Grassroots effort aims to build STEAM educational center in Ypsilanti Township

A new community-based nonprofit corporation hopes to launch a new educational center at the former Willow Run high school and middle school campus within the next five years.
Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) have been losing children to other nearby districts and charter schools through the School of Choice program for years. But what if that loss were reversed through a unique science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) educational center that could draw children from across Southeast Michigan?

That's the idea behind a new community-based nonprofit corporation, The American Center for Innovation (ACI), whose founders hope to launch such a facility sometime in the next five years.

Scott Heister.Scott Heister is the southeast regional director for the state of Michigan's MiSTEM Network and a co-founder of ACI. Heister taught at YCS for 22 years, helped design the STEM Middle College program at Ypsilanti High School, and helped run the Grizzly Robotics program there.

Heister says the early concepts that became ACI stemmed from his time as a YCS employee. About three years ago, he had floated the idea of moving the STEM Middle College to the former Willow Run high school and middle school campus and centering it around a maker space. However, he left for his current position before he could get the idea onto the school board's agenda.

While he was mulling next moves, Heister ran into Tim Wilson, co-founder of early childhood education nonprofit Washtenaw Promise, and other locals who were interested in innovative education. The project took shape after Heister won a $75,000 grant from Ann Arbor SPARK to create a business plan for ACI. When Heister was introduced to planning staff at Ypsilanti Township, he says, "all the components gelled together."

Heister notes that ACI is still in the conceptual phase, and the project's next step is to see if YCS would allow use of the Willow Run campus. After that, many more conversations with potential local funding partners need to happen before construction begins. Organizers anticipate needing $2 million annually for the first five years to get ACI up and running, and are hoping local industry might help fund the school from there because it will provide a workforce pipeline.

Tim Wilson.However, the organizing team behind ACI has ample passion for the idea – and experience to make it happen. Wilson says working on ACI was a great fit since he's already working on improving local early education efforts through his work with Washtenaw Promise. He'd already noted the work Heister was doing with older students and thought there was an opportunity for collaboration.

"What I wanted to do was bring in the folks who do this work at the youngest ages in one place in a neighborhood, so people have access," Wilson says. "There's an opportunity here to create a new system designed for people struggling with poverty, struggling with an educational system that doesn't work well with them. We have an opportunity to engage with early elementary and with [older] kids … and encourage kids to pursue real jobs in STEM fields."

Heister says the group formed a nonprofit to develop the idea for an innovative STEAM-based public school that would support the community with "cradle-to-career opportunities" and create "pathways to prosperity" in the Ypsilanti area and beyond.

"Amazing things happen in Ypsilanti," Heister says. "We have a world-class robotics program, a strong STEM-based focus [in our schools], and a tremendous amount of community engagement."

Heister notes that Ypsilanti is also "in the heart of the manufacturing world" and employers have been asking him where to find students with next-generation job skills. 

Heister says he pictures a maker space being the heart of the facility, and he's talking with staff at Ann Arbor's Maker Works about a partnership. The facility would also house a traditional STEAM-based public educational component and a certified technical educational component for both high school students and adults in the community.
A diagram from a presentation organizers prepared about ACI.
Heister notes that while the Ypsilanti area has high-quality career technical education (CTE) courses, they are limited to four areas: auto collision, auto technician, culinary arts, and nursing.

"In the western part of our county, the last count was roughly 30 CTE programs, like computer science and lots of other programs, that are not accessible to students on the eastern side," Heister says.

The ACI campus would also include collaborations with local businesses to provide job training, career support, and possibly an in-house business accelerator and incubator. Organizers also envision a community and family support component that would include a number of nonprofit partners. Heister says he would like YCS to provide the traditional public education component.

In the best-case scenario, Heister imagines a collaboration with the Ypsilanti Township-based American Center for Mobility (ACM) that would create a connected-vehicle bus system serving students' homes, ACI, and potentially Ypsilanti Community High School, ensuring that transportation isn't a barrier to access. He'd also like to build a dome over the former Willow Run High School's existing football field to create a robotics and drone training and competition space.
Brenda Stumbo.
Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo says she was excited when Heister brought a proposal for ACI to a recent township meeting.

"If they can get it into the old Willow Run middle school and high school campus, it could be a school that people will want to come to and bring in kids from other areas. It'd be an educational attraction," Stumbo says. "We can get children into STEM programs early and prepare them for that future innovative, creative technology. What a blessing. It's a win-win-win."

Stumbo says the plans for ACI can seem grand and unattainable, but many people also told her that was true of ACM choosing to build a headquarters in the township.

"People told me that ACM wouldn't happen, but we waited four or five years and it did," she says. "The American Center for Innovation is a great vision, a perfect educational opportunity. I really hope it happens. It will help uplift the whole region."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Willow Run High School photos by Sarah Rigg. Scott Heister photo courtesy of Scott Heister.
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