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Dan Varner


School Report Card

1938 Franklin Street
Ste. 111
Detroit, Michigan 48207
Few things are as fundamental to a child’s success as a quality education, and Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, is committed to making sure all Detroit children attend a school that helps them achieve their dreams and reach their potential. 
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Excellent Schools Detroit President and CEO Dan Varner: I think at its core it means taking responsibility for what matters to me. In that respect, all of us can be leaders as we take responsibility for what matters to us, whether it’s the empty lot on the block where we go cut the grass, or the children that live down the street who clearly need some help, or improving the schools that serve our kids because that matters to us. If it matters to you, as you take responsibility for it, to literally put your butt on the line to try and do something about it, that’s what leadership is.
What is your dream for kids?
That’s an easy one: it’s that kids have everything they need to achieve their dream, that they’re given that real opportunity.
...all of us can be leaders as we take responsibility for what matters to us, whether it's the empty lot on the block where we go cut the grass, or the children that live down the street who clearly need some help...
I’m watching these kids in the Olympics now and it reminds me all the time that we have this great “bootstraps, hardworking individual” story about America, but it’s a story; as true as that is and as hard as these people work, there is a community around them that makes possible for them the translation of that hard work into the achievement of their dream. My dream for kids is that as a community we provide all of those supports so that if a child is willing to do the work, and does it, that they can achieve their dream, whether that’s to go to the Olympics or become a surgeon or a farmer.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
That would be for boards of directors and staff leadership at the various social sector organizations to come together and establish some shared goals that become the goal around which each individual organization’s strategic plan was built. Ultimately, the concrete thing I’m looking for here is a much higher degree of alignment in goals that are being pursued by the organizations that make up the sector.
What would be interesting is what a coalition of youth development organizations might rally around as a common goals and common measures that they could all use in order to, one, evaluate their performance, and two, signal much a higher level of coherence and organization as a region, which I think would accelerate positive outcomes. I don’t know what the right goal is or what the right measures are. One of the real challenges in the social sector is that you have a couple different marketplaces you have to be responsive to: the funder community, which is different from your clients, whose outcomes you are working toward. So I think you’d want to include representatives from both those groups when you’re looking at what the right goals should be and right measures should be. If you had a youth development sector that came together and said our measure of success is, for example, high school graduation -- if that actually becomes the measure of success for 80 percent of the youth development organizations in our region, you could imagine that would have an effect on what programs they decided to run or what programs they decided were not quite as important, or how they partnered with schools. It would have some really significant impact.
How do you know you’re making progress? 
For our organization, the most important thing we’re actually working on is trying to generate that kind of alignment among organizations that care about kids, along the prenatal-to-20 spectrum. We have some tentative measures that we think are the primary ones that will indicate progress, ranging from healthy birth outcomes, kindergarten readiness, third grade reading, eighth grade math, high school graduation, and even a post-secondary measure -- that’s one way we know we’re making progress. Second, and much harder to measure, but as important, is a general sense of coherence and organization
When we lose sight of the humanity of other folks, it's easy to ignore what's going on and easy, frankly, to not take responsibility for some of those things that do matter.
among community members and institutional actors who are working in this prenatal-to-20 space. Thirdly and most long-term, but I think ultimately the most important, is that education is linked to all the other measures of health and well-being of our city and region, and as the indicators improve, that tends to have a positive impact on education and vice-versa. As educational outcomes improve you tend to see a healthier region overall.
What are you most proud of?
I have pride in, and great respect and admiration as well, for teachers and school leaders, district leaders, and parents and nonprofit staff who really do make a tremendous difference in the lives of young people. For the last 20 years, seeing that work, seeing people so committed to creating conditions that would help kids create great outcomes is completely inspiring. For example, a teacher who is more than a teacher, who is a mentor and coach and almost a surrogate parent sometimes; a parent who knows their responsibility doesn’t end when they drop their children off at school, who shows up at school and goes to parent-teacher conferences and helps with homework, and who sometimes even parents other kids. I know families who have adopted other children into their home and raised those kids as their own. There are heroes all around us and it makes me so proud to live in this community and be a Detroiter.
What perceptions, messages, historical influences create the most significant barriers to engaging Michigan citizens in helping vulnerable children?
I think the greatest challenge we have is the barriers that keep us from working collaboratively across municipal and regional boundaries. Those have deep roots in issues of race, socioeconomic status, and many other things. Those barriers, more than anything else, keep folks from really helping kids. When we lose sight of the humanity of other folks, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on and easy, frankly, to not take responsibility for some of those things that do matter. It’s only when you actually see the humanity of other folks, you see “this is a child, like mine, who needs the same things that my child needs in order to succeed” that you become really committed to engagement. 
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