Strong leaders, strong school

What happens to great ideas a few years after they’re hatched?

That question was on my mind last week when I drove to Detroit last week to visit University Preparatory Academy, the public charter launched back in 2000 by my old friend, Doug Ross.

Ross, a former state senator, Michigan Department of Commerce director, and longtime educator, has a well-earned reputation as one of Michigan’s primary producers of great ideas.

He figured you could achieve remarkable learning results with young Detroiters if you started from scratch, recruited great teachers, put good principals in charge, and paid unceasing attention to the kids and their families. His first public charter, University Prep opened with 112 sixth graders in the basement of a church named, accidentally but appropriately, “The Promise Land.”

From there, his concept grew. University Prep Academy high school graduated its first class of seniors in 2007. The goal from the start was to admit young people by lottery -- not just taking an elite slice of the best -- and achieve a 90 percent graduation rate from high school and, of those, a 90 percent admission rate to college.

That sounded fantastic at the time. But both these goals have been regularly achieved since.

However, Ross’s hope that Detroit Public Schools would follow suit has, not surprisingly, failed to come to pass.

Ross was fortunate to find two great partners, Bob and Ellen Thompson, who have now donated a total of $110 million for University Prep facilities -- money they got after his offer to build 15 new public high schools in Detroit was sabotaged by the teachers’ union. Today, the Thompson’s tough-minded, low-key, low-ego generosity stands as a monument to private philanthropy in Michigan.

Today, all told, the University Prep effort includes two high schools (one the “Academy”, the other for math and science), one middle school and two elementary schools. Total enrollment today is around 3,200 children. That may seem like a small drop in the bucket, but is cause for significant hope in a city that needs -- more than anything -- good schools for poor and vulnerable kids.

I talked about where things stand with the University Prep idea with new CEO Mark Ornstein, an affable guy from Philadelphia, who has the guts to wear a pink tie and a gray suit to the office. “Our job now is to go from good to great,” Ornstein.

True, the passage of time has modified some of the lofty hopes for University Prep. Although more than 90 percent of graduates have been accepted at four-year universities, less than 20 percent have actually graduated, at this point. (This figure may be a bit low, given that data for six-year graduation rates are not yet in.)

The reasons are complex, explains Ornstein. Kids going to college away from home have trouble adapting to the new, less nurturing environment. Plus, the assumption that all University Prep graduates should go to a four-year college may be unrealistic. “We have lots of kids who tell us they’re interested in a less academic setting or feel better suited to a community college experience.”

When they started, University Prep was one of a very few alternatives to Detroit Public Schools. Since then, however, there has been a flood of new charters in Detroit, all competing for enrollment that brings the $7,026 per student grant from the state.

On top of that, area private schools like Cranbrook are increasingly interested in recruiting -- some might say, raiding -- academically qualified minority kids from the University Prep system. As a result, the retention rate (the percentage of kids who stay within the University Prep system) is lower than Ornstein would like.

Still, Doug Ross’s vision is a shining success story. I had lunch – brown rice with ham and beans, four celery sticks and an apple – with four seniors, all thoughtful, hopeful and articulate.

Some examples of what they told me:

“Living in Detroit, you see street culture disrespecting kids who want to go to college, make something of yourself. I don’t like to see people of my color giving up on themselves.”

“University Prep stretches you for sure, but there’s nothing they don’t do to help you succeed if you put in the effort.”

“The food’s bad and it’s a challenge to maintain your grades, but it’s all worth it.”

I came away from University Prep in awe of Doug Ross’ vision, of Bob and Ellen Thompson’s generosity and the passion and dedication of the entire staff. They’re attacking the unfair and inaccurate stereotype that puts Detroit kids down.

What a great accomplishment towards a fantastic goal!

