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Foundation Battles Severe Educational Challenges in Detroit

Fortune magazine wrote last month that "if Detroit schools have a last best friend, it's Carol Goss."

Ms. Goss, who heads Detroit's Skillman Foundation, has taken on the Herculean—if not Sisyphean—task of spearheading a turnaround of one of America's most desperately failing school systems. The city's high schools currently have a dismal graduation rate of 60 percent and Detroit seems to sink deeper into a decades-long slump from loss of auto and other manufacturing, blight, and political troubles. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has said: "The philanthropic view is that there is no basement to build on in Detroit."

But Ms. Goss is committed to building that basement and to moving on to the upper floors as well. She stepped in when Michigan's governor seized control of Detroit's schools two years ago. Goss brought together teachers resisting change, politicians fighting over education policy, and parents seeking to keep alive failed programs. She used the very juicy carrot of $200 million in grants to get the warring parties to jointly commit to higher standards and taking more bold actions.

Her coalition, Excellent Schools Detroit, plans to open 40 new charter, public, and private schools by 2015, issue report cards for schools, and launch a recruiting drive for teachers and principals outside Detroit, with the goal of raising the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

This dedicated drive by a deep-pocketed philanthropist may be just what the doctor ordered for this and other especially troubled school systems. Ms. Goss seems to show that philanthropists can not only offer money but also use their clout to pull together all stakeholders in support of a common goal. Will it work? One can only hope so.

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