Education Full Circle

“Education Full Circle – An Alum’s Return Home to Serve in Leadership at the U”

An Alum’s Reflection

As I reflect on the U Prep Schools network, I can only think of one word to best describe it – GRATEFUL. In 2007 I was introduced to this family as a 6th grade scholar. I quickly gained friends, grew fond of my teachers, and fell in love with exhibitions and the way of life at U Prep Middle School. Time flew and in 2010 I stepped into UPSM High School as a freshman. I knew my high school experience was different from most, as the school was located inside brand new state-of-the-art facility and we, the class of 2014, were the only youngsters in the building at the time. Each year the school added an additional grade, and by the time I reached senior year, the building was finally full and flourishing.

Even though the four years flew by, my high school experience was very memorable. I made great friends, gained the necessary skills and life experiences, and had exposure to committed, caring, and fun teachers. There are many amazing aspects of my life that I can attribute to my time as a student in the UPSM district. Some of my best and lifelong friends are people I met when we were students here. My first international trip to Greece was an opportunity I was afforded as a student at UPSM HS and the school’s focus on college prep introduced me to Michigan State University, where I entered following graduation in 2014, and shared my most memorable college experiences.

Once again time has flown, and it seems like a lot of time has passed since high school graduation and college days. I would often reflect on my time as a student in the U Prep network, but never in a million years did I believe I would return and serve as a leader in the very place that helped to mold me. This past August – four days before I was to return back from my maternity leave at my previous employer – an open position at my alma mater UPSM High was presented. I completed the hiring process and was chosen as the new School Operations Manager at UPSM HS. Talk about coming FULL circle!

Full Circle in Education and Community

It’s been eight years since I graduated and while coming back here feels like home, it also feels very different as an adult. My purpose as a leader is unique because I sat in my students’ seats, literally. I know what it’s like to walk through these halls and I know how intricate life becomes once you graduate and leave the place that’s been home for four years.

Being a student turned school leadership team member has been a beautiful experience thus far. Some of my teachers and school leaders from the past are still serving in this district. A number of my former classmates have also returned to the U Prep Schools network to model and pour into the next generation from our overfilled cup of knowledge and community. I also get the pleasure of serving on the same leadership team as my favorite high school science teacher, Mrs. Hubbard. While this experience has been very rewarding, it’s still new and I am still learning. A place from which I’ve already learned so much will continue to be a one where I will continue to glean and grow professionally, further adding to this full circle moment. My position as a leader in the district is even more critical because I am here to give back everything I absorbed as a young U Prep scholar.

Author: Dana Robinson-Hobbs is an alum from the first graduating class at U Prep Science & Math High School. She is an Eastern Michigan Eagle whose passion for children and being a change agent brought her back to the heart work of education. This is Dana’s first year as a member of the U Prep Schools – School Leadership crew.

Education Continuity Matters: A Valedictorian’s Perspective

A Student’s Journey through the U Prep Schools Village 

I’ve gone to the same school since the 3rd grade. Elementary, Middle, and High. Seeing as I just graduated, that’s a long time to be in the same space with the same people. In that time, I’ve seen many changes–with students, faculty, the school name, and even the lunch provider. So it’s an interesting experience to have favorite teachers outgrow a building before you do, to watch your 3rd-grade teacher become the principal of that elementary school, or have your 5th-grade math teacher be there all the way to 8th grade as an after-school Academic Games coach.

I found it was this routine, this year-by-year rhythm of education continuity, that was the most valuable in figuring out my life goals.

Though I’m slightly biased–coming from a family of entrepreneurs and entertainers–I’d been surrounded by many artistic freedoms for the entirety of my youth. Design Thinking classes engrained early the ideas of empathy, team collaboration, and prototyping. It was moving into Middle School (back when we were still called Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies), where I found it increasingly necessary to have a plan. So I determined my end goal from this schooling experience with an idea of what I want out of my life.

I’d always found comfort in drawing and saw it as more than just a hobby. The revelation that there were jobs where I’d get paid for drawing had me shook, and going to an Art-focused middle & high school located within the walls of an Art & Design college (The College for Creative Studies), it was clear where the scope of my interests had narrowed down. Throughout the U Prep Schools network, I experienced an expectation of excellence and the encouragement of personal accomplishment, not only in academics but in the community’s name as well. 

I had difficulty starting conversations with other students when I was younger. Looking them in the eye or voicing my opinions didn’t come easy to me unless it involved someone I blatantly knew wouldn’t judge me. After joining after-school clubs, participating in school assemblies, and being elected to the student council, I began to flourish socially. In 7th grade, our then photography teacher, Mrs. Magarosi, approached me when she found out I was interested in the arts. She appeared quite intimidating among the students in her stare and finality with instruction, so I was hesitant with her suggestion of joining the National Art Honor Society. As a middle school student, I would not technically qualify to join the club until I advanced to high school. But from her simple suggestion to apply, I would later serve six years in the NAHS, dramatically increasing my portfolio work. I am proud to share that I graduated as Club President this month.

These accomplishments have not come by my merit alone. I mentioned my former art teacher, though many have impacted me significantly. Two math teachers stand out:  Ms. Ragland, who taught 8th-grade algebra and was also the coach for most of the girls’ sports teams, helped inspire my path. I joined her during the basketball season in all my asthmatic glory and stayed through to softball season. This 4’8 bundle of energy and enthusiasm for the sport and our success in enjoying it as much as she did, was what kept me coming back. I will never forget in 10th grade the disappointment on her and many of our faces after two months of pre-season conditioning. Sadly, the day of softball tryouts was when we shut down for COVID, but the joy I experienced during my time as a team member under Ragland’s tutelage will last a lifetime.  

