Photo: Darrell Ellis for The Kresge Foundation
Photo: Darrell Ellis for The Kresge Foundation

It all started with a phone call.

It was 2016, and the president of Detroit’s Marygrove College called Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, to ask for help. The college was in perilous financial trouble. Its cash reserves were almost gone, and it was facing a $5 million shortfall. Marygrove’s president, Dr. Elizabeth Burns, who had only recently taken the job, was hoping Kresge and other Detroit foundations could help the college get back on firm financial ground.

Rapson assembled a group of funders to try to help, but when they examined the college’s accounts, they were appalled. “It was a dumpster fire,” Rapson recalled. “The debts were just too large, and when we brought in forensic auditors, they confirmed that view. It was a loss leader; we didn’t see any way that we could help the college stay open.”

Still, Kresge wanted to help. Marygrove’s 53-acre forested campus sits at the heart of Detroit’s Livernois-McNichols neighborhood, a residential community in northwest Detroit. The neighborhood was once a vibrant commercial and cultural hub, and in recent years has been revitalized. For over 100 years, the college, which was founded by Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, had been educating local leaders and promoting social and educational justice. The Sisters themselves turned over their own pension dollars to try to keep Marygrove afloat. Shuttering the college altogether and selling the property would be a blow to the college’s legacy, and to the community and the city itself.

Over the next year, the Kresge Foundation worked with Marygrove administrators to stabilize the college’s finances, investing $16 million and helping develop a transition plan. The college’s undergraduate operations were closed, and control of the institution was transferred to the newly created Marygrove Conservancy. The conservancy sought local partners, including the University of Michigan and the Detroit Public School Community District, and an ambitious plan gradually unfolded: to turn the Marygrove Campus into a community learning center, a “cradle-to-career” education program starting with early education and continuing through college.

Since that initial phone call in 2016, a lot has happened. The School at Marygrove opened in September 2019. The school now includes grades nine to 11, and will continue adding grades to eventually become a K-12 institution. Then, in September, 2021, the community education center welcomed its first cohort of children.

“The Marygrove Early Education Center reflects the alchemy possible when partners from different sectors join energies and resources in service of Detroit’s children,” Rapson said at the center’s opening celebration.

Kresge had already made a $50 million commitment to support creation of the P-20 campus—the largest philanthropic investment in a Detroit neighborhood in the city’s history. At the grand opening of the center, Rapson boosted that commitment. “Kresge will likely invest upwards of $75 million on this campus,” he announced.

Hope Starts Here 

The Kresge Foundation was created in 1924 by Sebastian Spering Kresge, who turned a five- and ten-cent store into a retail empire that later became the Kmart chain. The foundation has deep roots in Detroit, where one of Kresge’s first stores was located; the welfare of the city and its residents has always been a primary focus. But the foundation also focuses more broadly on “expanding opportunity” in American cities, supporting the environment, arts and culture, health and education.

The foundation’s education focus has been primarily college access and success, as IP has reported. Early education is a more recent priority. In 2016, it partnered with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create Hope Starts Here, which invests in early childhood education in Detroit, coordinates programs, supports educator preparation and works to influence state policy. The organization’s aim is to develop a comprehensive early childhood system in the city.

Rapson says that work made it clear that the Marygrove project should include an early education component. “The Hope Starts Here framework was in some ways what gave us confidence in Marygrove, that we could actually contribute in a meaningful way,” he said. “So we kind of backed into an emphasis on early childhood education, but it is now a very important pillar of our strategy. We invest in housing and commercial revitalization and open space and other areas; early childhood education and development is every bit as essential.”

Many partnerships had to be forged to make the Marygrove project work. The Early Education Center is run by Starfish Family Services, which operates 15 early childhood centers across Wayne County, as well as mental and behavioral health services at four locations. Starfish’s approach to early care is holistic, emphasizing family and community engagement. Its Marygrove center has a behavioral health therapist, as well as a nurse navigator who provides nutrition and other health information, and helps families access health care.

At its September opening, the new early education center welcomed 144 children. Families that live in a one-mile radius of Marygrove were given priority; those within a two-mile radius were next in line. “The Marygrove project is all about the community and the neighborhood,” said Karen Roback, vice president of strategy and innovation at Starfish. The early education center’s curriculum is culturally responsive, with an equity, STEM and social studies focus.

The University of Michigan (UM) is another key Marygrove partner. The students at UM’s School of Education work with veteran teachers in Marygrove classrooms, getting hands-on experience and ongoing mentorship. The School of Education uses a medical residency model: Students work as interns, student teachers and residents. UM is also developing The School at Marygrove’s curriculum in collaboration with the school district, and working with the Early Education Center to develop and evaluate its curriculum as well.

The Detroit Public School Community District is another partner—and negotiating the system’s bureaucracy took some back and forth. The school board ultimately agreed to allow The School at Marygrove to give admission preference to students in the local area. It also agreed to allow UM to develop the school’s curriculum in collaboration with the district. Detroit’s new superintendent backed the Marygrove project and some of the reforms piloted there are being adopted system-wide.

“Someone to set the table”

In recent years, the Kresge Foundation has maintained its focus on Detroit and other American cities, while working to link those local efforts to national priorities. In 2020, for example, the foundation made a $30 million investment in 60 racial justice organizations around the country, as IP reported, including nonprofits in Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans and Fresno, as well as 13 national organizations. As Philip Rojc wrote, the racial justice grants represent Kresge’s intention to position itself “at the intersection of local, regional and national philanthropic engagement.”

The Marygrove project sits at that intersection: It’s a local and regional project that could provide a model for other communities around the country.

For Rapson, who took that first phone call in 2016, it’s also an example of how philanthropy can be an engine for change. “It’s an interesting exercise of philanthropy’s role,” he said. “I’m not sure a bank could have done this. I’m not sure the City of Detroit could have done this. I know Starfish and the University of Michigan and the school district couldn’t have done it alone. It needed someone to set the table, to keep pushing on the different pieces, to remove the risk financially for folks who otherwise would have kept a distance, and to be a bridge to different kinds of resources. We were able to get tax credits and bank loans and convince people to come on to the Marygrove Conservancy staff who could have done any number of other things. I think it’s a profound illustration of how philanthropy, using all of its tools, can really move systems.”