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Excerpt: Out of collapse of Marygrove College, a new education center grows

Centennial, Detroit

Tony Proscio

Tony Proscio

Myron Farber

Myron Farber

John Gallagher

John Gallagher

Excerpt from new book on Kresge’s work in Detroit examines how attention to outlying neighborhoods and early childhood education dovetailed to repurpose an historic campus on the city’s northwest side. 

Today and next Monday, Kresge will continue to feature the final excerpts from Embracing a City: The Kresge Foundation in Detroit 1993-2023 (Momentum Books).

This behind-the-scenes look into 30 years of the unlikely partnerships, unique collaborations, varied financial tools and bold bets of The Kresge Foundation — originally the work of veteran journalists Tony Proscio and Myron Farber — was first released in 2018 covering the span of 1993 to 2017. An updated edition includes a new chapter from Proscio plus revisions and additions throughout by longtime Detroit-based journalist John Gallagher to bring the narrative up to date.

Marygrove: A Garden of Learning, Community, and Creativity in Northwest Detroit, the sixth chapter, tracks Kresge’s efforts first to save Marygrove College from collapse, and then to repurpose the campus for a new educational mission congruent with the vision of the founding Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. That has led to the creation of the Marygrove Conservancy to oversee a campus that is home to an array of community-serving nonprofits and has at its heart an early education center and an evolving K-12 school that currently serves Kindergarten to Grade 3 plus Grades 9-12.

Chapter 6 traces the roots of the new Marygrove to a 2010 roundtable of Detroit-area foundations seeking to strengthen and expand pre-school opportunities for lower-income families. This led to the idea of creating “three new exemplary early childhood centers around the city to reflect the best research on how physical surroundings can enrich children’s learning, socialization and well-being.” That idea evolved over a period of years of study, research and consultation with other philanthropies and nonprofits.

It’s why we wanted to be deeply engaged in creating a path for educational leadership in Detroit, particularly in serving underserved populations.

— Wendy Lewis Jackson, The Kresge Foundation Detroit Program Managing Director

In these same years, Kresge had been broadening its focus in Detroit beyond downtown and Midtown, and turning it more and more toward the city’s outlying neighborhoods. That meant looking for investment opportunities with fewer anchoring institutions than the ones that had fueled its earlier success in the urban center. The lack of major employers, large-scale investors, and concentrated population in these less-central communities would mean that neighborhood development strategies would have a less firm economic platform on which to build. Nor would public schools necessarily provide much of a basis for resurgence in these areas, at least at first. The Detroit Public Schools Community District, itself the byproduct of a decades-long financial collapse in public education, had been forced to close many neighborhood schools and was preoccupied with staffing and operating the remainder.

Here, then, is where the desire to create outstanding early childhood education centers merged with the need to cultivate sources of strength in residential areas of the city. If a neighborhood revitalization program could not be built on strong institutions and outstanding community schools, it could perhaps take a foothold in early childhood care and education—which, if successful, might well fuel improvements in later schooling, in residential stability, and, over time, in culture and commerce. If a neighborhood was an attractive place for children to start their lives on a strong path to later success, more people might want to live and invest there. And those committed residents would be more likely to take an active interest in leading their neighborhood, their schools, and their city toward further improvement and growth. Or anyway, that was the prevailing theory at the time the IFF report on early education landed in Kresge’s Midtown Detroit offices.

Blending the report’s recommendations with its own strategic thinking, the Foundation launched a pair of related drives to design the three exemplary new early childhood centers and to link the improvement of preschool care and learning to the broader challenges of strengthening and stabilizing Detroit schools and neighborhoods. The first undertaking, called Kresge Early Years for Success: Detroit—“KEYS: Detroit,” for short—drew together many of the region’s foremost experts and practitioners in early education to define what an “exemplary” center would consist of and where up to three of them should be located.

The principal of a school and a young student cut the ribbon that says Marygrove Early Education Center Grand Opening with a row of officials behind them in front of the new school.
Principal Celina Byrd helped Marygrove Early Education Center student Ariyah Small cut the ribbon at the official opening ceremony in September 2021. At their left is Kresge Detroit Program Managing Director Wendy Lewis Jackson; on the right, Kresge President Rip Rapson. (Photo by Darrel Ellis)

The second, parallel line of work was a joint project with the Kellogg Foundation that canvassed thousands of city residents and community leaders to draw a blueprint for how, in parents’ opinion, early education should intertwine with other public and civic initiatives to boost families’ financial stability, health, ongoing education, and children’s well-being. This consultative process, called Hope Starts Here: Detroit’s Early Childhood Partnership, began in 2017, not long after KEYS: Detroit, and published its findings, with six strategies at their core, a year later. Kresge immediately backed the six strategies with a $25 million commitment, on top of an earlier $10 million already allocated to early education projects.

