Fair   72.0F  |  Forecast »

Detroit Dad Dan Varner Leads Drive For Better Schools

Dan Varner, CEO of nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, combines his passion for Detroit, education and helping kids in his single-minded mission.

Improving Detroit schools and getting the entire city's school-age population in a great school by 2020 is no simple task.

But Dan Varner, 44 – dad to Joel, 15, Serena, 13, and Lauren, 7 – has made educating local kids his life's work. He's the secretary of the Michigan Board of Education, and at his day job as chief executive officer of nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, Varner and his team are dedicated to giving all of the Motor City's children an equal chance at a quality education.

Dan Varner

"I'm very passionate about three things," says Varner, who will have been CEO of the organization two years in September. "One is youth development and kids generally – and creating healthy, safe environments for our kids to grow up in." The second? The city itself and "seeing it be a great place to be a child and raise a family." Mix that with reason No. 3 – "a passion for education" – and ESD is the perfect fit.

Because Varner says education gave him a lot of opportunities, he's "really grown to believe that education is one of the most important public services that we provide as a country," he says. "Especially to kids growing up in cities like Detroit."

On Aug. 7, Excellent Schools Detroit released its 2013 scorecard, putting 149 schools in the spotlight by giving them letter grades – something never done before.

"The scorecard literally took two years," Varner says. Although ESD's coalition had released scorecards, this is the first year it ranked the city's schools by letter grade. It also evaluated schools on academic progress, growth over the school year and the school's climate.

Varner's arrival certainly played a role in increasing the scrutiny.

The native Detroiter, who now calls the Bagley neighborhood near Marygrove College home, says "Detroit's been great to me," but he recognizes that it's not always an easy place to raise a family.

"That's really why a tool like the scorecard is important," he says. "It helps to level the playing field."

Although born in the city, the education aficionado says he was "raised in paradise." When he was just an infant, his dad took a job at an oil refinery in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. "Literally, my first memories are rainforests and beaches," he recalls.

Around the time he was entering second grade, his family moved to Robinson, Ill., where he says he and his sister desegregated the schools. The family eventually moved back to Detroit when he was in fifth grade.

Dan's Faves

Although it's hard to believe, having a hand in education wasn't always on Varner's docket. After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan, he worked as a lawyer doing "union-side labor and employment work." He also worked in criminal law, where he says he saw a lot of young men head to prison and leave families behind.

"I think it became really clear to me while I was doing that work that if we did better by our kids in our education (system) that it would have dramatic impact … on our community as a whole," he says.

He went on to co-found Think Detroit Inc., which merged with Detroit Police Athletic League to become Think Detroit PAL. Here, thousands of youth participate in high-quality recreation programs. Although it's not his full-time gig anymore, he's still on the board of directors at today's Detroit PAL.

Varner continued his work with youth as a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation before taking the helm of Excellent Schools Detroit.

What's next for Excellent Schools Detroit? Varner says the group will be releasing an early childhood education version of the scorecard in the fall, and also a print version of the current scorecard for parents without web access.

And after impacting the lives of countless other children at work, Varner goes home to his three kids. Their favorite thing to do as a family? "Might be a board game. We're a pretty big board game family. Something like Ticket to Ride."

Add your comment:
Advertisement

More »Latest Articles & Blog Posts

Craft Roundup: Small Projects to Make with Washi Tape, Confetti, More

Craft Roundup: Small Projects to Make with Washi Tape, Confetti, More

Tiny stuff is terrific! This roundup of DIY fun from various blogs shows you how to make matchbook notebooks, gift bags, stickers and bitty butterflies.

Frustrated Mom Creates App to Stop Teens from Ignoring Calls

Frustrated Mom Creates App to Stop Teens from Ignoring Calls

One mother got sick of her kids blowing off her phone calls, so she created an app to make it impossible. Stroke of genius – or an overstep of parental bounds?

Ice Cream Sandwich Recipes

Ice Cream Sandwich Recipes

Combine ice cream with cookies and you've got the perfect dessert combination. Whip up one of these cool treats with the kids!

Vintage Summer Pins Made from Old Belt Buckles

Vintage Summer Pins Made from Old Belt Buckles

A perfect summer craft, this DIY project is centered around used plastic accessories, which are cheap finds at garage sales and thrift stores.

Monroe County Teen Allegedly Fakes Abduction, May Face Felony Charges

Monroe County Teen Allegedly Fakes Abduction, May Face Felony Charges

Hayley Marie Turner, age 18, of Bedford Township reportedly went missing for 16 hours – but it turns out the entire thing was a hoax. What happened to the teen?

Craft Roundup: Back-to-School Fun Craft Ideas for Kids

Craft Roundup: Back-to-School Fun Craft Ideas for Kids

It's only a month away. But there's no need to fret! Get in a good mood about school with these four fun crafty DIY projects from various blogs.

Mom Dresses Daughter as Hooters Girl for Pageant

Mom Dresses Daughter as Hooters Girl for Pageant

The documentary 'Blinging Up Baby' gives you a behind-the-scenes look at kid beauty pageants. Did one pageant parent from London go too far when she dressed her child as a Hooters waitress?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement