Focus: HOPE/University of Michigan Partnership Closing the Gap

keith cooley informalIn blog post #2 I suggested that at-risk students CAN successfully graduate from our institutions of higher learning IF they are given the support they need and the chance they deserve. Evidence of that success can be seen in a partnership created in 2007 between Focus: HOPE, a nationally known Detroit civil and human rights organization and the University of Michigan College of Engineering located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Focus: HOPE has been graduating manufacturing engineers since 1993 from a talent pool of Detroit residents who often begin their time at the organization unable to read or do math at the 7th or 8th grade level. This innovative college degree program was launched in their Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT) and provides a unique opportunity for students from Detroit’s inner city public school system.  Much of the early work was supported by the National Science Foundation and something called the “Greenfield Coalition”, a collaboration of industry and university partners that included General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Wayne State University, University Detroit Mercy and Lawrence Tech University.

It’s been 6 or 7 years since I led the Focus: HOPE organization but, as I remember it, students enter Focus: HOPE through an intake process that provides them with a range of support services to help them succeed in their education. Assistance ranges from help with bus passes to referrals for emergency food, clothing and shelter. They also have access to an on-site child care center, job placement assistance, and workshops on topics such as financial literacy. It is inside this nurturing environment that the students’ cognitive skills are evaluated, especially reading and math…and they are then patiently but relentlessly guided through the necessary STEM remediation.

Over the space of 3-4 years qualified “candidates” migrate from that early intake process to manufacturing engineering associate degrees at the CAT and are then ready to move from the Focus: HOPE campus in Detroit to the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

For the record, “Michigan Engineering” maintains top-ten rankings nationally in nearly every undergraduate and graduate engineering program and holds the record as the nation’s leading public university by research volume.

Prevailing thought would suggest that no one in their right mind could throw those young, “uninitiated” candidates into such a tough academic environment without understanding how quickly they would be eaten up and spit out…. to be sent back to the city… tails between their legs.

That didn’t deter either side of this partnership. The Focus: HOPE education team was led by Julian Pate, Director of Education and Joanna Woods, Manager of the CAT. At the University, Jeanne Murabito, Executive Director for Student Affairs and Sharon Burch, Director of Undergraduate Recruiting Initiatives aided by the efforts of Tony England, Associate Dean for Academic Studies and Derrick Scott, Director of the Inclusion and Multicultural Engineering Programs built the framework to assure the incoming students would succeed.

This wasn’t to be an easy process. Any number of issues cropped up, many unexpected, that had to be quickly and effectively resolved… from students losing access to conventional funding to long-standing family and/or legal issues. In some ways they were the same kind of problems “traditional” UMich students encounter; in many ways they were especially unique and unfamiliar to the Administrators tasked with shepherding theses future engineers through the College.

The point of all of this is that these students are matriculating through the system and graduating against the odds. Two have Bachelors degrees in Nuclear Engineering and one in Material Science. Of the six remaining students, two are no longer enrolled but four more are continuing their studies with graduation in sight. In the end it has been… and will be a focused approach by staff on both sides that overcome challenges, both big and small.

On reflection there are a number of opportunities for improvement to pursue, including:

  • Having the students set higher expectations of themselves regarding their exposure to and awareness of the campus environment; the rigor required to succeed and the resources available to them that they must proactively seek out. This has to happen long before they enter the University system.
  • Staff understanding of the at-risk student “point of view” and background… esp. with respect to legal issues, family concerns and the ability to access grant-in-aid funds. The more staff “know” the students, the easier it will be to get in front of future challenges.
  • Patner obligation to work hand in hand to confront and/or reward behavior as needed

None of that takes anything away from the success this program has achieved. And from my vantage point an old saw is in full effect … it’s the one that goes… “If they (UMich/Focus: HOPE) can do it… so can others”. As my wife says, these students, in spite of the odds stacked against them… moved from Focus: HOPE to success at UMich with “focused hope”!

Bottom line is the educational achievement gap can be closed and institutions like Focus: HOPE and the University of Michigan are leading the way.

The Focus: HOPE mission statement says, in part… “Recognizing the dignity and beauty of every person, we pledge intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice….” Marry that with Michigan Engineering Dean Dave Munson’s belief that “…Michigan Engineering is a place for a special kind of engineer—someone who wants to make a difference….” and the result is awe-inspiring.

Keith Cooley is CEO of management consulting firm Principia, LLC. He specializes in creating unique solutions to the tough, expensive problems that keep leadership teams awake at night and especially enjoys working with senior leaders who understand the benefit of seasoned, unbiased and independent professional counsel.

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