Every year our Board of Directors chooses a focus of effort for our fundraising and education activities. Last year it was rural districts in Colorado that have switched to a four-day school week due to lack of funding. This year we are very excited to announce that Mile High Education Services will be expanding its program nationally. Each board member got to choose a state or city in need and we settled on three: Detroit, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and rural Mississippi. I chose Detroit.
For a Colorado native who has never been to Detroit, this may seem an odd choice. But here’s why I made it. First, and most obviously – the city is struggling. On July 18, 2013, it submitted the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history. It left bankruptcy protection on December 11, 2014, but most of the financing it received or renegotiated in the intervening period went to fund pensions for its municipal employees.
That’s fine if you’re a municipal employee, but what about the rest of Detroit’s citizens? How will they be able to manage a comeback when their kids attend a district that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, routinely ranks last in academic achievement?
As luck would have it, making big gains with at-risk youth in a short period of time is our specialty. We are planning to bring 16 Detroit high school students to Denver for our weeklong Education Retreat, probably during their spring break. Three of these days will be spent in the classroom with intensive small-group literacy instruction. The other two will be in the field working on critical thinking exercises. You hear about critical thinking all the time, but what does it actually mean?
For us, it means learning to improvise and solve practical problems. We do these in the field because you really can’t learn them in the classroom. To that end, we take our students to the Air Force Academy’s Leadership Reaction Course. This is a walled outdoor compound consisting of ten obstacles that students must negotiate in teams of four. Most have a tactical military objective; i.e. – you are trapped behind enemy lines and must make your way across this blown-out bridge using these two planks and this rope. Go! Then the kids are on their own to find a way across. This is the best part of my job. I love watching them in action and seeing the wheels turn inside their minds as they figure things out.
Which brings me back to Detroit. How can the city get back on its feet? The goal of our retreats is ultimately to give students enough confidence in their abilities and judgment so they can solve their own problems.
These days STEM and Common Core are all the rage, but these strike me as fads. Take the trend (practically an obsession) to teach kids coding. As any tech entrepreneur will tell you, one of the first things they do if they have any serious coding work is farm it out to developers in India or Ukraine who can do the job for less money. This is the problem with too much of the curriculum in public education: it is often designed by people who have no experience in the competitive marketplace. They see headline-grabbing companies like Amazon and Tesla and assume that the future lays in online commerce and electric cars – hence the emphasis on coding and robotics.
Yet most businesses are built on much more prosaic innovations. Many of those were discovered in Detroit, such as E-Coating. Ever heard of it? It was a brilliant idea developed by some technicians at Ford Motor Company in the 1950s. Ford had been receiving complaints from its dealerships about cars rusting out too quickly. The problem was in the assembly line. The frames were sprayed by hand and the paint wasn’t getting in to all the nooks and crannies. As these cars endured punishing Michigan winters, the salt and sand put down on the roads would work into these untreated surfaces and they would rust. Cars just a few years old would look like junked-out antiques.
The solution? Some Ford technicians came up with the idea of E-Coating. They took a car frame, attached a positive battery cable to it, and dipped it into a vat of paint that had a negative charge to it. The negatively-charged paint electrons were instantly attracted to the positively-charged steel electrons. The paint covered every millimeter of the car’s surface and better protected it from rust. The customers were happy and so were the dealerships.
The name of these innovators is lost to history. Chances are they had no more than a high school education. They might have had a STEM class, but my hunch is that the idea came to one of them on a bleak winter day when his car wouldn’t start. He called his neighbor over to give him a jump, fastened the cables to his dead battery, and – Eureka!
This is what our field exercises are designed to do: give the future innovators of Detroit as many Eureka moments as they can handle. Help us put this plan into action by donating through our website at https://www.milehighed.org/donate.html.