Another excellent math teacher has been one I’ve known since the 3rd grade, having been sent up to his class to learn long division. Mr. Waston started the Academic Games team at the then HFA: Elementary (now UPAD Elementary) for any new players who wanted to learn. Over 20 trophies sit in the UPAD elementary and middle school front windows from our team’s wins over the years. I distinctly remember in the 4th grade, when we returned from a four-day trip to the super tournament, we were dropped back off at the school. Class was still in session as we lugged in suitcases, but the literal second we came through the front door, every single student and teacher was standing and cheering in the main front desk area, congratulating the ten students who went for that first year. It’s one of the memories those of us who stayed years after like to reminisce about. 

I actively avoided going home in middle school due to my parent’s divorce and the grief that came with it. Academic Games provided a couple of hours of peace filled with complex mathematical equations to stress over rather than unwanted emotions. I also met my best friend through that club. I would have continued with academic games in 8th grade; however, Mr. Waston advanced to a new position at another campus. 

As fate would have it, this year – our senior year – there were five of us who had played in elementary school, which is the exact number of players needed to make a team. We came back from the Super tournament this March victorious, with two first-place trophies for our district! 

There are so many moments and long stretches of time with people who indirectly raised me within the U Prep Village that I hold dear and who, in my pursuit of a career, helped me find myself. With the excitement of being twelve steps closer to where I want to be, I know nine steps were taken in shoes I doubt I’ll ever outgrow. So it takes a village. Thank you, U Prep Schools! 


Micah was a founding student at U Prep Art & Design Elementary and matriculated through the district. She ended her U Prep Schools journey as the 2021-22 Valedictorian at U Prep Art & Design High School and was awarded scholarships to attend the School of Visual Arts. She will join that community in the Fall with plans to become a Director of Television Animation. 

Moving from High School to College During COVID

How has COVID impacted students going to college? On January 20, 2020, the United States of America was turned upside down. This first case of COVID-19 was reported in the state of Washington.

For months leading up to that day, many of us had heard about this looming threat and how fast it was spreading overseas. In March of 2020, the world stood still, as the then President of the United States began the process of shutting down the country to prevent the spread of the virus. After more than a year of businesses closing, racial injustice, loss of friends and family, and transformation on a global scale, the country is now attempting to make sense of the changes brought by the pandemic — and our high school students are no exception. Students graduating during the pandemic are having to pick up the pieces left from the pandemic and make choices about their lives after high school.

College Plans Evolving Due to COVID 

Over the course of the past two years, we have seen a shift in the number of students who pursue 4 or 2-year degrees after high school. Total undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1% between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2021, bringing the total decline since the fall of 2019 to 6.6% — or 1,205,600 students.

High school graduates have expressed fears and concerns about being on a college campus during a pandemic. Safety from COVID became a top priority for parents and students when choosing higher education. Many chose to stay close to home in case the transmission of the virus hit their campus. While others mention they didn’t feel they would get the “college experience” learning from a computer screen, they decided to push their college start date back until the pandemic ended.

“I just didn’t feel like I was learning anything, ” says Sarah Stevenson, a graduate of UPAD class of 2020. I decided to take a year off because virtual learning didn’t fit my learning style. I preferred to be in class so that I have direct access to my professor and peers. I didn’t get the unique support I needed.”

Due to the pandemic, colleges and universities were forced to move all of their courses to an online modality. This encouraged many students to take a gap year after high school or not pursue higher education at all. Students cited emotional stress, health concerns, and financial worries as some of the biggest barriers to going to college during the pandemic.

Trading College for Other Options

The pandemic has also caused students to look at other options besides four-year college for their postsecondary success. In the past two years, we have seen an increase in the number of students considering trade schools after graduation. Students are looking to earn certification and credentials in shorter programs that will give them skills to obtain well-paying jobs.

To accommodate this shift in students’ needs, the counseling department has created partnerships with Focus Hope, Grow with Google, and ISAIC apprenticeship programs. Focus Hope offers free certification training in IT and manufacturing. Grow with Google allows students to gain industry-recognized credentials in areas of UX Design and Data Analytics (for free with our partnership). And the ISAIC programs offer graduating seniors a paid apprenticeship in industrial sewing.

Each of these programs can be completed in under a year. The 2020 graduating class of UPA and UPAD had three students start in the Focus Hope Program the summer after they graduated. By fall, they were working in the career of their study. 

“I think a shorter training program is a better fit for me,” says Ericka Lockhart, a senior at UPSM High School. “I would prefer to go to a short training program, get to work, and start to make some money.” This year seniors had the opportunity to attend information sessions about various trade school opportunities and take a tour of the ISAIC training center near the UPA and UPAD High Schools.

“The pandemic opened students’ eyes to other opportunities, “ says Tim Ossman, High School Counselor at UPAD.  “A lot of students saw trade and apprenticeship programs as more attractive and a better return on their investment.” 

HBCU vs. PWI Decisions

The vicious murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have led many to believe that we are also in the middle of a racial pandemic. Students watched on social media, television, and other platforms as each of these (and other) tragic events played out.

Protest at the University of Virginia 2021

On the campus of the University of Virginia, hundreds of white nationalists protested the removal of a confederate statue. The group waved torches and chanted “White lives matter” as they marched through the university, which resembled a KKK march. These and many other events have caused students to reconsider attending predominantly white institutions (PWI) for higher education.

Since the pandemic upended our lives, we have seen more students interested in attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). An HBCU can offer an inclusive community that embraces and celebrates our students’ culture. In addition, HBCUs have a rich history that can help our students build on the concept of Black excellence.

“The virtual modality allows more students to study and learn more about HBCUs,” says Ashley Woolen, college prep coordinator at UPSM. “As a result of the virtual accommodations, two students from the class of 2021 were able to attend their dream school of Tennessee State University.”

The HBCU schools offer high-quality academic programs, with the personal support and a vibrant campus life that helps students succeed.

Looking Forward

Despite the many obstacles that the pandemic has brought, we have seen some positives. Students have identified alternative options for postsecondary education. Many colleges have gone test-optional (not requiring ACT and SAT test scores) in their admission policies and more students are considering HBCUs.

Kennedy Walter, a graduate of UPAD, will graduate from Michigan State University this spring, after attending college during a pandemic.

These are all factors that can improve our students’ abilities to gain postsecondary credentials after high school.

