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Purpose Prize Winner 2009
Inspired by her own tough childhood and one teacher’s kind words, Higdon helps high school dropouts get diplomas — and marketable job skills to turn their lives around.
Ann Higdon knows the despair of going nowhere. Homeless as a kid, she grew up with no love for learning and little hope. It took just one teacher’s kind words to drive Higdon to try harder and finish school. Through the years, she has convened a chorus of professionals to similarly inspire high school dropouts in Dayton, Ohio. Higdon’s organization, which includes three charter schools, helps area dropouts earn their diplomas while training for jobs in health care, construction, computer operations, and manufacturing.
Ann Higdon was first homeless at age 4, foreshadowing a rough childhood. A poor student, she thought school was boring. She was afraid of being bullied and got in trouble for fighting back.
“Yet I made a better life for myself because one teacher had confidence in me,” Higdon remembers. “She wrote, in big letters, across an essay that I had written for her class, ‘You are profound and eloquent!’ Actually, I was a D student in high school with a big mouth and a bad attitude.”
Higdon learned right then how one kind, supportive gesture can nudge a young, troubled person toward self-confidence and a better life. Today, she leads ISUS – Improved Solutions for Urban Systems – a nonprofit that started out teaching construction trade skills to a few dozen Dayton, Ohio, high school dropouts and has evolved into an organization that now teaches nursing, construction, computer operation, and manufacturing to more than 400 students in Montgomery County, Ohio.
ISUS, which has a staff of 65, runs three charter schools, produces panelized wall sections for its own projects and for general contractors, and manages a portfolio of new and rehabilitated homes in Dayton that are the real-world laboratories for its construction students. ISUS helps students, typically between the ages of 16 and 22, earn high school diplomas and professional certifications, go to college, and get jobs.
Higdon, a 69-year-old divorced mother of four with no college degree, has always been scrappy, entrepreneurial, and concerned about people with tough lives and few options. For several decades, she worked for organizations that ran urban education, health, and social pilot programs for the federal government. Higdon was responsible for hiring staff across programs.
In the late 1980s, she convinced the county commission to fund a pilot program that would replace paper food stamps with the then-novel idea of a food stamp debit card. The program eventually became a national model.
In 1992, Higdon turned her attention to the high school dropout rate and proposed a construction trades program that would award students job certifications. Local business leaders and government officials, aware of the food stamp success, backed her.
The best way Higdon knows to explain her ISUS career is to take a drive around Dayton, a midsized industrial hub of 500,000 people.
Leaving downtown, she drives over the Third Street Bridge into the Wolf Creek neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest. The homes – many at least 80 years old – are two-story and narrow, squeezed onto thin lots that were the custom of their day. Five years ago, many of the buildings were deteriorating or abandoned.
Now Higdon rolls slowly past the 34 homes her students have built, proud that they have helped renew the neighborhood and attract new families.
“We carved out an area where if we worked hard we could turn it around,” she says. “Our point was not to do scattered site properties all over the city. Instead, we figured that if we renovated a lot of homes in a small area, then maybe we could revitalize the entire neighborhood.”
Higdon pulls past the small building across the street from a hospital, Grandview Medical Center, where students from an ISUS school take classes to qualify for licenses in health care careers.
Then Higdon goes deep into an industrial area and pulls into the parking lot of her headquarters, the school building for ISUS Trade and Tech Prep High School. For most of the past decade, ISUS has been converting the former plumbing supply warehouse into a school.
Higdon enters through the back door, walking through the cavernous construction laboratory. There students can build panelized walls for their projects. Higdon has begun marketing the panels through the local building and trade groups to private builders and nonprofit construction programs in other cities. She hopes to extend a rail line nearby so ISUS can ship panels by train rather than truck.
Higdon is clear about her duty to the organization: “I’m not the one who delivers the academic curriculum. I’m not the one who builds the homes. I’m the resident visionary. I’m the one who says ‘What if?’ ‘Why can’t we?’ ‘How do we?’ That’s my role.”
She’s also the primary fundraiser, soliciting much of the grant money, government payments, and private contributions that finance ISUS.
“She’s a magician at fundraising and part of that is because she can point to specific results,” says David Bohardt, former executive director of the Home Builders Association of Dayton.
Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin is also a supporter. “Ann has demonstrated compassion, care, and concern, and she took a niche that was untapped and really made it blossom.”
While Higdon has impressed local business owners and government officials, her biggest fans remain ISUS graduates.
Jacob Kendrick dropped out of high school at 16, then, by his own admission, achieved little for four years. At 20, he decided he had to get back on track. He signed up with ISUS.
Teachers at ISUS, Kendrick says, took time every day, even after school, to help him prepare for the Ohio Graduation Test – the state benchmark for getting a high school degree. Kendrick passed and was later accepted, with a scholarship, to Wittenberg University in nearby Springfield. “There is no way I would have achieved that without the stepping stone of ISUS,” he says.
Not content to sit still, Higdon continues to build the organization. ISUS has expanded its medical trades program. And the construction professional staff is being trained on environmentally friendly, or “green,” practices to teach students how to install solar panels and use other building methods that result in energy-efficient homes.
Higdon says she has worked for several years to build contacts with the federal Job Corps training and education program, proposing to take the ISUS tech prep design to other cities through established Job Corps centers. She has also been consulting with businesses and agencies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which are interested in the ISUS model.
Progress means staying nimble, says Higdon. “We’re agile. We’re small. And we change. We try to keep our finger on the pulse, and as industries change their needs then we change. We haven’t been the same organization two years in a row.”