By Lori Atherton
Photo by Skillman Foundation: Paul Engstrom
Dan Varner, ’94, has spent his career advocating for young people in Detroit.
Formerly a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and CEO at Think Detroit PAL, Varner is the CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of education, government, community, and philanthropic leaders and organizations whose goal is to ensure an “excellent education for every child.”
Achieving an excellent education, Varner says, has its roots in the organization’s 90/90/90 plan, which strives for Detroit to be the first major U.S. city where 90 percent of students graduate from high school, 90 percent of those graduates enroll in college or a quality postsecondary training program, and 90 percent of those enrollees are prepared to succeed without remediation.
Varner points to several achievements that are early indicators of Excellent Schools’ success: a 15 percentage-point increase (70 percent in 2013 versus 55 percent in 2012) in the number of Detroit high-school students who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, widely considered to be an early indicator for attending college; new or revamped educational programs; investment in educators at the early-learning and K-12 levels, including hiring teachers from Teach for America and U-M fellowship programs; and an educational scorecard, published last July, containing data such as academic proficiency and student growth, which “historically we have not had in Michigan.
“The scorecard is not perfect; it doesn’t capture everything. But we think it’s the most comprehensive, coherent look at the performance of educational institutions in the country,” Varner says.
Excellent Schools Detroit has been able to make these positive strides, he says, thanks to the dedication of the coalition members and their efforts to engage the broader community. “One of our theories is that we need to engage more and more stakeholders in an aligned effort to bring about the work that moves the needle,” he says. “That matters a great deal, particularly to parents, who have been largely unsatisfied with the quality of educational options available for their kids. That’s a wave of energy that can’t be ignored.”
The reasons he is devoted to helping kids succeed include his mother, a teacher-turned-juvenile defender who received her law degree while Varner was in high school; the influence of numerous mentors during key points in his education; and an affinity for “improving complicated systems.”
The biggest motivators by far, Varner says, are the kids themselves. “Detroit kids are amazing, resilient, and highly capable, and they’ve always given me energy, optimism, and hope. Their stories on an individual and collective level keep me inspired.”