The pandemic also taught us that we have to change the way we facilitate the college-going process at our high schools. We must move away from the reactive college-prep model that engages students in their senior year of high school and adopt a proactive model that starts in each student’s freshman year of high school, or even earlier.

I also believe that the pandemic helped colleges and universities realize the need to create more support, programs, and resources to aid and direct students to college. During the pandemic, many universities saw a drop in enrollment causing them to create sustainable partnerships in the K12 sector.

This year U Prep created a partnership with Lawrence Tech University that expanded dual enrollment options for our students, created access to pre-college programming, and offered a 50% tuition scholarship to any students graduating from a U Prep School. Also, starting in the fall of 2022, the partnership with Lawrence Tech will create our first Early Middle College. The program will give students the opportunity to graduate with both a high school diploma and an Associate Degree. This gives students the head start they need to be prepared for college and beyond. 

I had a chance to talk to Kennedy Walters, a 2018 graduate of UPAD. In less than two weeks she will be graduating from Michigan State University (GO GREEN!) with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. A big part of her collegiate experience happened in the middle of the pandemic. During the time of the pandemic she was unable to attend sporting events, go to weekend parties, travel abroad, or even take advantage of campus resources like student groups or the writing center.

For many students, this would have convinced them to take a break from college, but that’s not Kennedy. “The best way for me to deal with the effects COVID had on my college experience was to disconnect from what the experience was supposed to be and make it my own in the best way possible,” says Kennedy. “The pandemic showed me that time is precious and to make the best of any situation, even if it wasn’t what you imagined. It’s all about prioritizing your goals and staying focused despite the obstacles. The world may have stood still, but I didn’t!” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for educators and college-going students. However, the pandemic has not prevented U Prep from achieving our goals.

Even during the pandemic, U Prep has maintained 90% graduation and 90% accepted to college rates at all three high schools. In 2021, each of the three high schools garnered over $3 million dollars in scholarships. Lastly, many of our students who went to college persisted to graduation despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic. We have not seen a decline in the number of students who persist in college despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic.

This tells me two things.

1. U Prep is a network of schools with amazing educators, administrators, and staff that are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure students in our networks have a chance to achieve their dreams/goals once they leave our space.

2. Our students are much more resilient and powerful than even we know. Their ability to keep moving forward even when the entire world stood still is remarkable and encouraging. 

Our Author: John Johnson is the Director of Postsecondary & Alumni Affairs at U Prep. He has over 12 years of experience helping students to and through college working at both the high school and collegiate levels. He graduated from Michigan State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications. He also has a master’s degree in Education and Training. He is a 2020 Detroit New Leader Council Fellow and currently a 2021 San Diego State University Equity in College Counseling Fellow. In 2020, he was awarded the Influential Educator Award by the Michigan Chronicle, and most recently, was given the 2021 Fred Martin/Coleman A. Young Educator of the Year. 

John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School
John Johnson, U Prep Director of Post-Secondary and Alumni Affairs

The Science Behind Learning to Read

For many years, education influencers led teachers, administrators, and parents to believe that learning to read was a natural process that all children would easily achieve if the conditions were right. 

These influencers wrote compelling books that sounded both promising and passionate, encouraging educators and caregivers to help their children learn to read naturally by giving the little ones lots of books, reading to them often, and teaching them to love reading. 

The truth? Reading is a complex process, and while exposing your child to reading and books early in life is helpful, many other pieces need to be in place for anyone to become a proficient reader. Believing in promises that were not grounded in brain science left generations of students underprepared for the reading challenges of middle school, high school, and beyond. 

Pretending that reading is natural and straightforward also creates a false and damaging narrative for students who don’t achieve proficiency as quickly as their peers. If a person did not learn to read based on the conditions created for them, they might surmise that there must be something wrong with them.  Worse yet, a teacher may have told the child or their parents that the kid is not a “good reader.” In reality, it may be that nothing is farther from the truth.  

Elementary literacy is complex

Learning to read takes more than just the right conditions. The human brain is not actually wired to read or write.  The intricate processes that it takes for the brain to translate letters and words on a page into thoughts that we can understand are unbelievably difficult. 

Using an alphabet and spelling rules to write down our ideas so that we may communicate them can be even harder. Our brains were meant to communicate orally, speaking words to share our thoughts and listening to others in order to receive information.

For most children, learning to talk is like learning to walk. Our brains are actually set up to make both of these processes happen naturally. We see this clearly when infants begin making sounds, imitating the language they hear around them. When parents speak English, the baby begins trying out a garbled version of English. The same is true of Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, or any other spoken language a child is immersed in. 

When a baby gains the muscle control to grasp the edge of the sofa, they experiment with pulling themselves up and tentatively placing one foot in front of the other.  Anyone who has cared for a toddler knows that these talking and walking experiments are not without frustration, along with bumps and bruises. Nevertheless, they are natural and our brains are primed to make them happen without instructions.  

Learning to read is a complex process that takes guidance and practice.

When temperatures around Metro Detroit warmed earlier this month, kids were out in our neighborhood shooting hoops and skateboarding. My own children dragged everything out of the garage in search of their bicycles.  Watching them find their helmets and check their tires had me thinking that if talking is like walking, learning to read is much more like learning to ride a bike. 

If helping someone ride was just about creating the right conditions, we would simply make sure that person had access to a bike and had seen someone ride a bike. We might also tell the learner how fun it is to ride, how much faster it is than walking, and how many places they could go if they learn to ride on their own. However, if you’ve ever taught a child how to ride a bike, you know there is so much more to do. 

For starters, a bike needs to be the right height for the child. Just as my eight year old daughter wouldn’t hop on her dad’s bike, we should consider starting kids on books that are the right size for them. We also need to explain some of the processes that are involved in pedaling and steering.  Of course, there are training wheels to help with balance, a steady hand to give a beginning push, and lots of repeated practice.

