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August 20: Ann Higdon
Ann Higdon: Nonprofit Entrepreneur
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio Awards: Purpose Prize, the Dayton Business Journal's Regional Leadership Award, the Dayton Daily News' Top Ten Women Award, the YMCA's Woman of Influence Award, the HUD's Secretary Award for Excellence, the Points of Light Award and the Dayton Business Journal's Not for Profit Organization of the Year Award
BE A REMARKABLE WOMAN! Improved Solutions for Urban Systems helps dropouts earn diplomas while training for jobs. Find out more.
Ann Higdon created Improved Solutions for Urban Systems (ISUS) in 1992 to develop approaches to keep high-school-age youth in school and to reclaim school dropouts. In Dayton, over 60 percent of the urban youth dropped out of high school, and according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation study, an additional 6 to 8 percent drop out in middle school and are, therefore, never counted as high school dropouts. The effects in the city were deteriorating neighborhoods and escalating crime. Montgomery County, where Dayton is the main city, used two-thirds of its budget for criminal justice and indigent-family-related expenditures. Author James Conant, in his book “Slums and Suburbs: A Commentary on Schools in Metropolitan Areas” called these kinds of issues “social dynamite.”
In the early nineties, Ann Higdon talked to anyone who would listen about what she believed could be done, but few people believed that these young people would respond to an idea that required more of them than anyone dared believe they could do before. Few believed that it was an appropriate use of funds to support an idea fostered by a person who had no nonprofit, teaching or housing-development experience. But, as Ann listened to the stories of the young people who left school without completing, their stories resonated. She had been a poor student, had a difficult childhood and was first homeless when she was four. She was afraid of being bullied and got in trouble for fighting back. Ann was able to make a better life for herself because one person had confidence in her, and with that encouragement, she began to work her family out of poverty.
In 1992 she borrowed $100,000 from National City Bank in Dayton to start the first ISUS organization, working with National City to replace food stamps with an electronic benefits system in Ohio. During the early years, Dayton Rotary, a nearby hospital and other benefactors also supported the project. In 1995 they received the first public money through a federal grant, and in 1999 Ohio passed enabling laws for charter schools. That year, ISUS created the first of three charter high schools for returning dropouts; until recently, Dayton had more students in charter schools per capita than any other city.
The ISUS organizations uniquely accomplish their mission by recruiting disengaged youth back into an educational experience that is competency-based and career-oriented, and that engages students as volunteers who practice their newly acquired skills in the context of community service.
Upon entry, ISUS youth are on average 17 years old and function in math and reading at the seventh grade level. Roughly 85 percent are low-income, seven in 10 are known to juvenile court and three in 10 are youth with learning disabilities, which is about twice the percentage in the system. At ISUS, students attend a longer day and year — totaling about 300 additional hours per year. Students alternate between academics, technical coursework and hands-on practice of skills. Technical instructors are hired from business and industry and assisted to obtain teaching certifications at Wright State University.
Since 2001, ISUS has graduated more than 700 returning dropouts with high school diplomas, industry credentials or some college coursework. Recently, ISUS was written into House Bill 562 as a Demonstration Project to collect data and inform the legislature on issues and accountability measures for dropout-recovery schools.
Other measures of success are the competencies students exhibit — for example, the redevelopment of the Fairgrounds neighborhood, where students gutted and rebuilt 12 homes and an eight-unit apartment building. The project was reported by the Dayton Daily News as “The Miracle on Frank Street.” Now there are homes built by developers, and bustling businesses. ISUS students are credited with sparking the resurgence of the neighborhood.
Ann Higdon personifies the entrepreneurial spirit by crafting the pursuits of her organizations to contribute impact and return on investment. She demonstrates commitment and takes risks in the pursuit of better solutions to social problems, and targets a population that researchers agree is the hardest to serve — youth offenders.
Ann and her organization, ISUS, are recipients of numerous honors, including the Purpose Prize, the Dayton Business Journal’s Regional Leadership Award, the Dayton Daily News’ Top Ten Women Award, the YMCA’s Woman of Influence Award, the HUD’s Secretary Award for Excellence, the Points of Light Award and the Dayton Business Journal’s Not for Profit Organization of the Year Award.