Funders Get Behind a New Plan for School-Based "Health Hubs" in Detroit


Schools in Detroit are kicking off the school year with something new: The district is creating “health hubs” to address student and community needs. The health hubs will offer free health, mental health and dental care for Detroit students; they will also connect families to resources including food, clothing, legal assistance and other support.

The health hub plan was initiated by the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) and has backing from an array of philanthropies. The Ballmer Group is providing $2.7 million to fund full-time coordinators at each of the health hub sites. A $550,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation will augment the Ballmer Group’s efforts, and also establish a demonstration health hub. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is contributing $750,000 to support oral health services at the health hubs and to help create a district-wide oral health clinic. Finally, $500,000 from the Detroit-based Children’s Foundation will support the development of a health hub at one Detroit high school, and nurses at five DPSCD schools.

The goal of the health hubs, which will be located at a dozen schools across Detroit, is to reduce some of the health and social challenges that get in the way of learning — and, in many cases, keep students from attending school at all. “When we can meet the needs of families, it takes a burden off of students and helps them to be able to focus on school,” said DPSCD Deputy Superintendent Alycia Meriweather.

DPSCD is hoping the health hubs will reduce chronic absenteeism, which is a problem at schools around the country and is particularly high in Detroit. The city has the highest absentee rates among major cities, and the state of Michigan, in turn, has one of the highest absentee rates in the country.  

In an interview with CBS News Detroit, Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of DPSCD, reported some improvement in attendance in Detroit schools, but said that absentee numbers remain high. "Last year, we had 68% of our students being chronically absent, and that was an improvement from the year before where 77% were chronically absent," he said. 

The health hubs, Vitti said when the initiative was announced, “are designed to address behavioral, mental and physical needs to support our students and families. We know that academic growth and consistent attendance require our students and families to be healthy and stable.” 

Health hubs and community schools 

Detroit’s health hub initiative has a lot in common with the concept of community schools, an education model that has gained widespread support from education experts, government leaders and many in the ed funding community, as IP reported last year. Community schools provide wraparound supports to meet both academic and nonacademic needs, often have extended hours, and work with community organizations to provide recreational programs, access to healthcare and other resources. According to a DPSCD announcement, the Detroit health hubs build on “the nationally recognized and evidence-based” community schools model, which centers schools “as places where students and families can experience opportunity and growth in learning, health, economic stability.”

Detroit’s health hubs initiative is animated by growing interest in the community schools model, and aligns with work that funding partners like Ballmer and Kresge are already doing. The Ballmer Group, for example, has championed that model in recent ed funding initiatives. Earlier this year, it gave the national organization Communities in Schools $165 million.

Kayla Roney Smith, the Ballmer Group’s portfolio manager for southeast Michigan, said that Ballmer had worked with DPSCD in the past, and has built a close relationship with the district over the years. “[DPSCD administrators] shared their vision for the health hubs with us, and it honestly was perfect timing,” she said. “Our team at Ballmer group had been exploring approaches to integrate K-12 schools with community-based organizations and government partners to empower students and parents. We know learning doesn't happen in isolation, and if we want students to be successful in school and to graduate ready for college and/or career, they need to have their needs met. Community schools focus on what students and their families need to be able to  thrive, and that is the approach DPSCD is taking.”

DPSCD will also be receiving some government funding for the health hubs, and along with the regional United Way, the district has applied to the Biden administration for a community schools grant. Roney Smith says this private-public partnership approach is one that the Ballmer Group favors. “Partnering with government is really a key priority and the way that Ballmer Group likes to make grants,” she said. “Where can we leverage public resources? Where can we make sure that public resources are being used efficiently and maximized? I think this is a great example of that, because you've got public resources supporting services, and then philanthropy stepping in to say, ‘Let's help make sure that those funds are being utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible.’” 

The Ballmer Group also has a personal connection to Michigan: Steve Ballmer was born in Detroit and raised in the state. Southeast Michigan is one of the philanthropy’s priority funding areas, along with Washington state and Los Angeles County.

For Kresge, an “easy marriage”

The Kresge Foundation, which was founded in Detroit and has deep roots there, was already in conversation with the Ballmer Group and others about community schools when DPSCD approached it about the health hub initiative. “We had been talking about community schools as an evidence-based model and a broader national movement, and how that might apply to Detroit,” said Senior Program Officer Jonathan Hui. “It became an easy marriage because the funders were already thinking about this framework.” 

Several factors helped sharpen the foundation’s understanding of the important role schools play in the local community, according to Hui. One was the pandemic, which saw Detroit schools act as community centers, providing food, distributing computers and acting as vaccine sites, among other services. Government pandemic dollars helped the district expand its services, which in turn boosted public awareness and appreciation of schools as as a vital community resource.

Another factor was The School at Marygrove in northwest Detroit, a Kresge-supported project that IP reported on when it was under development. “We had already been partnering with the district on this cradle-to-career campus at Marygrove,” Hui said. “Marygrove incorporates a lot of the community school principles, so they were getting tested on the ground and providing clear proof points for scaling.” Some of Kresge’s funding for the DPSCD initiative will support the establishment of a demonstration health hub site with enhanced services on the Marygrove campus.

Asked if he sees community schools as the future of education, Hui responded, “I think in many ways they are. The story around how schools can be catalysts for neighborhood development, for community and economic development, I think, is really promising. And the trust piece is key: schools are trusted. Families trust teachers to help direct them to resources. And the actual brick-and-mortar building is important, too. There are nonprofits and community organizations that need space to meet. What better space than the local school for folks to use as a community hub?”

Whole-child commitment

There’s certainly a lot of need for this sort of approach — and philanthropic backing for it — in the district. Forty-three percent of children in Detroit live below the poverty line — eight times higher than the national average. Many DPSCD students don’t have access to health, mental health or dental care services. By providing these services and other supports right at school, the school district is hoping to boost learning and strengthen families and communities.  

DPSCD’s Alycia Meriweather says the health hub initiative reflects the district’s Whole Child Commitment, which it identified as one of five priorities in its Blueprint 2023 Strategic Plan. “Our commitment to the whole child means also meeting families’ needs,” Meriweather said. “If we can remove barriers and make sure that kids can get to school and stay in school, we should see a reduction in chronic absenteeism. The message is, you shouldn't avoid school when you have a problem, you should come to school because we can help.” 

Along with health, mental healthcare and dental services, the health hubs will include resource centers to distribute food and basic supplies like school uniforms, school supplies, laundry soap, diapers, feminine hygiene products and toothbrushes. Depending on community needs and community-based organizations in the area, parent resource centers will put families in touch with services like assistance with utility bills, or immigration and housing support.

Meriweather is clear that the health hubs wouldn’t be possible without funding partners like Ballmer, Kresge, Kellogg and the Children’s Fund. “It has been so important to have partners who understand the vision and believe in the vision and want to support the vision in very practical and concrete ways,” she said. “These partners didn’t push their own agenda, they didn’t have their own milestones and markers. They simply listened and then said, ‘How can we help?’”

DPSCD is planning to open five of the health hubs this year, but the district already has one family resource distribution center up and running. Johnetta Burnett, a grandmother who became the primary caregiver for five grandchildren after her daughter died, wasn’t sure where to turn for help with their care. The resource center helped the family with free school uniforms and other resources. “It’s been a struggle, a real struggle,” Burnett told ClickOnDetroit. “But when you got support — that’s some big help.”