Ways to practice reading at home

In school, your child receives daily instruction on how to read and coaching on the word patterns and reading standards they are working to master.  Just as with walking, talking or riding a bike, the more targeted practice the better.  Below are some activities you can incorporate into your at-home reading routines to keep your child moving.  

Read to your child or listen to books together

When I was an upper elementary teacher, I always made it a point to share this interesting fact: Children benefit from being read to at least until the age of thirteen. That’s right. Thirteen. Years. Old.

Sometimes we think of listening to reading as an experience for younger children, something they outgrow once they are able to read on their own. I’ve heard other parents worry that if they read to their kids, the child will not practice reading to themselves. As children become more independent with their bedtime routines (showering and brushing their teeth on their own), parents typically find that reading aloud to them naturally wanes. Regardless of the age of the children, caregivers are overwhelmingly busy with work, cooking, chores, and all of the other demands of raising little humans. Whatever the case may be, setting a routine for reading aloud or listening to audiobooks is great for children’s literacy development and can be quick and easy. 

In our technology-assisted world, there are many terrific options for children to listen to books (with or without an adult).  In my house, we do a little of both. My husband or I read to our kids from books that we loved as kids or new books that we want to explore together. My daughter is currently hooked on the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books and my son loves Tristan Strong

Both of my children also adore audiobooks.  My son, a history buff, loves to listen to World War II stories on the way to practice or in the shower.  My daughter tucks in most nights listening to a Harry Potter book or the Son of Neptune.  Audiobooks take some of the pressure off busy parents by making it easier to listen anywhere or to multitask as you enjoy a story. 

What to do

Grab a piece of writing that you and your child are interested in, find a comfortable spot, and just read.  Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect reader. In fact, when you stumble on a word or reread a sentence or two, you model for your child ways that they might need to react when they face a similar challenge. If there’s a plot twist and you find you want to go back to read a pivotal part again, you show your child that good readers return to pieces that they have already read to clarify their understanding, get more details, or just to enjoy a really entertaining part.  

Remember that you can read from books, magazines/newspapers (online or in print), blogs, anything you and your child will enjoy together.  My son is also a sports fanatic and from an early age, we have read selections from Sports Illustrated and ESPN together to indulge his passion.

Check with your local library for audio resources.  The Detroit Public Library system uses Overdrive and Libby and has curated collections based on interest. Many other metro area libraries use Hoopla.  All of these programs/apps are free with a library card and can be accessed on phones, tablets and computers.

Why reading aloud is so critical to reading development

When children listen to others read they’re hearing models of fluency, learning new vocabulary and pondering ideas that are more complex than what they can read on their own. They’re building their brain as a muscle so that when they do start to read independently, they are even stronger.

Reading aloud to your child helps them develop strong reading habits.

Listen to your child read aloud

Admittedly, this one can sometimes feel tougher and I get a lot of questions (see below) on how to best approach having your child read to you.  I promise the best way to do this is to keep it really simple.

Which books should I start with?

For K-2 Students: Our young readers all start on books known as “decodables.”  These small paper books are training wheels, written to help children practice the phonics rules that they are learning in class.  That means almost all of the words are sight words or words they can sound out.  Encourage your child to bring their decodable books home, or you can access them electronically on the UPrep Schools Elementary Literacy Parent Site.  Other sources for decodable texts are available here as well.

For 3-5 Students: Explore your child’s interest and let them guide you.  Chapter books and series are great because they build stamina and keep you from having to find something new every night. 

How to help when your child gets “stuck”

I am officially giving you permission to just tell your child some of the words they get stuck on. Educators don’t expect caregivers to be phonics coaches and trying to sound out words that don’t follow patterns can be really tough. Additionally, giving your child the word is more fruitful than having them guess the word or use picture clues; those prompts are not the best for reading development. Instead, try this:

When your child is stuck on a word they don’t know, read the word to yourself first. Ask yourself if you can help your child sound it out based on the letters. If you can help them sound it out, do so. 

Keep in mind that sounding out a word has no relation to how long the word is, but whether or not the letters in the word say the sounds that you would expect. For example, the word “remember” is a bit on the long side and might look intimidating when a child sees it on the page. However, all of the parts of the word make the sounds according to phonics rules that most kids have mastered by the end of second grade. 

You can help your child by saying, “What does r-e say together?  What does “m-e-m” say together?  What does “b-e-r” say together?  Once you have the pieces, say the word “remember” a few times. 

On the other hand, take a word like “was.” A much shorter word, “was” seems like it should be less intimidating but if we are going on letters and sounds, “was” should be spelled “wuz.”  If you try to sound it out you may find yourself looking crazy over three little letters that you never thought about that hard before. I promise, in the moment it’s not that deep. Tell your child that “was” is a tricky word because the letters don’t make the sounds we think they should make, then move on. Keep your kid reading. Yes, we address these things in school with phonics rules and lots of practice, but that’s not what I’m suggesting at home.

Why listening to your child read is important for literacy development

Parents and caregivers are often very concerned about comprehension; after all, the goal of reading is to understand the ideas and information from the page. Because of this desire, some parents feel like they need to ask a lot of questions. I am giving you my blessing to pull back here as well. If we return to the bike analogy, asking comprehension questions is a bit like checking the air pressure in your tires. It is important to do it once in a while or if you suspect there’s something wrong.

However, if you squeeze your tire and feel that it could use some air, you don’t usually get a pressure gauge out to get an official reading. You certainly don’t get two or three gauges out. Instead, you go to the solution: put some air in the tire. Listen for leaks or inspect for a hole.

In the reading scenario, stop periodically to ask your child a question about what’s happening in the story or to check if they understood an important idea. If they are missing something critical, don’t ask a bunch more questions. Instead, direct them to reread the part of the text that will help them gain a better understanding.  After they’ve re-read, ask your question again. Praise them for rereading and remind them that good readers read more than once and go back in the text to deepen their understanding.

Reading fluency (reading smoothly and with expression) is one of the best predictors for reading comprehension. When kids sit too long trying to figure out a single word or are interrupted by a lot of questions, it interferes with the thoughts they’re constructing about the text. At home, reading time is limited and precious, so consider these guidelines to keep it moving, preserving your child’s fluency and aiding their comprehension.

