Blog: Frank Nardelli

Detroit Public Schools' high school graduation rate was an abysmal 38 percent in 2005, ranking it 48th out of the nation's 50 largest school systems, says a recent America's Promise Alliance study. Others have pegged it as low as 25 percent. Frank Nardelli, principal of Detroit's Dove Academy, a K-7 charter public school, is waging a turnaround one campus at a time. His lesson plan? Parental involvement, a club that goes beyond the usual extracurriculars, and visions of the Big Ten dancing in children's heads.

Post 1: Shifting Gears - Focus on Sending Our Kids to College

Imagine the power of inspiring every child in the city of Detroit to believe in college as a real option just waiting to be pursued.  

Stop right there if you're already thinking it will never happen, can't happen, won't happen.  Walk away from the excuses.

Teach one young, bright-eyed, eager child what year she'll graduate, not from kindergarten, middle school, or high school — but from college! — and you've changed her entire perspective.  Teach all the students in a class, and then throughout the school, what year they'll graduate from college, and you've changed the game.

That's exactly what we do at Dove Academy, a tuition-free charter public school authorized by Oakland University.  When someone on our staff says, "We are...," the nearly 500 kindergarten through seventh-grade children who surround us shout their response: "College-bound!"

Ask one of our kindergartners what year he'll graduate, and the answer will be "2026!"  You do the math.

Each of our classes adopts a college or university and a banner from that school hangs in the hallway above each classroom door.  Each class cheers for its school every Friday, and we all wear shirts in the schools' colors that day.  Our students know the college mascots, and study the universities' locations.  Our honor roll bulletin board, decorated with a graduation cap, builds pride in academic victory … and college is the goal.

It's not that we use expensive programs.  With an educational cost of $7,172 per student — much less than what's spent elsewhere — we focus on the basics and talk about college every day.

It's also not that we serve elite families.  To the contrary, nearly 70% of our children, who live throughout the city, qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.  

And yet, eight in 10 have passed the state MEAP math test.  Seventy percent have passed the MEAP English Language Arts test.  They soar above the traditional district average, defying the "inner-city, under-privileged" moniker all-too-often assigned to them.

Few of our parents have college degrees, and some lack high school diplomas.  When they first hear us speak of college, many have tears in their eyes.  It's a dream they've had for their children, but they didn't know how to make it happen.

If you fall into the camp whose next argument is that these families can't afford college, know this:

We talk about cost, hard work, what scholarships are, and how you earn them.  We talk about never giving up, no matter how long it takes to achieve your dreams.

Dove's emphasis on college is just two years old, and there's little research on such efforts nationally. Yet, considering Detroit's dropout rate exceeds 70 percent, inspiring children to embrace higher education can be nothing but beneficial.

An estimated 90 percent of the fastest-growing careers by 2014 will require at least some post-secondary education.  Further, a college degree increases the chance of employment by nearly 50 percent. Thus, it makes sense that a school's culture, starting in kindergarten, includes setting educational goals, exploring careers, and beginning to plan academically and financially for college.  

A teacher and I met recently with some parents, planning collaboratively to help their son expand his potential.  We asked what their greatest hopes were for him, and they talked about his skill in basketball and video games.  

That answer isn't wrong.  It's what they know.  They haven't considered business, or international law, or medical school, or bioinformatics, because such careers aren't in their realm.  Their response will change once we teach them about possibilities they haven't yet considered.

For us, making the effort to emphasize higher education is like we tell our students:  Make no excuses.  Accept none, either.  If we want more students to graduate from college, we have to make it happen.