The Great Educational Experiment
Sometimes, nothing works better than a well-worn cliché. In the case of Doug Ross (’65), founder and CEO of University Prep charter schools in Detroit, “the proof is in the pudding” seems to sum it all up.
Eleven years ago, Ross, a Detroit native who had held impressive jobs in local, state, and national government, stepped into the great educational experiment known as charter schools. Quite new at the time, charter schools were controversial. Critics said they were nothing more than union-busting, sub-par, pretend-schools run by money-grubbing private companies. Supporters—and the pioneers who actually founded the first charter schools—pointed to current, crumbling school districts, Detroit’s perpetually disintegrating district chief among them, cried “obsolete,” and set about building alternatives.
Ross was one of those pioneers. “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,” he said several years ago. “It can’t be fixed. It has to be replaced.”
In 2000, Ross, to use another cliché, put his words into action and opened a charter school in Detroit. He started with some general precepts: that these schools must be small; that they must offer every student strong relationships with teachers and community mentors; that learning plans must be individualized; that the school must focus on college or postsecondary education; and that there must be strong community partners.
Ross started with 112 sixth graders, vowing that at least 90 percent would graduate and, among those, 90 percent would go on to college or postsecondary schools. He gradually built up the system, with the crucial, substantial financial backing by philanthropists Bob and Ellen Thompson. “I simply could not do this without their support,” Ross stresses.
Those who have tracked the Detroit Public School (DPS) system’s sordid path may remember that the Thompsons offered $200 million to set up 15 charter high schools in Detroit; the district thumbed its nose at them. Ross had no such reluctance and, with the Thompsons’ backing, built a beautiful high school building—the University Preparatory Academy (UPA)—to accommodate those maturing 112 students.
In 2007, tear-soaked parents, teachers, and Ross watched as 90 percent of them reached for their diplomas. All of this earned Ross a lot of credit and publicity, and in 2010 the University of Michigan’s Humanitarian Service Award.
This is where the pudding part comes in. Here we are, 11 years after Ross established his charter schools, and four years after that first class graduated. What are his numbers now?
Glad you asked, Ross might say.
The same high percentage of the class of 2011 UPA graduates are in fact graduating and going on to college (about a quarter of them Michigan State University, Ross jokingly laments). And those first 2007 graduates are earning their college degrees this year or next; four earned U-M degrees this year.
While he would like to claim total success, Ross says they still have a lot to learn. His urban students still struggle with growing up very poor, most in single-parent homes. They perform as well as suburban students in college, but earn credits a bit more slowly. Social and academic skills are not as strong, despite the support received at UPA.
So, despite tremendous progress, Ross says, “we’re only halfway there, with a ways to go in giving poor, urban kids an equal shot at the American Dream. I guess it’s good that we feel real progress, but also a great challenge ahead.”
Overall, there is a growing gap between DPS schools and charter schools in Detroit, Ross says: 79 percent of charter school students are graduating, compared to just 59 percent in traditional schools—with many districts reporting far lower figures.
Across the country, charters are emerging, exploding, Ross says, and “I think Detroit has hit a tipping point. Nearly 40 percent of students attend charter schools. I think DPS will cease to exist” in its current state. It will join New Orleans, he adds, “as one of the first districts to have a system of public schools rather than a public school system.”
While Ross has been an outspoken critic of DPS, this September he will become director of the DPS charter school office. According to the Detroit Free Press, Ross joins DPS as the district is expected to reassess plans to charter as many as 45 schools in coming years.
"What Detroit urgently needs is more good schools, regardless of who runs them," Ross told the Detroit Free Press.