You CAN help your child learn to read and become proficient

The above practices are important and helpful for your child’s literacy development, but your sanity is also key. Like an enjoyable spring bike ride, reading together should be a fun part of your day. If you’re working on new reading routines at home, it’s okay to start small (a few days a week, 10-20 minutes each time) and build a consistent schedule. If you have a routine that makes you and your child happy, reflect on what’s going well and consider adding in some fresh ways to work on fluency and comprehension together.

Our Author: Kristin Venier
Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Elementary Literacy, U Prep Schools

Kristin Venier firmly believes that literacy is equity. As the Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Elementary Literacy at UPrep Schools, Kristin works to ensure that reading and writing instruction are grounded in research and give students ample opportunity to meet their personal goals.   A native of metro Detroit, Kristin began her career as an elementary school teacher in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia before joining the UPrep Crew more than ten years ago.  Kristin earned bachelors’ degrees in journalism and Spanish from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in education from The University of Pennsylvania.  


Education During the Pandemic: Getting Creative with Learning During Chaos

Education during the pandemic hasn’t been a walk in the park or a picnic. However, these adverse circumstances have helped U Prep educators engage their creativity and innovation to keep our scholars engaged with learning.

Pandemic! Virtual school! Distance learning…Oh my!

I was overjoyed to be asked to give my perspective on how the pandemic has forever changed me and my teaching practice. Although I’m an optimist at heart, and not very easily discouraged, the drastic shutdown when COVID first hit gave me pause. I believe that the apprehension simply came from the unknown. Soon after taking a deeper dive into the ever-changing tenets of pandemic teaching and learning, I reset and forged ahead into this new creative and innovative space. 

When I first heard that we would be teaching virtually, I was both relieved and nervous. Relieved because my children and I would be safe from COVID but nervous because I had never delivered online instruction before. I coached myself through a new lens of “this glass is half full, not half empty” and I moved forward. I knew that if I approached this unfamiliar space with negativity at the helm, I would never reach the levels of flexibility and adaptability required for success during this tumultuous stage.

Beginning a new style of education during the pandemic

The first thing I did was brainstorm with my math partners, as I was sure of two things: I wanted to develop a structure using programs for accountability. And the infusion of interactive instruction would be key to holding my scholar’s attention and offering the space for their feedback while challenging their curiosity.  

I thoroughly researched best practices and how to maintain motivation and engagement with scholars during our distance learning period. One of the websites that I frequented regularly offered five ways to motivate students in the virtual space.  

These five became my north star as I guided each scholar (and myself) through this new space and opportunity. Some of the most effective strategies were:

  • Motivate with goal setting
  • Motivate with rewards and praise
  • Motivate with meaningful feedback
  • Work with parents to motivate students at home
  • Stay connected as a class and motivate each other

Motivating the students also meant creativity, a cheerful disposition, and presence online. I had to be prepared to provide additional support to every scholar. I was up for the challenge, and I began each day of virtual/distance learning in good spirits, and with the determination that “this” would be a great year! I even received feedback from parents who shared that they “loved the fact that I seemed excited every day while teaching.”  What an honor and humbling feeling to know that my parents appreciated my unique style of teaching by leading with enthusiasm. Nothing, however, compared to the accomplished feeling of having 95% attendance rates in my classes throughout the duration of the distance learning. 

In-person learning during the pandemic

As we transitioned back to our building, and back to in-person learning, my enthusiasm remained and creativity increased. My innovative mindset and that of my scholars are here to stay. This pandemic, if nothing else, stretched our thinking, evolved our practice, and forced us into a new, freer space that challenged what we thought was creative and innovative instruction.

We will continue to expand and develop through that lens of challenge and freedom while keeping the school community safe. Our scholars have proven to be resilient in adversity, and our entire school community truly executed the concept of partnership and trust in the process and each other. 

Our Author: Erica Wade

Erica Wade is a Math Teacher at University Prep Science & Math Middle School. She has been an educator for over ten years, with the majority of her teaching experience in middle school instruction. Erica is a long-term educator at U Prep Schools Network. She told us, “This is my 6th year in the district and I have enjoyed every minute of it.”

Erica Wade

Restorative Practices in Education

Relationships—Not Rules, Not Policies, Not Procedures Drive Human Development

Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices in education hold the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.

Context, Culture, and Relationships

I want to tell you a story from the book Running on Empty by Jonice Webb Ph.D. A young lady named Sarah came home from school and soon after, got a call that a boy in her class committed suicide. She was overwhelmed by a wave of shock, confusion, and grief, a “whirl of emotions she had not felt before”  (Webb, 2015, 40:53). She raced home hoping to talk with her mother and was a bit surprised to learn that her mom had already heard the news. Sarah was still hoping to talk through the complexity of her new compound emotion. Before she could say anything her mother said, “I heard about Johnny, I’m not surprised, I think the young man was on drugs”, and that was the extent of the conversation. Her mother didn’t ask her how she felt and never brought up the topic again, and as a result, Sarah pivoted emotionally – she masked her emotion and tried not to think about it. She was caught off guard by how easily she cried at odd times or when left alone with her own thoughts. She attended the funeral and focused on her friends, their grief, her school work and simply, moved on. 

To Sarah’s dismay, two more students in her school committed suicide. She attended those funerals as well, focused on her friends, just as she did when John died. Different however from before, in neither of these instances, did she bother to speak to her mother. She also never acknowledged or spoke about how grief-stricken and disturbed she was by the suicides. Eventually, Sarah started to lose her ability to focus in class. Her grades started to slip, she struggled and even began feeling a sense of anger that she could not shake. Her parents became angry and indignant with her asking “what’s wrong with you?” rhetorically, not really looking to engage her because they genuinely didn’t have the emotional awareness to do so. Consequently, Sarah thought the same thing, “what’s wrong with me?” She started to believe that she was weak, stupid, and uncooperative, and she felt this way well into adulthood. She would describe herself as “numb.” She had learned to cut herself off from her emotions so that they would not bother her. She would also feel weak and ashamed any time she felt emotion. Sarah had an amazing childhood, loving parents, but despite all of that, adult Sarah wanted to die.

