Ashley Johnson, Executive Director of Detroit College Access Network

This first-generation college grad runs a collaboration of organizations that aim to help Detroit students reach their educational goals.

Ashley Johnson

Getting into and successfully navigating a university or trade school is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re the first one in your family to do it. Ashley Johnson, Ph.D., executive director of the Detroit College Access Network (DCAN), knows this struggle as the first person from her family to go to college.

The Shelbyville, Tennessee native – who’s lived in metro Detroit since 2010 – attended the University of Mississippi and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry, followed by a master’s in curriculum and instruction in education.

After, she moved to Michigan to complete her education at Michigan State University where she earned her doctorate in education leadership and administration with a specialization in urban education. These experiences and the belief that an education can be used as a catalyst for economic growth, and community empowerment and improvement, helped to fuel her passion to support kids’ life goals.

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“Being a first-generation college student opened a lot of doors,” she says. “I wanted to do something that had a bigger impact on students.” And so, she began to work as a secondary science teacher, teacher coach, curriculum specialist and instructional leader before landing the director position with Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) – a coalition that aims to ensure each school in Detroit performs at its best. 

In 2013, while Johnson worked for ESD, an opportunity arose to be involved in the launch of DCAN. She jumped at the chance, and by 2017, she had earned the executive director position. “I love the work (at DCAN),” she says. “It doesn’t feel like work for me.”

That’s because DCAN gives Johnson the chance to work with kids who may be lost when it comes to the processes involved with obtaining higher education and who, like Johnson, don’t have family with the experience to help.

“DCAN is a network of organizations, so it’s not like many other that are just a program,” Johnson explains. “(Instead) it’s a number of programs working together to increase the number of kids that graduate from Detroit high schools, college ready.” Among the 100-plus groups that make up DCAN are Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Detroit Public Schools Community District, United Way, the Kresge Foundation and the Skillman Foundation.

Together, these organizations analyze data to find out how many students in Detroit come out of high school ready to tackle their next chapter in education and then develop plans that will help children reach their goals. “We’ve built a capacity of people to work with kids to get them into a culture of education (and) we create programs where the data tells us we need programs,” Johnson says.

Since its launch, DCAN has hosted numerous events, including “lunch and learns” and professional development seminars, plus programming specifically designed to help high school seniors complete college applications and obtain financial aid. They also offer an SAT prep class and facilitate a drop-in center where students can get help during the summer months.

It isn’t just college help that students get through DCAN, either. They can also put students on track to enroll in community college, technical or trade schools and even certification programs. Johnson and DCAN have helped put more than 20,000 Detroit high school students on the career path they desire, and there’s no sign of slowing down.

“It is important to have an organization that is concerned about all kids in Detroit and helping all kids in Detroit figure out what they want to do. That’s what we do,” Johnson says. The ultimate goal is “supporting students and families with reaching their education dreams and goals, then seeing those same students and families pay it forward by giving back to others in Detroit.”

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