The General Motors Foundation will donate $27.1 million to the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to create Networks of Excellence from five existing area high schools with the goals of dramatically increasing graduation rates and ultimately rebuilding the area’s skilled workforce.

The money, which is the largest donation in the 34-year history of the GM Foundation, is aimed at reducing the nearly 50 percent dropout rate in parts of Metro Detroit where the most manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent years.

“The students we are trying to reach are the future,” said GM North America President and GM Foundation Board member Mark Reuss, who announced the donation on Friday at Cody High School in Detroit. “The GM Foundation can make a difference and helping create Networks of Excellence is a proven way to do it.”

The network, which will be the second administered by the United Way in Detroit and its suburbs, will choose five high schools from which to create up to 20 academies along with establishing five Early Learning Communities to help get young children ready for kindergarten.

The first Network of Excellence began with five schools in 2008. After the first year, 83 percent of the students at the turnaround schools are on track to graduate, up from a low of 65 percent, according to the United Way.

“The goal is audacious,” said Michael J. Brennan, president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. ”We want to transform Southeast Michigan into the home of one the top five most skilled and educated workforces in the nation. Our measurement is 80 percent or greater readiness for kindergarten and high school graduation where the norm in at least five key communities is 50 percent.”

For the GM Foundation, which recently announced a $2 million GM Foundation donation to help upgrade two community centers near its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant, the Networks of Excellence commitment is the latest and largest example of helping its hometown and its residents.

“We talk a lot these days about doing the right thing,” Reuss said. “It has to be more than talk. It has to be tangible, and it has to be done with the right partners to get results.”

The breakdown of the donation includes $5 million a year for the next five years plus $425,000 a year for the five Early Childhood Learning Communities.

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