School succeeds where others fail
Focus on students, innovation puts Detroit charter ahead
May 25, 2007
On a recent morning when teens in typical Detroit high schools milled from class to class in aging school buildings, the lunch booths were full at a new city high school.
One student sat at a laptop listening to an iPod in the cavernous commons area.
Joe Bush, 18, a senior who has struggled to keep a roof over his head, worked on a paper.
Three days a week, students can work for hours like this -- on their own -- at this school that's bucking the abysmal dropout and graduation trends in Detroit.
Students at this nontraditional school don't get grades, but narrative reports from their advisers. That's what the school calls its teachers. A few of them look young enough to be students. In fact, the two principals at the 512-student campus are only 30 and 36.
This is University Preparatory Academy High School, the school that has charter school advocates saying you can build a new, successful school system in Detroit from the ground up.
UPA is succeeding -- graduating almost all of its seniors -- as DPS plans to shut four high schools. And its founder, Doug Ross, said the Detroit Public Schools system must change or get out of the city's way.
"There's no reason any school in this city should have 50, 60% of its children dropping out," said Ross, who already has plans for more schools.
Founded seven years ago with sixth-graders, UPA High's mission became to take 125 freshmen, graduate 90% of them and have 90% of them go to college or trade school.
By hitting that mark, UPA's class of 2007 would be an anomaly among public schools in Detroit. Only three of 41 DPS schools do that annually.
Ross said all of those expected to graduate have been accepted to one or more colleges or training programs. Staff will follow up to ensure that 90% go.
So how did UPA do it?
With innovation, a young, energetic staff and a do-whatever-it-takes attitude.
Humble beginnings
Politicians have been eyeballing UPA, and Detroit educators have been fearing it because of its ties to Bob Thompson, a Republican business owner from Plymouth who made his riches in asphalt paving and was rebuffed when he offered to build up to 15 charter schools in the city.
Thompson offered to spend up to $200 million on new charter schools, but Detroiters scoffed. DPS, parents and politicians complained that charter schools are no better academically than traditional public schools in DPS and were taking DPS students and leaving the system broke.
But state lawmakers changed the school code to allow any big-money nonprofit to open up to 15 charter schools within the city.
UPA leases a $14-million, five-building campus near Wayne State University from Thompson for $1 a year, conditioned on the strict graduation and college-acceptance requirements. It's a step up from its humble beginnings seven years ago, just with sixth-graders huddled into rooms in the basement of a church called the Promise Land.
Tucked into a neighborhood near the city incinerator, the students endured rodents and bathroom floods.
To bring in the first class of students, Ross visited parents at home. Advisers called their students and met some for bowling and at the park to get to know them before school started.
At the senior pinning ceremony last month, Chenne Leaverson of Detroit said she put her only child, Ryan, in UPA out of desperation seven years ago. He'd come home from his first day at their rowdy neighborhood middle school and told his parents he didn't want to go back.
Ryan is headed to Alabama A&M University in the fall.
"I really hated dropping him off in the basement of that church," she said. "But Mr. Ross gave you his number at home. He is very persuasive."
Some parents took their kids out because they didn't like the no-grades system.
About 70 of the original 119 sixth-graders are graduating.
Ratanya Patrick, 37, of Farmington Hills took her son out of UPA just as the high school was opening four years ago. She said the staff made parents feel welcome, but the freedom of independent study was not a good fit for him. He struggled at Farmington High.
"Every kid doesn't thrive in that environment. I think a kid has to be kind of self-motivated to achieve anything at a school like U Prep."
Nontraditional learning
UPA is structured on methods borrowed from a nonprofit reform group called Big Picture Schools that founded the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Rhode Island, which tailors learning "one student at a time."
UPA's curriculum is largely project-based, not so much textbook-related.
For example, Sydney Lester, who wants to be a fashion designer, did a science project that involved researching the ingredients for makeup and their effects on the body.
All students are also required to go on internships because exposure to the real world of work is a large part of the UPA experience.
Lester, 18, learned how clothing lines are chosen when she went to New York for a weekend on the school's dime to meet Gap designers and check out a fashion college.
Kasi Cenance, 17, held a baby while the father cut the cord in the delivery room at Henry Ford Hospital.
Ta'Rez Franklin works at a radio station that benefits vision-impaired listeners. Last month, he read news stories on the air: Murder in Benton Harbor, car theft in Eastpointe, Pistons vs. Orlando highlights.
He's headed to Alabama State University for college.
And UPA sent Chemar Micou to South Africa. She's headed to Eastern Michigan University in the fall.
She said she went to Mumford High in DPS for the traditional high school experience. But after a week, she came back to UPA, where there aren't even bells to signal the end of each period. "It was difficult for me here with all of the freedoms," she said. "But it's easy. ... They do everything for you. They pay for the ACT, everything.
"If there was more 'book learning' " instead of learning through projects, "the school would be darn near perfect," she said.
Relationships matter
Ross doesn't tout the school as being on par with the best. Challenges remain. As Ross put it, students need to understand that they need to work harder to compete.
When it looked like nearly two dozen seniors were not on track to graduate, staff took them on retreats -- the girls to Ann Arbor, the boys to a campsite -- to talk, vent, cry and finish their work.
The staff also needs to figure out how to save black boys from the lure of the streets and pop culture, Ross said. Principal Michelle White still remembers Nate Gilbert. He was a former UPA student who raped and killed his girlfriend two years ago. He was in White's advisory.
She spent hours with him and still has to take a deep breath to fend off the tears when she talks about him.
That passion and concern is reflected in the way the advisers work with all of their students. They have parents' cell phone numbers on speed dial, know birthdays, family problems, wipe tears and even once moved a homeless student in. Adviser Lori Johnson's plans on a recent Saturday included a stop at the baby shower for one of her students who is becoming a dad. Then there was a stop at the Max to see another student give a speech.
She said the UPA's system can be mass-produced in Detroit.
"In order to make it work, you need ... the right kind of people," she said. "They have to really believe in one student at a time."
Contact CHASTITY PRATT at 313- 223-4537 or
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.