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Tue, 11/19/2013 - 9:39am
There IS a lot happening in the charter school arena in Detroit. Another group to watch - coaching and mentoring teachers and principals in 15 Detroit charter schools - is the Achievement Network. They have an impressive track record in Boston and Washington D.C. in producing high achievement - erasing gaps - in K-8 settings. Here's their site:, it's actually modern and normal for men to wear pink ties in 2013!
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 10:23am
This is an interesting article. Did you check the State Scorecard data? The schools have a negative improvement score and their top to bottom ranking is not the best.
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 10:57am
The article speaks volumes of what dreams are made of. These examples give hope to our youth. The mindsets of our youth and their parents is a difficult task to overcome in many cases. It has always been a perspective issue rather than a capability issue. Although it is clear there are always challenges we can continue to strive for better schools, better curricula and greater achievement. Too many are ready to give up at the first hurdle. University Prep must be applauded for their efforts and others must fall in line with the ideal. We must coach our society to believe in our youth and encourage their growth.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 11:23am
The failure in education is not the school, the teacher, the student, the parent or the union. The failure is the system. System, anybody know what that is? You may work in one, you certainly deal with a whole lot of them every day, some like education, very dysfunctional. There is a huge structure, a system, enveloping our children's natural desire to learn, a system that consumes at least $7.0 Billion of the $14.0 Billion annually spent on education. That's $7.0 Billion that never makes it to the classroom. It starts with a Legislature in conflict with the State Board of Education about the adult goals for educating children (Despite the Constitutional Authority residing with the State Board) and a Michigan Department of Education that knows better than all the rest. These three groups fight amongst themselves about all sorts of things, the most fundamental being who gets the money for what efforts. The result is nobody focused on the purpose of education which you would think is learning. Representatives from each of the above groups will insist that is their purpose. Their actions say otherwise. They all insist that accountability is key and persist in the centuries old (and meaningless) practice of reward and punishment using tools just as old to "assess" responsibility and devise new schemes for the old practices of higher standards and more rigor. Listen to their arguments. Where are the students voices? The teachers voices? (An exception the Common Core State Standards which did enlist the voices of teachers - of course the legislature opposes that) They ignore the many examples of real learning going on in this country, each a unique effort to address a segment of the incredibly diverse population of learners presented to teachers each day. Public charter, public traditional and private examples exists using a KIPP model, a Big Picture Schools model, a Mission Hills model, a Coalition of Essential Schools model, the Khan Academy model, a Rafe Esquith model, a Sudbury Valley model, a Finnish Model, etc, etc, etc. The common threads in all of these is their diversity, the autonomy granted to teacher and student and the permission to learn following a student's learning journey. Another significant common thread is the learning that actually takes place, learning that the bogus standardized fill in the bubble (and very expensive) tests can never assess. The dictate of what, when, where, how, how many of traditional public schooling is missing. The whipsaw requirements of the Academic and non academic (AKA Publishers) and testing companies is missing. The question "Why?" is often answered, sometimes with a great struggle, but the student is allowed to struggle - to learn.
Charles Richards
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:16pm
Eloquent, well-written nonsense.
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 9:59pm
Chuch, I agree with Charles about your eloquence. However, you leave me with disappointment similar to that of Mr. Power's writing. You talk of failure, you talk of autonomy, of learning and yet you give no description of any of them. What is the system failing to do, what is learning, what is teacher or student autonomy? You leave it to the reader to assume what you are referencing, and since we all have different experiences we will all assume something difference. It is that difference, that lack of common understanding that prevents us to come together to create plans to address the problems you see as so important. As an example, you say the system has failed and yet we have kids succeed having been educated in that system. If we have so many successes how do we know the system fails? If we don't understand the success we have how are we going to identify and addresses the weakness in the system. You cold help me better understand the system and the problem if you could share what you see as the model of a successful system, or a description of learning success the system should be achieving.
Charles Richards
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 3:33pm
