How One College Increased Black Graduation Rates by Turning its Football Field into a Vegetable Garden

 

I sat there amazed at what I was hearing.

The keynote speaker at this year’s Michigan College Access Networks annual meeting kept us in awe. The president of Paul Quin College, Michael Sorrell, told stories of the turnarounds that make his work worth it.

Sorrell talked of his initial desire to lead a blue-chip corporation. But while pursuing wealth, he found passion instead. He was called upon by Paul Quin, a Historically Black College (HBCU) and asked to fill a position no one else wanted.

Paul Quin was failing miserably but Sorrell decided to take the position anyway.

Upon his arrival, his biggest challenge was the college’s graduation rate–or so he thought. The dropout crisis turned out to be more complicated than he could ever have imagined and, more importantly, he had no answer to why the students were dropping out.

The college was located in a food desert within an economically and social-emotionally challenged city. Tuition was too high; students needed jobs and frequently dropped out.

Sorrell took extreme measures to keep his students on campus. He lowered tuition, scrapped the need for students to purchase books, and dug up the football field.

Yes, you read that right! What HBCU does this? Paul Quin did.

Sorrell quickly realized the only way to keep students enrolled was to address all of their needs. A lack of healthy food options and grocery stores sparked a plan of urban gardening. In place of the football field the school didn’t really need, food is now being grown.

The school established a work-based scholarship that allow students to give back to their school and community while learning to cultivate the gardens.

A culture of ownership became the priority. After all, when students see that they are needed and know that their needs are high priority, they stick around. And they give back.

The broader community has benefited from the students’ new passion for learning. Partners such as JC Penny, Onco and Pepsi sponsor programs on campus. Business leaders become coaches to students based on their academic goals.

The turnaround has attracted national attention. Paul Quins was named “The Work College” by the U.S. Department of Education.

Sorrell will be working with other cities to expand this model and is dedicated to making sure our young people complete college with as few barriers as possible.

Detroit students could really benefit from a college like this: Tuition fees right around $10,000, work-based scholarships, and the development of a workforce that takes ownership of its community.

I would send my child there.

Hats off to you Mr. Sorrel, I am sure Detroit will gladly receive you and I can’t wait to see how far you expand.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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