Though the Skillman Foundation has tremendous assets, it faces an even more tremendous task — improving the social and educational well-being of children in urban Detroit.
In one of the poorest, most blighted cities in America, a third of Detroit’s residents and 45 percent of children live below the federal poverty line. More than 60,000 houses stand vacant — nearly one in five properties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — haunting reminders of white flight and economic decline. And the Motor City had a seven percent unemployment rate in May, the highest percentage among 49 regions nationwide with more than 1 million people, according to federal labor statistics.
“A place that for so long was the economic rock for hardworking families now has poverty rates worse than rural Mississippi,” says Carol Goss, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation.
Detroit’s 270,000 children inherit few social assets and are saddled with many liabilities. Among the nation’s 50 largest school districts, the Detroit Public School District has the worst graduation rate — only 21 percent graduate on time with a regular diploma, according to a 2006 study by the nonprofit organization Editorial Projects in Education.
The increasingly desperate situation has compelled the Detroit-based foundation to take a strategic and hands-on approach to improving education and combating childhood poverty. Thus, the foundation is championing an ambitious, two-pronged grant plan — called Good Neighborhoods and Good Schools — that bucks conventional wisdom. “We are trying to create a different landscape for children,” says Goss. “To do that you can’t be a very traditional foundation.”
Good Neighborhoods is an intervention into six Detroit neighborhoods whereby the foundation rallies public, private and corporate groups to provide holistic assistance to reverse the cycle of poverty for about 65,000 children.
Good Schools ignores polarizing debates about charters and choice to fund schools that succeed — parochial, charter, private or public. High-performing schools get sizeable financial rewards — up to $100,000 — so they can build on their success. Schools that fail get a relative pittance or nothing at all. The foundation’s approach forces individual school leaders to take the first steps toward education reform for their students.
Skillman also has a third type of grant program, Good Opportunities, which is set up to respond quickly and flexibly to unique opportunities that shape children’s lives. For instance, Forgotten Harvest, a nonprofit that gathers and delivers eight million pounds of surplus food to emergency food providers in the Detroit metro area, was awarded $200,000 in March to enhance distribution of fresh food to families. The foundation also recently gave $180,000 to support the general operations of a multi-site emergency homeless shelter for families and children.
Developing a Proactive Foundation
Robert and Rose Skillman never had their own children, but they were committed to the welfare of young people in the Detroit community. Robert Skillman was vice president and director of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M). After his death, Rose Skillman incorporated the Skillman Foundation in 1960. The foundation now boasts $560 million in assets and gives about $25 million to some 200 groups a year.
The Skillman Foundation was initially more reactive, funding proposals for standard child welfare or youth development programs. In 1992 Skillman recognized a need for more after-school programs and became more proactive, forming the Youth Sports and Recreation Initiative. The project was successful, says Goss, and led to an ongoing commission to provide positive activities for young people.
But Skillman’s employees realized a shortcoming with the sports program. “We found we were not reaching the hardest-to-reach kids,” says Goss.
In spite of all the money invested, Skillman was not “moving the needle” on the major indicators of childhood well-being, such as crime, graduation and poverty rates, and the number of kids who go to college. And grants were not focused on the communities where the most children lived.
“If anything, children and families in Detroit were becoming poorer,” says Goss.
Soon after Goss became president in 2004, Skillman took a radical new tack. It focused its funding on six inner-city neighborhoods where a high percentage of children live in poverty: Brightmoor, Osborn, Central, Cody/Rouge, and Southwest (Vernor and Chadsey/Condon). The neighborhood statistics are alarming. In Central Detroit, for instance, 74 percent of households are single-parent, and 44 percent of children younger than five are living in poverty. And in the Brightmoor and Osborn areas, 10 percent of girls under age 18 are giving birth.
In 2006 Skillman began the grassroots mobilization of leaders in four of these six communities. (The foundation is finishing up the preliminary groundwork on Central and Cody/Rouge this summer.) In Southwest Detroit, hundreds of people attended six Saturday gatherings that lasted about four hours each and many other smaller meetings that facilitated discussion about the needs of children. At two of the meetings, residents were given handheld electronic polling devices so hundreds of opinions could be immediately tabulated to narrow down themes and priorities.
Skillman then gave local groups $5,000 Learning Grants to keep residents engaged and so they could do their own research on the needs of local children. The foundation wanted to spark a movement, not just give money.
So far Skillman has spent $12.6 million on the Good Neighborhoods program in four of the six neighborhoods. Its grantees’ myriad areas of concentration include preventing child abuse and substance abuse, entrepreneurship, helping disabled children, mentoring, boosting the performing arts, and providing tutoring and tax and financial services for poor families.
A representative grant is a three-year, $125,000-a-year grant to SouthWest Solutions for its family literacy program, which provides three hours of instruction, four days a week, to about 180 families. As part of the grant conditions, Skillman requires regular program assessments. Post-testing of participating families showed that children watched less television and many more parents visited the library and read to their families.
Jerry Dash, CEO of a mentoring organization called Volunteers in Prevention, Probation and Prisons, said Skillman’s regular face-to-face collaboration with grantees makes it unique. “Many foundations are unseen except during the grantmaking cycle,” says Dash, “but I’ve never seen a foundation this engaged in the community.”
As Skillman became more proactive in its support of children in individual neighborhoods, it also created new ways of funding education. The primary change was to redirect funding for the Detroit Public School District to individual, successful schools.
“We learned that we didn’t have enough dollars to reform a school district,” says Goss. “But if individual schools were faithful in developing models of quality education, then outcomes for kids really did improve.”
The new funding strategy was difficult for the district officials and the unions, “but this is for children and about quality of education and improving the quality of life for them,” says Goss. “That means you can’t give in to special interest groups. You can include them, and we want to, but really it has to be about the needs of children.”
Gregory Handel, senior director of workforce development for the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, says Skillman has changed the conversation about education in Detroit, that it is no longer a debate about charter schools or school choice.
“The common denominator has to be good academic performance or improvement,” he says. “I think they’re very smart to say, ‘We’re open to everybody.’ You get out of school district politics.”
Henry McClendon Jr., director of youth development for New Detroit, a group of leaders who explore effective urban high school models, agrees that Skillman has empowered schools by finding common denominators for their success. McClendon likes to call Good Schools “the real No Child Left Behind” because it mentors school leaders, gives them tools for improvement, and provides positive, financial reinforcement for schools that do improve.
“I think it is a model for the nation.”
Marshall Allen is a journalist in Las Vegas