#EdMattersHere: High-quality choices goal for neighborhood schools

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Neighborhood schools matter.

The school year is off to a great start and once again we can see children all over the city headed to bus stops, walking with siblings and parents, or riding their bikes with back packs and uniforms, making their way to school. I have always loved the fall for this reason. There is an energy carried throughout the city as we imagine what the new school year will bring and remember our own school experiences – good and bad – that shaped who we are today.

Schools play a big role not just in the lives of their students and staff but in the neighborhoods where they are located. They act as critical influencers, helping to predict the readiness of the future workforce, the long-term economic viability of the neighborhood and the cohesion of community services that support families in their daily lives. In short, neighborhood schools matter.

If we believe as a city, that education is the cornerstone of our long-term success, then we have to strengthen our resolve and commitment to our neighborhood school and ensure that every child has access to a high-performing school within walking distance of his home.

Here at the Skillman Foundation, we have made a commitment to ensuring at least half of the kids in our six targeted neighborhoods are in a great neighborhood school by 2016.  (Wonder what those neighborhoods are? Click here.)

That might not sound like an ambitious goal. But it is, considering how far we are from it.

A high-quality school, as we see it, is a school that is excelling in three key ways: It offers excellent math and reading instruction. It has strong, meaningful connections to the community. And it has the capacity to include student voice and personalization into its programming. Various research studies have proven that when schools excel in these three areas, kids are graduating in a meaningful way, ready for college, career and life.

What do we mean when we say MEANINGFUL graduation? To us, “meaningful” means not just holding a piece of paper up on a stage, but ready to take on all the challenges of life. To navigate a college. To withstand obstacles. To strike out on your own, and to follow your dreams.

Detroit has a lot of schools. More open every year. But more schools alone do not equal more choices.  Real choice happens when students have multiple high-quality choices right in their neighborhoods. It happens when parents are confident that the school where they are enrolling their children will prepare in a way that gives them multiple college and career choices. Real choice happens when we value our neighborhood schools as critical community partners and expect that they will put our kids on a path for lifetime success. If kids matter here then neighborhood schools must matter here.

If we believe it’s a basic right in this country to have access to a quality education, we need to truly take the idea of #EdMattersHere to heart and come together as a community around this issue. We need to put pressure on political leaders to make this a priority. We need to do so now.

In the elementary-school sphere, we are in good shape to hit the mark of having 51 percent of seats at a high-quality mark by 2016. That’s great for those young learners to have a great chance at a sturdy foundation.

In middle schools, the outlook is not bad. We have a good chance of hitting the mark here, too.

But our high school options need more work. To get to 51 percent in the next four years, we need bad schools to close, we need new high-quality schools to open, and we need schools that are promising to build on that promise. And to do so quickly.

We also need to see growing support for youth-development programming. It’s not a nice add-on. It’s crucial to teaching kids skills like perseverance, motivation, positive attitude and self-efficacy. Kids need soccer (and other programs like it). It’s not an “at-risk” thing. It’s a kid thing. It is a neighborhood thing.

I’m encouraged about where things are heading for Detroit education. It certainly does matter here now more than ever. As Detroiters are getting ready to elect a new mayor and city council, I hope residents will ask questions of the candidates about what they’ll do to support education reform efforts in the city. I hope they’ll find ways to discern which candidates want to include children in their agenda. And what their plans are for doing so.

Every child in Detroit, like children everywhere, deserves access to a high-quality education. Fifty-one percent is just a starting point.

-- Kristen McDonald is the Foundation’s vice president, program and policy. Follow her on Twitter @kristemc. Join her and Excellent School Detroit’s Dan Varner at 3 p.m. EST Thursday for #EdMattersHere tweet chat.

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