Dayton is famous for its innovators – the Wright Brothers; John H. Patterson, who founded the National Cash Register Company in the late 1800s; and Charles F. Kettering, who developed the first electric starter for cars, all come to mind. It’s not surprising, then, with such a history that one of the country’s great educational innovators today also comes from Dayton.

Ann Higdon, president and founder of Improved Solutions for Urban Systems (ISUS), was recently awarded “The Purpose Prize,” a prestigious national award for social innovators over the age of 60. Ann was honored for her work with ISUS, a charter high school whose mission is to help at-risk students between the ages of 16 and 22 earn high school diplomas, gain professional certifications, find jobs, and go to college. (Watch a short video of Ann speaking about her motivations and ISUS here.)

Ann Higdon at a Dayton area home that ISUS students helped construct (May 2009). Photo courtesy of Laura Elizabeth Pohl.

In 1992 Higdon founded ISUS as a way to tackle Dayton’s alarming drop-out rate – fully half the young people in Dayton were dropping out of school. Ann’s goal was to establish a constructions trade program that would provide the most troubled students with job certifications and employable skills. Her students struggled in traditional high schools – they were dropouts, had gotten in trouble with the law, had children of their own, and/or had substance abuse problems. Since its founding ISUS has grown to serve over 400 students through three charter schools in Dayton. ISUS offers programs in nursing, construction, Information Technology, and manufacturing.

Through her work Ann has not only helped to lift up students, but the city of Dayton as well. Students attending ISUS have rebuilt or remodeled more than 30 homes in the Dayton area, helping to revitalize the Rubicon and Wolf Creek neighborhoods.

Ann credits her personal experiences with poverty growing up as a driving factor in her work. In a Dayton Daily News column she explains:

“I became involved not because I was a teacher, not because I knew anything relevant in particular, other than that I had walked this path before. The Japanese have a word for teacher, ‘sensei,’ that means ‘one who has gone before.’ If that’s a qualification, I have it. I understand how to rise out of poverty. I also understand that it is similar to a rocket ship pulling away from the force of gravity. It uses 85 percent of its fuel just getting away. Pulling out of poverty is not just an economic state. It is also a state of mind.”

On a personal note, Ann Higdon was one of the first people I met in Dayton when I first came here in late 2001. It didn’t take me long to figure out that ISUS was more than just a school. It was a place that saved lives. I’ve met many of Ann students and have heard their stories. They’ll readily tell you that ISUS has taken them off of the streets and given them purpose, job skills, and hope for a better life. Because ISUS works it has received the support of community leaders, philanthropists, the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, and myriad federal grant programs.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Ann should be flattered because the Columbus City School District is actually creating its own program based on the work of Ann and ISUS. Further, Ann has advised other states and other countries on how to create programs that work for at-risk youth.   

Despite all this, Ann and ISUS have their critics. I’ve heard lawmakers and others say that ISUS doesn’t work because “only half the young people who apply actually graduate” or that “the student Ohio Graduation Test scores are low.” “Don’t they understand how far behind these young people are by the time we get them?” I’ve heard Ann say more than once. She’d then share test scores of 16 and 17 year old students that showed them reading at a second- or third-grade level.

But, Ann wasn’t complaining as much as observing. In the years that I have known Ann she has sought to alleviate such criticism by proactively seeking to show objectively the worth of ISUS. ISUS was one of the first schools in Dayton to use normative assessments to show how much growth students made over the course of the year. Early on ISUS tracked the recidivism rates of its students (many of whom were familiar to the courts and law-enforcement) and she tracked the number of students who went on to gainful employment after their time at ISUS whether they actually graduated or not.

ISUS was the first school I saw that made it obvious to me that great charter schools might not look great on a state’s report card.

Not surprisingly, many of Ann’s greatest supporters have been judges and attorneys who work with troubled youth, as they have seen firsthand the impact Ann and ISUS have had on young people in Dayton. Ann Higdon is to educational innovators what the Wright Brothers were to aviation and what Kettering was to the auto industry. High praise indeed and one that isn’t shared lightly, but the fact is that Dayton, and the now thousands of young people who have been touched by Ann and ISUS, are better off because of her passion, dedication, and creative problem-solving. It’s great that Ann’s work has received the national recognition it deserves.  

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