Ann Higdon has been a glimmer of hope for troubled youth in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, for nine years, offering an alternative educational choice for kids who likely would have slipped through the cracks of their local school system.
By taking students from poor, inner-city neighborhoods, Higdons pet project, Improved Solutions for Urban Systems (ISUS), has reached out to hundreds of youth over the years and given them real-life skills in a hands-on learning environment. Most of all, she and her staff have given them an option to achieve.
“Students we attract are underachieving and over age because of failing a year of school, dropping out, or getting kicked out,” says Higdon. “But they can finish school at ISUS and pursue a high school diploma.”
ISUS, which runs two charter schools in Ohio, was conceived in 1992 as a place where kids who have had trouble in the local public schools could go to learn the construction trade. Through hands-on training from local construction companies and basic classes taught by professors from the local community college, students are given the opportunity to finish their high school diplomas; many also earn a two-year associates’ degree and have a job waiting for them when they finish school.
“To keep these kids in school, we up the ante—we try to make it really expensive for them to drop out, because they have a lot on the line here,” Higdon says. “They are getting their training, post-secondary credit, as well as a high school diploma instead of a GED, all at no charge to them.”
Higdon launched ISUS when she saw the correlation between not finishing high school and incarceration. She took out a few loans, formed a relationship with the Dayton public school system, and forged ahead with the idea to buy run-down properties in low-income neighborhoods and use them as classrooms to teach the construction trade on the job.
The first properties bought by ISUS were twelve houses and an abandoned apartment building. After ISUS students finished the first house, it sold for only $49,000. But by the time the twelfth house sold, it went for $95,000. And that wasn’t the end of it.
“Local homeowners started investing in siding and roofing and started to fix up their yards, because they saw their neighborhood was coming back and they were excited,” she says. “By the time we finished, we couldn’t even buy a house in that area.”
Now ISUS students attend school in a facility they built themselves. In an old plumbing supply warehouse, students cleared out shelving and old supplies and built classrooms and offices for the ISUS headquarters. Although that was a notable accomplishment, the facility is barebones, lacking air conditioning and heating, but Higdon says that is part of the charm of the place.
“You know the kids really want to come if they show up to a warehouse that is cold in the winter and hot in the summer,” she says. “But I’m not sure that is not part of the excitement of it all. They are going to build something here that will help kids enrolled in this program long after they leave, making it an institution in every sense of the word.”
Since charter schools in Ohio are eligible for only $4,700 per student and the program is free of charge to students, ISUS must raise almost three-quarters of each student’s tuition through private donations. Among the major contributors to ISUS is the Dayton Rotary Club, which has given the biggest gifts the organization has ever received, including one for $175,000.
Higdon said that not only has the Rotary Club as an organization given to ISUS, but individual Rotarians have also given privately, both money and services.
Higdon dedicates most of her energies to ISUS and has seen many successes as well as a few failures. Her program, she says, teaches life, academic, and technical skills to students, but since many have numerous crises to contend with, there are always those students who still end up in trouble. But Higdon says she never loses faith in her work; no job could fulfill her like this one.
“It’s tiring as heck, but I wouldn’t do anything else,” she says. “This becomes a labor of love. When you see these young people finally get it, that’s a good feeling.”