Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 24, 2013

Phil Power: University Prep a charter school success story


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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:

n “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.”

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

n “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!

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.