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.