Academy offers chance to turn on young minds at risk of tuning out
The Detroit News, September 2, 2004 – No detective could solve Detroit’s mystery of the disappearing student.
In 2002, the Detroit Public Schools reported a dropout rate of more than 10 percent of its students — more than three times the state average. And with little more than 50 percent of students graduating from Detroit high schools after four years, the actual percentage of dropouts may be far higher.
Most of those who won’t be counted during commencement are not heading to Haverford College on an early admittance program, or apprenticing to become carpenters, or taking over a family business.
They are unlikely to find good jobs, or even mediocre ones.
Even those who graduate face grim odds. Ultimately, 10 years after graduation, fewer than 5 percent of the original high school class are likely to hold college diplomas.
It amounts to a brain drain of astonishing proportions. And nowhere has the problem proved more intractable than here.
But at a few schools throughout the area, new models are being tried that offer tantalizing prospects.
I first visited Detroit’s University Preparatory Academy three years ago, when Doug Ross — a former Gov. James Blanchard official — opened a middle school near the medical center. The charter school is an urban oasis that looks more like a private college than a city school.
But on a visit Tuesday, the second day of school, the students seemed more striking than the new construction. What you don’t see in the halls, or on the lawn, at University Prep is any evidence of that sullen, contemptuous teenage glare — the attitude that goes with high school just as surely as cheerleaders and football players.
University Prep is funded largely by philanthropist Bob Thompson. It’s an outright attempt to change the model, to create learning in ways that have worked elsewhere but aren’t standard in large, urban high schools.
One principle is over-riding: That powerful relationships with adults are often the crucial element in motivation kids who might otherwise drop out.
“Reform implies that the basic system is OK. But it isn’t,” insists Ross. “That system — of the big, factory high school — lacks any structure to motivate kids who aren’t already motivated.”
At University Prep, students are assigned the same teacher for all four years — an enduring, quasi-familial relationship. And students work outside the classroom at internships in real-life occupations — gaining a sense of possibilities and real-world standards they would not otherwise have a chance to see.
And in the high school’s first year, teachers saw how real-life experiences changed kids’ lives.
In the class of 10th-graders I visited, one was writing a grant proposal for a nonprofit organization she’s working with. Another worked in an OB-Gyn hospital ward and observed two deliveries and a circumcision. She’s now intent on a medical career.
Their test scores rose — and in some cases, leaped by three or four grade levels in a single year.
Whether the school successfully graduates its 128 students and sends 90 percent of them to college remains to be seen. But the disappearing student problem is being licked here: Only one student from last year’s class has dropped out.