After listening to the story—just being vulnerable here—I was in tears. I can remember a time when I was a kid, probably 6 years old. I watched the movie Boyz n the Hood with my mom and brother. When I saw Ricky turn and run for his life down that alley only to be gunned down, I lost a sense of safety and security. Questions flooded my mind “Could that happen to me? Why were they so mad that they had to kill him? Why didn’t anyone help him? He didn’t do anything to them, so if someone is mad at me will they just kill me?” This might sound dramatic but something in the 6-year-old me was assaulted during that family time. “Moms” didn’t ask me how the movie impacted me. We just went to bed and moved on with life. In my household, we were not allowed to be afraid or show fear. “Don’t be soft” was a phrase that was often used against any kid who showed a hint of fear. I knew while watching that movie that I couldn’t show that I was terrified by what I saw. So I did what Sarah did, I masked my emotion. As a result, however, I was always anxious, I never felt safe or protected. I also struggled to feel like I could be a “real man”—whatever that means. I never spoke to anyone about that experience until I started therapy some 15 years later.

Child Interpretation + Caregiver Attunement = Healthy Development

Relationships—not rules, not policies, not procedures—drive human development. The quality of those relationships, the adults’ attunement to the child, and the child’s ability to interpret emotions and thoughts from lived experiences, which is facilitated by the quality of their connectedness to their caregiver, either leads to positive and healthy development or negative and unhealthy development. According to Osher et al (2020) human development occurs through reciprocal co-actions between the individual and their contexts and culture, with relationships as the key drivers. Relationships and contexts, along with how children appraise and interpret them, can be risks and assets for healthy learning and development, and their influence can be seen across generations and can produce intra- as well as intergenerational assets and risks. 

What does this have to do with restorative practices in education?

Restorative practices in education

Restorative Practices (RP) in education are primarily about nurturing relational interconnectedness. Here at University Prep Schools we have adopted the Restorative Justice in Education framework as the structure for establishing, cultivating, and sustaining a restorative community. At the heart of the framework are two core beliefs—all people are worthy and relationally connected. 

Osher’s findings essentially justify any “child-serving system,” for adopting and prioritizing a relationship first philosophy because development is driven by the integration of neural malleability and plasticity with the dynamic relational interconnectedness of children and the adults with whom they interact in their social, cultural, and physical contexts. In other words, the quality of a person’s sense of worth is proportional to their sense of connectedness to the primary caregivers in their lives. This matters because just as you read in both Sarah’s and my own story, when children are left to respond to and interpret life events on their own, especially potentially traumatic events, they can be overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions accompanied by that experience. If the adults or caregivers in their lives are not attuned to the child, attentive to and noticing the impact of such events, dismissing the impact, or chastising the child for responding emotionally the child most likely will begin to think of themselves as “fatally flawed.” This kind of thinking has a direct impact on their learning outcomes. It is my responsibility to add to the foundation that was laid by building our attunement and response skills. The goal is to increase one’s ability to respond to the contextual factors and experiences that influence a student’s behavior and perhaps reach restoration. 

Restorative Practices In Instruction

In addition to proactively establishing relationships through focusing on attunement and responsiveness, another dimension of my role is to develop capacity around intentionally leveraging relationships to support students through moments of academic struggle, the moment when they recognize what they can do on their own and what they cannot do unless supported or guided. This is formally referred to as the zone of proximal development or ZPD. Zaretta Hammond encourages us to cultivate relationships that support dependent learners in taking intellectual risks and stretch into the ZPD. That’s the point of nurturing healthy relationships, supporting dependent learners in avoiding stress and anxiety, and earning the right to push students to be excellent and put forth the effort. She goes on further summarizing that the ultimate goal is to help the dependent learner become active in making decisions about their learning moves. She offers these tools:

  • Kid friendly vocabulary for talking about their learning moves
  • Checklists to help hone their decision making skills during learning and their attention during data analysis
  • Tools for tracking their own progress towards learning targets
  • Easily accessible space to store their data
  • Regular time to process their data
  • Practice engaging in metacognitive conversations
  • A clear process for reflecting on and acting on teacher or peer feedback.

Restoring the U Campaign 

By definition, the word restore means to bring back to its original state or form. This is often thought to be the case in the context of restorative practices, specifically when responding to and repairing harm. Restore the relationship to the pre-conflict status quo. Well, what if the pre-conflict nature of the relationship was less than ideal? What if communication was toxic? Controlling behavior? Threats? Restorative justice does not imply returning to past circumstances especially when there is a history of abuse or trauma or a long pattern of wrongdoing. In this case, the relationship instead needs to be transformed.

In the same way, here at University Prep Schools, we are not interested in overlooking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial injustice, and the tension between community members that feels to be at an all-time high. Incidents at the beginning of the school year mirrored similar behavior of the disruptive chaos that had been reported at major league sporting events. We recognized that these isolated incidents were all the cries of relational brokenness that needed to be intentionally addressed and remedied. Our answer was the Restoring U Campaign. It was important to us that we as a school community found a new way of being and doing with one another that fostered a will to good, a protective concern,  and conviction to restore our community. 

In closing, “Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. The starting point in ‘how we are when we are together’ is relationships rather than rules, people rather than policies, honoring capacity rather than evaluating ability, creating meaning rather than imposing knowledge, asking rather than telling, and well-being rather than merit-based success. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices holds the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.” (Citation: Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002.)


Brandon Lane is a Philadelphia native with over 10 years of experience as an educator in the Philadelphia and Detroit public and charter school systems. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and a member of the cohort of Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. Brandon joined the U Prep Community in 2017 as a high school Science teacher, and advanced to the Senior Director of K-12 Science Instruction. He currently serves as the Director of Restorative Practices for the U Prep Schools network. 

