienced trauma that is now being created by the schools of social work, nursing and education.

“It’s a perfect setting in which to innovate with social work residents,” Videka said.