"Living in Detroit, you see street culture disrespecting kids who want to go to college, make something of yourself." This reflects an extremely unfortunate situation. It makes it tough to succeed when the prevailing ethos objects to individuals standing out from the group. It is understandable that groups under stress place a high value on social cohesion, group loyalty, but it is self-defeating. It is said that at one time that irish immigrants suffered from the same problem; people would say "Who do you think you are?" to someone who showed signs of leaving the group on the upside. Hopefully, education is the answer, but it's a difficult problem.
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 9:41pm
Mr. Power has identified an educational success at the Univ Prep Acad. The lost opportunity is that he didn’t help others gain some sense of why and how that success happened. “…started from scratch, recruited great teachers, put good principals in charge, and paid unceasing attention to the kids and their families.” I suspect this is what all educators think they are doing. But, it seems they aren’t since many haven’t achieved the success Mr. Power talks about. It could have been educational to the readers if we had learned something of how to recognize a ‘great teacher’, what makes a ‘good principle’, what and how to effectively provide attention to the kids and their families from this article. Just a little insight into the success can help others create their own success, I wonder why Mr. Power didn’t want to give us that.
Wed, 11/20/2013 - 1:20am
U Prep elementary and middle school succeeded by providing a full curriculum that includes gym, art, music(vocal and instrumental),and after school activities including foreign language instruction. This charter system works, so it doesn't receive the publicity that it deserves. Mr. Ross was a visible CEO. He attended programs, listened to parental concerns and didn't tolerate ineffective staff, including administrators. Teachers were allowed to teach and the school climate was nurturing. The school structure is something to be observed not told about. It is hoped that the new CEO retains the basic philosophy of Mr. Ross. Dynamic systems can handle new ideas. ijs
Fri, 11/22/2013 - 7:01am
I am a teacher who worked one year in Detroit at a charter elementary school. It was the most dysfunctional school in which I've ever worked. All of the administration and many of the teachers were related, went to church together, etc. They made very confusing decisions and favored anyone they knew. It was a very hostile working environment! Teachers were told not to ask questions of the administration. I thought at first that my experience might not be typical of charter schools but have since learned through teacher friends that it is very typical. Most charter schools are in the business to make money, not to improve education. They only admit students who are academically stronger and do not admit special needs children. They leave all that to the public education system. We've got to get people in Washington and the state educational systems who know something about education today (and not those who taught 25 years ago). Most politicians send their children to pricey private schools. In my 12 years of teaching in 3 states, I have seen very few bad teachers. Most are giving their all but continue to be frustrated with students', parents' and administrations' lack of accountability. It seems only the teachers are held responsible for the graduation rate, discipline in the classroom, teaching to ever-increasing state and national tests, etc. The real truth is that most students are VERY LAZY. They object to writing 5 sentences in my class and many do not do it, even though they are given ample time in class.
Fri, 11/22/2013 - 3:51pm
Linda, In your last couple sentences I believe you have identified the most critical and most ignored factor in learning and the success of our education system, the students. We need to explore why some students succeed and some fail when they are sitting side by side in a classroom. You say they can be lazy, I think they lack interest in learning. In either case we should be learning more about the students, the how and the why they succeed.
Mon, 11/25/2013 - 6:55am
Did anyone notice that Mr.Power went to the students to get information for his article? The students of any school system, succeeding or failing, can provide a wealth of information that is needed to create schools that educate well.
Mon, 11/25/2013 - 9:19pm
Salle, I think you have pointed out what seems to be a great source of information. I am curious if Mr. Power ask more of the students about how and why they over came the challenges. I would have been espcially interested in what sounded like the peer pressure discouraging academics and how they delt with that, and why did they decide to overcome it. Similarly the point was raised about their preception about the academic atomsphere of community colleges and four year institution. I wonder why they have that perception, why they are more comfortable in that setting, and how it can be overcome. It seems Mr. Power with his few questions of students has shown how they can add a perspective on the education issue that it is seldom ever talked about by the professionals. Since they have to deal with those and other issue everyday I hope Mr. Power and others extend their efforts with the students even further and more in-depth.