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A new idea for schools, make them centers of the community

Toledo, Ohio is just across Michigan’s southern border, but as far as policy makers in our state are concerned, it might as well be another country. In fact, virtually nobody in Michigan pays much attention to anything going on in Toledo, which is unfortunate.

That’s because in many ways, Toledo, a city of about 300,000 people, is more like Michigan than like the rest of Ohio. It has a blue-collar economy that has long mirrored Detroit’s.The Motor City made cars;Toledo made Jeeps and auto parts.

And like every other old manufacturing town in our state, especially those involved in the auto industry, Toledo is hurting.

So are its public schools. Neither Toledo nor its school system have deteriorated to the extent of Detroit. But things are bad and getting worse, and the public school dropout rate is horrendously high. Here in Michigan, Governor Snyder is trying to do something at the statewide level by creating what he calls the Education Achievement System. That will be a form of statewide school district which will take over our lowest-performing schools.

But in Toledo, they are trying to do something at the grass roots level, one school at a time. They call it the “Schools as Hubs” program, and the idea is to transform the schools into community centers, to make the local public school the center of an entire neighborhood. There are plenty of statistics that show that cohesive communities have vastly lower dropout rates.

By doing this, chief academic officer James Gault told me, they believe they can rally and organize the resources of the whole community around student success. This is not a program limited to Toledo. In fact, it is partly sponsored by an anti-dropout initiative called “American Graduate -- Make It Happen,“ something jointly sponsored by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, America’s Promise Alliance and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nor are the Toledo Public Schools trying to do this entirely by themselves.

They have the same staffing and funding issues as urban schools do everywhere. Fortunately, they have found a partner in this effort: United Way of Greater Toledo. The United Way has already helped identify, hire and train a group of AmeriCorps volunteers as graduation coaches who are working in middle schools. Now, United Way is also helping find “lead partners” for each Toledo school that has been designated as a hub, or community center. Those partners include the YMCA in one case; Lutheran Social Services in another; one of the colleges at the University of Toledo in two more schools.

In each case, the organization has been asked to help lead the community-building strategy and coordinate services in the school.

This program has just been started this year, and Toledo is sensibly going slow. So far, only three elementary and one high school have been chosen as community centers. Early indications are favorable -- but it is way too early to know how successful this all will be. But this is a significant effort Michigan should keep an eye on.

Hillary Clinton used to say that it took a village to raise a child. In Toledo, the schools are recognizing that it takes a community to educate one.  That’s something we, too, ought to keep in mind.

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