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Student by student by student
Doug Ross, the founder and superindendent of Detroit's University Preparatory Academy charter school, is creating inner-city schools that work. The secret: individual attention and high standards.
October 14, 2008
Doug Ross is the kind of guy who always questions and never quits.
Way back in 1967, when Ross was a fresh U-M graduate and middle school teacher in Detroit, he quickly realized his urban students couldn't relate to their traditionally-written social studies textbooks. So he began writing a kinder, friendlier, "Flash Gordon" version of American history for the students, as he describes it. He was essentially fired for that.
Ross, now 66, left Detroit schools, and Detroit itself, and went on to 40 years of a distinguished, political/public service life that included stints as a Michigan legislator, director of the Michigan Dept. of Commerce, and U.S. assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration.
But now, he's back in the Detroit schools game.
Oh, boy, is he back.
In June 2007, the University Preparatory Academy (UPA) High School in Detroit, a charter high school, graduated its first class at the Detroit Opera House. In all, 128 young people, many of them the kind of poor, struggling urban youth that tend to drop out of school, marched across the stage to get their diplomas. They represented a whopping 95 percent of their class.
The emotion-laden ceremony was the realized vision of Ross, UPA founder and superintendent. "I think everybody during that graduation spent some time crying," Ross says. "Board members, teachers, parents. And myself. It was pretty emotional."
Ross had in 2000 begun his charter school education experiment with 112 sixth graders, vowing that 90 percent of this Class of 2007 would graduate, and that among those, 90 percent would go on to postsecondary schools. He promised this in a district featuring a hostile teacher's union and a graduation rate that some rank as low as 22 percent.
Preposterous, most thought. Never do it, most told him. But he reached both goals; as of last October, 91 percent of the UPA's 2007 graduates were enrolled in postsecondary institutions.
"The system is obsolete. You could have Napoleon or Gandhi as the next superindendent, but they're going to get the same results."
Antonio Anderson, 19, of Detroit is now attending the University of Michigan. Ross helped him get to U-M, he says. "I have an excellent relationship with Mr. Ross," he adds. UPA's curriculum, including required, independent projects, helped prepare him for college, says Anderson, who has yet to decide his major. He had his sights set on U-M because of its reputation for excellence.
When application time came along, UPA's staff "helped me formulate a plan and helped me with my application. Luckily, I'm here now. It's challenging, but it wouldn't be worth it if it wasn't."
Working initially with Bill Beckham, former president of the Skillman Foundation and now deceased, Ross used a model of small student groups, individualized learning plans and strong advising teams in his schools. Despite the efforts of some fine leaders at Detroit Public Schools, nothing, Ross and Beckham believed back in 2000, could fix a broken district.
"The system is obsolete," Ross says. "You could have Napoleon or Gandhi as the next superintendent, but until they dismantle these big factory schools, they're going to get the same results. It can't be fixed. It has to be replaced."
With the financial backing of Bob Thompson, former road builder and multi-millionaire, Ross eventually was able to build a new middle school building and the new UPA high school campus. His UPA charter system began with an elementary, middle and high school. This fall, UPA added a second elementary and a second high school. And the idea is spreading: a charter school based on UPA opened in Grand Rapids this year.
UPA rests on five principles Ross has built into the school curriculum and culture:
- First, the schools must be small.
- Second, they must "offer every child powerful and enduring relationships with teachers, and provide mentors from the world of work and other parts of the community," according to the UPA website.
- Third, UPA provides individualized student learning plans that match his or her skill level, maturity, interests, and learning style.
- Fourth, the school focuses on preparation for college or post secondary education.
- And fifth, to help all of this happen, UPA schools rely heavily on partnerships with community institutions.
Ross has taken his share of abuse from those who disagree with the charter model. He understands some of the opposition, but he finds basic fault with "adult interests, even legitimate ones, trumping the needs of children."
Ross grew up in Northwest Detroit, the son of a Bulgarian immigrant. He went through Detroit schools and earned a B.A. in history in 1965 from U-M, and added a secondary teaching certificate a year later. He was a lecturer at Ford School of Public Policy from 1991 to 2003.
Throughout his public service career, he always looked for the better way, especially when it came to helping people. For example, During his service in Gov. Jim Blanchard's administration, Ross was asked to establish and run the Michigan Youth Corps, the largest and most successful state-run summer jobs program for young people in the country. He led the effort to repeal the state sales tax on food and medicine; he worked for political reform and was director of the state's first Common Cause office.
He continued such efforts when working in the Clinton administration. But he decided to leave Washington in 1996 to run for governor. He lost to attorney Geoffrey Fieger in the Democratic primary. Soon after that, he was drawn into education reform in Detroit. It was a good time in his life, he says, to take the challenge—and the pot shots.
"This has been a lot of fun. It's demanding, but there's something exhilarating about starting something like this later in life. Each decade, I've had issues to deal with. I think one of the benefits now to being in my 60s is I feel incredibly free. Really, there's nothing you can do to me, short of shooting me. Obviously, you love support, it's helpful, but I don't really care anymore. And that's so liberating."
Ross does not consider his job as UPA's founder and lead cheerleader/educator done, despite the initial success. He is realistic. "There's a huge amount we don't know how to do yet," he says. "Our kids' academic skills, even as our MEAP scores rise, are not fully competitive with kids from the best suburban high schools. We have not yet developed work habits in our children that they'll need to compete. We still have not figured out how to build hopes that are so strong, it enables a number of our boys to really let go of that video/street culture that is anti-academic.
"So until we can do those things, we cannot really say we're providing equal educational opportunity to our children. That is our goal. I'm the first to admit at best, we're halfway there, with a very long way to go."
is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, freelance journalist from Brighton, Michigan.