Brandon Lane, Director of Restorative Practices, U Prep Schools

COVID Anxiety: Overcoming Back to School Challenges

The Context

Learning communities experienced incredible challenges this year due to COVID-19 and the ever-present social unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While schools continued to be a place of growth and expansion, they also performed as mental and emotional health centers, basic needs shelters, and places of safety and security in recent years. Indeed, many educators would argue such demands were not new to schools—a trend over the last 40 years. Schools have now become a hub for holistic support for students, families, and the community.

Learning communities, a place where students experience exposure to new ideas, diverse perspectives, material that encourages reflection, dynamic experiences, and opportunities to expand and engage in critical thinking.

The situation was further exacerbated by the pandemic, with increasing pressure for educators and staff to shift to the demands of hybrid and online instruction. We supported the emotional, psychological, and physical safety and well-being of students and families; albeit with limited resources and access to do so well. 

In the face of a global pandemic, schools across the country, the Midwest, and the state of Michigan confronted unprecedented challenges during the previous year (2020) and the confrontation continues. Indeed, the year was a difficult experience for the field of education, educators, students, and families; a fact that cannot be overstated.

Beyond COVID Anxiety to Mental Health Stressors

Direct and vicarious trauma, chronic stress, grief and loss, hypervigilance to protect, overwhelming emotionality, heightened levels of anxiety, and increased depression and suicidal ideation are just a few of the many residual effects of the pandemic.

For educators, feelings of loss (both personally and professionally), uncertainty, anxiety, and moral guilt about the educational experience of students and their ability to cope with the increasing demands were palpable. From hybrid instruction to learning virtual platforms to an additional 4 to 7 hours of work each day, educators and students bore the brunt with resilience. Altogether, these stressors, despite resiliency, can cause significant mental health challenges.

Today’s Challenge

As educators, we now stand in the face of a new challenge—returning to in-person school to create a new normal—amidst the delta variant and other variants recently speculated. We’re in the midst of a continuing national increase in COVID cases. In response to this present challenge, Boards of Education, central office leaders, and educators work tirelessly to prepare to educate students in a safe learning environment while continuing to exercise grace and dynamic flexibility to respond to the moment.

However, the fact is that students and staff are struggling to manage their emotional and psychological health and safety. Students and adults report heightened levels of stress, reduced self-management skills, and increased needs for support in schools, especially emotionally. This point is certainly not unique to schools [we know schools are microcosms of broader society and situated within communities]. Still, educators and school leaders must be mindful of the stress within the bodies of the students [and staff] daily entering the school doors. 

Symptoms of COVID Anxiety

As students and staff return to in-person school, studies show one of the most common reactions is anxiety. 

According to Psycom, “Anxiety can have a constellation of symptoms, and no two people experience anxiety in the same way. Some symptoms you might experience can include:

  1. Sleep problems – Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep?
  2. Restlessness
  3. Difficulty with concentration
  4. Constant worrying or intrusive thoughts
  5. Irritability with no obvious cause
  6. Muscle tension
  7. Recurring stomach upset or headaches
  8. Overwhelming fatigue

But what more can schools do to respond to student and staff needs? This is a question with which many educators and leaders grapple. Our capacity to support, protect, and intervene is challenged, but our moral obligation and heart for students, staff, and community prompt us to act—but with what tools? 

Strategies and Solutions for COVID Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest behaviorally, physically, and emotionally in adults and students. Sometimes, anxiety may manifest in aggressive and hypersensitive behavior. Anxiety is normal and common when we face unknown realities, especially in spaces where we feel vulnerable. Research about anxiety in schools provides several coping skills including deep breathing, stress management techniques, positive self-talk, planning, and creating a routine.

These strategies promote self-awareness and self-regulation, increasing an individual’s ability to effectively engage with others and the material they’re studying in the classroom. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national resource for schools interested in best practices for social-emotional learning (SEL) implementation, provides specific competencies for students. These skills are beneficial to students, but also to staff. 

Understanding COVID Anxiety and Coping Strategies

In collaboration with our team, U Prep has provided the network with a resource to better understand anxiety and identify strategies for self-care and working with students using SEL principles. 

Indeed, this past year has been an exercise in understanding, developing, and implementing coping strategies reflective of social-emotional competencies (i.e., mindset, critical thinking, self-awareness, social awareness, and regulation) and increased awareness of social-emotional health. These skills are important buffers when dealing with increased stressors and will prove useful in this next chapter; this new normal. 

One primary antidote to anxiety [newness] is connectedness. Let’s practice our norms of collaboration and connection to create conditions for teaching and learning that are responsive to the human experience—normalizing the reactions of our colleagues and students and leaning in together to reduce the anxiety we all may feel.

Reaching Out for Help for COVID Anxiety

We encourage you to seek out help if you require support. Please understand that you are not alone and exercise patience with yourself and with your students, but more importantly, be consistent, flexible, and validating.

As a mental health clinician, raising awareness of these tools and strategies has become a strong goal of mine. While most adults think of the end-user for all resources as the students, I tend to think about conditions for teaching and learning, which opens the door for a focus on the people who help the people.

The adults in the schools require an intentional support mechanism that acknowledges their struggles and challenges as human beings and how this might manifest in the workplace. The current trend is wellness, but for people like me, the trend is not what sets the tone. It is the fundamental belief that promoting holistic and well-balanced wellness is a life’s work.

Without wellness, one cannot fully become the best version of themselves. It is with this belief and the alignment between my values and the mission and vision of U Prep that our collaboration makes sense. I am excited to partner with U Prep Schools and the mission and vision of the leadership to create conditions for learning that integrates restorative practices and wellness/SEL to support outcomes for adults and students. 1) Educator wellness, 2) adult competencies, and 3) student outcomes—creating holistic wellness for all.

Let’s get to work! 

