For Cengage Exec, Detroit Collective Impact About Hope, Education

Ron Stefanski, Cengage Learning’s executive director of strategic alliances, grew up on the east side of Detroit on Tappan Street. Like many local families in the 1970s, his was swept up in the wave of suburban white flight that followed the 1967 riots—except for his grandmother, Vicki, a tough old bird he described as “Edith Bunker with a Polish accent and amazing array of Salvation Army house dresses.”

Vicki refused to leave her neat brick bungalow on Eastburn, the one she and her husband bought thanks to the solid middle-class wages they earned building cars. Stefanski described the neighborhood near 8 Mile and Gratiot as “an ethnic enclave; a real melting pot.”

“My grandparents moved to Detroit in the 1920s,” Stefanski recalled. “They were coalminers, but they pointed their car toward Detroit as if it were Mecca.”

Detroit, like many other American cities, was beset with a wave of crime in the late 80s and early 90s—the result of a perfect storm of vanishing jobs, a broken educational system, and an abundance of crack cocaine. The specter of violence touched many Motor City residents, including Vicki. In 1991, she was murdered in her home by the 14-year-old boy who delivered her newspaper—a middle school dropout—in a crime that shocked the city.

Eventually, Stefanski graduated from high school and moved to Ann Arbor as the first male in his family to attend college. He raised his family there and embarked on a long career in educational technology, but he vowed that one day he’d find a way to give back to the city that his grandmother loved so dearly.

In 2011, Stefanski and his wife moved back to Detroit, motivated by a nascent revitalization and a desire to help the city return to a place of innovation and opportunity. He wanted to use his position at Cengage to address the city’s challenges, beginning with education. (And the statistics are pretty grim: In Detroit, nearly a quarter of adults don’t have a high school diploma, Stefanski said.)

“In investigating my background, I learned a lot about the education system, crime policies, and the city’s problems,” he explained. “People without an education lose hope and sometimes resort to more nefarious activities pretty quickly. I’m always struck by the fact that 90 percent of people who ask about my grandma’s killer assume he’s African American, but he was white. We have a soundbyte outlook on dropouts, but what I’ve learned is that not giving Detroit students opportunities impacts all of us, even those of us far outside Detroit.”

Last year, with this in mind, Cengage launched Detroit Collective Impact, a program that gives people who never finished high school the opportunity to earn a career credential and accredited high-school diploma through Career Online High School (COHS). The public-private partnership is designed to increase access to education and workforce training in Detroit. Detroit Collective Impact partners include McDonald’s, Michigan Virtual University, Matrix Human Services, and Kinexus.

Detroit Collective Impact began with 20 people and recently graduated its first student in the same month the program was honored by the Clinton Global Initiative. The goal is to graduate a total of 1,350 youth ages 16-24 and adults from the program, which typically takes about a year to complete.

Cengage and accredited online education platform Smart Horizons Career Online Education launched COHS in 2012 to provide affordable, career-based online educational opportunities to the millions of adults in the United States without high school diplomas. In 2014, the program was adapted for the public library market by Gale, a division of Cengage Learning headquartered in Farmington Hills, MI. It also formed the backbone of Detroit Collective Impact.

Stefanski said when he was creating the program, he took some of Cengage’s digital learning assets for community colleges— back end technology, a community of instructors, curriculum, and a proprietary registration system—and tailored them to fit Detroit Collective Impact’s mission. He had already learned, from talking to community colleges about their workforce development efforts, that many people didn’t pursue community college because they lacked a high school diploma.

“In a global economy, that’s nothing short of extraordinary,” he said. “Furthermore, if you look at the numbers, the chance of a dropout getting a high school diploma goes up two to three times once they land in jail. That’s wrong on so many levels. I didn’t start out a crusader, but I’ve become one. For me, the problem is that there are lots of people working on the K-12 system, but that doesn’t address the 80,000 adults in the city that don’t have a diploma.”

Stefanski and Detroit Collective Impact believe that delivering the curriculum online allows for greater flexibility and increases the chances that dropouts will stick with the program. Perhaps most important, participants are able to complete the classes without having to quit their jobs. To conserve Detroit Collective Impact’s tight resources, potential students are asked to complete a pre-requisite class that allows them to “kick the tires” and determine if the program is a good fit. Only 30 percent of students finish the program, he added, but 80 percent go on to get more education.

According to Stefanski, the support of Detroit Collective Impact’s partners is key to the program’s success. McDonald’s, the lead national partner, changed its human resources policies to make the program available to all U.S. employees after they have nine months on the job. (The program costs about $1,300 per student, a figure Stefanski said is out of reach for most participants, so its partners chip in to cover costs.) McDonald’s wants at least one employee from each restaurant to participate in what it calls Archways to Opportunity.

“McDonald’s recognizes that customers won’t trust McDonald’s unless they trust the way they treat employees,” Stefanski said. “It’s a major strategic initiative from the new CEO.”

Stefanski said he won’t “rest easily” until he sees at least 10 percent of the city’s dropouts participating in Detroit Collective Impact. Because the 18-credit course is not a GED program, students are able to transfer whatever credits they did earn in high school, an average of six to nine credits per student. Cengage hopes to eventually expand the program to other parts of the country, with Phoenix, AZ, planned as the second city to host Collective Impact.

“Beyond the numbers, we want to change the false image people have of dropouts,” Stefanski said. “There are many, many bright people without a high school diploma. We have to smash the myth that it has to do with the person and not the broken system. That’s as much a goal as anything.”

The irony in all this, Stefanski noted, is that his grandmother had only a 6th grade education. However, back then, a lack of education wasn’t a barrier to getting a good-paying job like it is now.

A few weeks ago, Detroit Collective Impact celebrated the graduation of its first student, a single mother in her 40s named Tina Calhoun. The ceremony was held at Matrix Human Services, and Stefanski was there with bells on.

Once he found his seat, he looked up and realized where he was: across the street from Assumption Grotto, an old Catholic church not far from the city airport. It’s where his grandmother attended worship services, and it’s also where she’s buried. One can only hope that from her perch in the Hereafter, Vicki Stefanski shared in the celebration.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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