At the same time, in its push to expand Detroit’s redevelopment deeper into its outlying areas, Kresge had taken a keen interest in a cluster of northwest neighborhoods anchored by Livernois Avenue and West McNichols (which locals know familiarly as Six Mile) Road. This area, which today is sometimes referred to by the shorthand Live6, had a storied history as the center of Detroit’s Black middle class. It featured a promising mix of resident incomes, desirable housing, and significant areas of stable homeownership, alongside pockets of abandonment, poverty, and deferred maintenance that threatened wider harm if left unaddressed. Stirrings of new business activity dotted the major commercial arteries, interspersed with stretches of deteriorated or empty storefronts. Here, the Foundation hoped, would be an ideal place to test the theory that the availability of high-quality early education, combined with inherent resident assets and a strong neighborhood development program, could be an engine of neighborhood cohesion, opportunity, and optimism.

The Six Mile–Livernois area also had the benefit of two prominent institutions of higher learning that had remained committed to the city when others had fled. One of them, the University of Detroit Mercy, had recently joined with Kresge in founding a new organization called the Live6 Alliance, a nonprofit development group loosely modeled on one that had been key to Midtown’s revitalization.

But the other institution, Marygrove College, was buckling under years of declining enrollments and mounting debt, and Kresge, along with a handful of other local funders, would soon be quietly working with the institution’s board and executives to cobble together a rescue plan. By mid-2016, Rip Rapson was devoting an extraordinary share of his time and attention, and those of his top managers, to a search for alternative sources of financing and new operating models that might keep the college afloat. But as those efforts became more frantic, and the likelihood of success plunged closer and closer to zero, it seemed increasingly doubtful that the college could be one of the hoped-for anchors of redevelopment in northwest Detroit.

An aerial view of the Marygrove campus with a modern early childhood center on the left and a Gothic-style architecture building on the right)
The Marygrove Early Education Center was designed to harmonize with existing campus buildings, particularly the Liberal Arts Building erected in 1925. (Photo: Timothy Hursley copyright)

On the contrary: if Marygrove closed, it would quickly become an albatross—fifty-three acres of Gothic obsolescence, a vacant eyesore and a likely vortex of decay. As the college shuttered its undergraduate program in 2017 and carried on a yearlong losing battle to preserve its graduate school, Kresge’s officers and board had little choice but to shift their energies. If preserving Marygrove’s current operation failed, as it ultimately did, they would have to find some other productive use for the site before it fell into the clutches of the bankruptcy courts and architectural scavengers—and before it slipped beyond anyone’s ability to forestall disaster.

Marygrove College had been founded by a Catholic religious order of women, known as the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or IHM for short. The college had become independent early in the twenty-first century, but the Sisters retained considerable influence there and held a mortgage on the property. In keeping with the order’s founding vision and approach to its ministry, Marygrove’s educational philosophy had been built around Catholic social-action principles, and both the Sisters and the college’s board and executives held a view of the college, and of education in general, as a means of equipping young people to pursue a more just and humane world. “We always looked at the college as a mission,” Sister Jane Herb, a former president of the IHM congregation, said. “We saw it as serving the people of Detroit, and we wanted it to be an asset to the city and the community, something that made people’s lives better.” The Sisters were therefore adamant that, if the college were to close, the campus should be put to a use that would honor its founding principles and contribute to social justice and community service. The prospect of it becoming an idle relic was therefore at least as horrifying to the IHM Sisters as it was to city officials, community leaders, and Kresge’s staff.

So when the Foundation’s top officers began considering what they could do to help keep the Marygrove campus from bankruptcy and dereliction, they had the full attention and support of the Sisters. Preserving the college, or at least some portion of it, was obviously the first hope of everyone involved, even if that meant—as it almost certainly would—some shrinkage and restructuring. When Marygrove’s newly installed president, Elizabeth A. Burns, first contacted Kresge for help, in early 2016, she was still hoping for temporary help in restructuring the college’s nearly $8 million in debt, reversing years of declining revenues and chronic operating deficits, and raising enough new donations to keep the whole institution afloat. But after an intense and increasingly desperate search for any feasible route to those goals, she and the college’s board reluctantly concluded that the only possible survival strategy would be to close Marygrove’s undergraduate program and continue solely with graduate and professional studies, operating in just one or two of its five historic buildings. That painful decision was announced in August 2017.

Even then, the college was relying on substantial operating grants from Kresge— as well as Foundation support for departing faculty and students—and its prospects for stanching the financial bleeding were never better than thin. By the time the next academic year had ended, the picture had only become grimmer, and the Marygrove board had little choice but to shutter the remainder of the programs and close the college at the end of the fall semester.

Heartbreaking as the loss of the college was to the students and faculty, the Sisters, and the Foundation, it nonetheless created what, in time, struck Wendy Lewis Jackson as a remarkable convergence of opportunities. As Kresge’s point person for KEYS: Detroit and Hope Starts Here, Jackson was leading the search for places to create exemplary early childhood education centers—one of which, she strongly hoped, would be in the neighborhoods near the campus. Simultaneously, when she was assigned to be the Foundation’s lead officer on the rescue of Marygrove, she was also confronting some prime real estate in the heart of those same neighborhoods. Even if the college were somehow able to soldier on at a smaller scale, a majority of its campus was about to need a major new use.