Detroit teen credits United Way for his path to college

United Way for Southeastern Michigan seeing success with hits high school turnaround program

DETROIT - TyJuan Robinson is not sure where he would be had he not seen a flier on a wall.  

He does know he would not be making plans to attend college in the fall.

"I couldn't even tell you, I don't even know where I'd be, I'd be somewhere lost," said Robinson.

The flier was for a United Way for Southeastern Michigan program.

"The Osborn Turnaround Center and the 180 program helped me get my mind straight, helped me get off the streets, get me off that, get me on track to focused about school," Robinson said.

Robinson is now a senior at Osborn High School's Academy of Mathematics Science and Technology and will attend Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. in the fall. 

Robinson earned a scholarship and plans to get his degree in business administration.

The high school senior knows his story could have had a different ending, because he was in a gang before connecting with the United Way.

"The neighborhood I grew up it was really rough, like gangs, lot of gangs, gang-related like drug houses," said Robinson. "It was like a hot crime-related neighborhood."

It was the gang life that inspired Robinson to look for a better option for his future.

"Man that's what made me get out of there and really influenced me to want to go to college," said Robinson.

Robinson said he is excited to go to school every day and motivated by his teachers to learn. 

"I wasn't even worried about college at first and didn't think I would be able to go to college.  I got a scholarship, I got accepted to college and it's like it's like a big family," said Robinson about Osborn High School.

Osborn High School is one of 15 schools the United Way for Southeastern Michigan is currently working with in its turnaround program.     After five years the agency is seeing some success.

"The graduation rates not only went up, they soared," said Mark Fields, chief operating officer for Ford Motor Company and the current chairman of the United Way's Invest in Our Kids campaign.

"Our first network of kids graduated last year and we moved that graduation rate all the way to 78 percent, one point higher than the state average, and these are in schools where traditionally the graduation rate was closer to 50 percent," said Mike Tenbusch, the vice president for educational preparedness at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

The United Way said it set a goal of turning around schools in which the senior classes were less than 60 percent the size of the freshman class for at least three years. The schools have to be committed to getting its graduation rates to at least 80 percent for their incoming freshman class.

When the United Way partners with the schools it brings in a turnaround expert, empowers strong school leaders with decision-making authority, develops a plan with teachers and implements it.   The turnaround partner helps change culture, curriculum and instruction to create more personalized learning for the students.

Often times that includes breaking large schools up into smaller ones with smaller classes.

The following schools are in the program:
Network 1
Cody Academy of Public Leadership
Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody
Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody
Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology
Osborn College Preparatory Academy
Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy
Lincoln High School
Melvindale High School

GM Network of Excellence
Henry Ford High School
Central Collegiate Academy
East Detroit High School
Madison High School
River Rouge High School
Hamtramck High School
Harper Woods High School

Community partners including Ford, General Motors and Quicken Loans also work in the schools.

"Their employees team up kids and teachers in very real ways to mentor and help kids get on a college and career path," said Tenbusch.

"There are so many programs and partners that we have so there is something for every student here to do and be a part of," said Osborn High School teacher Dawn McFarlin.

McFarlin is one example of how teachers in the turnaround schools focus on helping students succeed both in and out of the classroom.  She helped Robinson stay focused on school.

"When I met TyJuan I saw that he was a student I really needed to focus on, so it was nothing for me to call him at six o'clock or seven o'clock in the morning and say 'OK where are you?  Are you up?  Don't go there, go here, and you know I'll be waiting for you,'" said McFarlin.

The United Way is also involved in trying to educate metro Detroit children from birth with its Little Steps Hospital Initiative.   Volunteers are visiting new parents in hospitals the day after a child is born to ask them to commit to reading to their new baby for 15 minutes a day.  Those who make the commitment are given a book a month for the first five years of a child's life. 

They then follow up with those parents a few months later to see how they are doing, offer to connect them with any services they might need.  They also tell them about the United Way's early learning communities that offer free parenting classes and other resources in the neighborhoods.  

These programs are part of what the United Way calls its "big hairy audacious goal."

"We have here what's called our 'bhag' big hairy audacious goal is that by 2030 the greater Detroit is one of the top 5 places to live and work," said Michael Brennan, the president and CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. "The kids that have been born in the last two years are the graduating class of 2030 and as the adults in the region we're on the clock to ensure that we're doing the right things so the next Carmen Harlan, the next Damon Keith, right? are in fact coming out of our community and we're doing the things that are necessary to ensure their success."

At Osborn High School, the principal sees the turnaround plan working.

"We've seen the the next doctors, the next lawyers, we have definitely seen the next teachers, we know that we've seen the next principals. I believe I've seen the person that will replace me one day," said principal Tanya Bowman.

Fields, who is ending his year-long role as campaign chairman for the United Way, is passionate about the agency's goal.

"Babies that are born today, 17 years from now, that they'll be the most college and career ready class in the nation, that's very aspirational" said Fields.

Thursday, April 10, the United Way will hold its 'Passing the Torch' campaign event.  Fields is expected to announce at that event the results of the Invest in Our Kids campaign and whether they reached the $40 million goal. 

The new campaign chairman will be Dan Ammann, the global president of General Motors.

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