Our Author

Dr. Karlin Tichenor, Founder, and CEO of Karlin J & Associates, LLC is the lead consultant for Educator Wellness and Social-Emotional Learning for U Prep Schools. He is an expert clinical scholar and practitioner. He is an adjunct professor at Butler University and Abilene Christian University (Dallas), the Co-Owner and Senior Partner of Family Links, LLC, a statewide social services agency, and a graduate of Denison University and Michigan State University with degrees in Communications and Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Human Development and Family Studies. He is also the previous Associate Superintendent of School Culture in the Lansing School District (MI).  

COVID and Education at Our Inner-City Schools

As the COVID pandemic unfolded, every family and employer in America suddenly realized how deeply their lives and livelihoods depended on the nation’s education systems. With almost no notice, school buildings shut down. Families and educators suddenly found themselves in the middle of a massive national experiment in new ways of teaching and learning, and new obligations of dividing responsibilities between home, school, and work. 

Remembering the Beginning of COVID and Its Early Impact on Education

Last spring, there was a pivotal moment when I realized that COVID would change the way schools and education systems operated for years to come. I remember I was in Flint, Michigan, serving in the education system on behalf of a community that had already suffered tremendous hardship with the water crisis. While still dealing with the residuals from that tragedy, COVID hit. The pandemic had proven to affect underserved communities substantially, but Flint was not only underserved; they were embroiled in a current health crisis that had already shaken their community to its core. And now this! 

The way the pandemic engulfed our society exposed how deeply inequity shapes the experiences and outcomes of children of color and low-income families who are disproportionately impacted. Like most inner-city school entities, we shut down for a period to restructure. 

We made plans to serve the families and staff best and keep all safe – ensuring all children continued to learn regardless of their access to technology. Remember those thick learning packets? Many inner-city schools ventured this route – then, online learning. Multiple families did not have the resources needed to support their child’s remote education. The passing of the government stimulus packages included funding for devices and internet services for schools and families. Students received their Chromebooks, hot spots, etc. – upgrading their access to 1:1 with technology – bridging the digital divide. 

It was clear that the hard work was ahead – COVID extending learning, preparedness and response plans, meal distribution to families,  and training for educators to facilitate effective and engaging teaching and learning.  There was no quick fix or blueprint. It was uncharted territory – a reckoning, but together, as a unit, we made the best decisions we could, considering the circumstances, and created structures that best fit the needs of our entire community. We adapted, innovated, and transformed our lives and school systems.

A year later, it is clear that the pandemic that abruptly took siege of our lives and devastated our communities has changed education in America in lasting ways. The unprecedented 16-month battle with the pandemic unleashed a wave of innovation – remote learning, discovering new ways to spark students’ creativity, harnessing technology, and providing the services students and schools need to succeed. Correspondingly, the significant negative impact on our health and wellness continues.

What We Know About COVID

On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced an official name for Coronavirus Disease 2019, abbreviated COVID-19. CO stands for corona, VI for virus, and D for disease. The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is a coronavirus. The word corona means crown and refers to coronaviruses’ appearance from the spike proteins sticking out of them. 

COVID-19 is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease discovered in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. It is caused by a virus that spreads rapidly and did so globally in a very short time. The most common symptoms that the virus causes are respiratory and mirror those similar to a cold, the flu, or pneumonia.

COVID Fast Facts:

  • Most patients who contract COVID-19 suffer from mild symptoms. However, in extreme cases, others become severely ill.
  • The elderly or patients who struggle with specific underlying medical challenges are at an increased risk of falling victim to severe illness from the virus. 
  • The United States has experienced overwhelming loss and fatalities due to complications from this aggressive virus.
  • The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that vaccines against COVID-19 are safe and effective.
  • The broad spread of vaccination is critical to begin the process of putting an end to the pandemic.
  • The CDC now recommends that people whose immune systems are compromised – moderately to severely – receive an additional dose of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine after two initial doses.

COVID and Fatalities in Our Community

As defined by the CDC, health equity is when all members of society enjoy a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Public health policies and programs centered around the specific needs of communities can promote health equity. 

The pandemic has hovered a magnifying glass over so many of our country’s issues. Still, the most prominent is the health disparities within the underserved inner-city communities – those where the population is predominantly black and brown. Sadly, poverty and access to quality health care are related in underserved communities, and studies have shown that these factors have a significant negative impact on their health and wellness.

Certainly, COVID has rocked our nation as a whole, and in some cases, even brought us to our knees, collectively. At the same time, the threat of a pandemic only compounds the problem in communities where extreme disparities in education, housing, and access to health care already exist. The reality that black and brown populations are disproportionately represented among essential workers and industries, some experts have suggested, might be contributing to the racial and ethnic health disparities at the forefront of this disease. 

Nevertheless, inner cities always rise like the Phoenix and prove to be resilient, unified, and resourceful. Detroit is that city! We erected COVID testing and, later, vaccination stations across the city for residents to receive quality care and access. Churches, schools, community centers, and nonprofits joined in the fight and offered their buildings as sites for the public to ensure equity for their community. Finally, when schools received clearance to participate in the effort, U Prep was one of the first and continues to act as a resource for its families, staff, and community. 

U Prep’s Heart in the Fight Against COVID

It is an honor to work alongside an incredible group of professionals who lead with courage and a heart-first mentality. Before I became a member of the U Prep Crew, I was first a U Prep Parent, so I have been a long-time member of the U Prep family. As a parent, I believed the school entity cared about my children and their academic success. My appreciation for the overall network increased tremendously through the pandemic. 

Before joining the team, I engaged in the weekly parent surveys that upper management distributed system-wide. To see some of our comments and concerns translate to changes in processes and procedures to ensure the best for my children, specifically, reaffirmed my confidence in and commitment to U Prep Schools. My voice as a parent mattered. 

Upon joining the U Prep Crew this year, as a member of the Senior Leadership Team at Home Office the authenticity, transparency to families and staff, and core values were and continue to be demonstrated at inexplicable levels. 

All of us have had our lives upended by the coronavirus. Yet, we remain passionate about educating our scholars and preparing them for success and a future full of possibilities! Like many other school entities, U Prep Schools is preparing for the return of students to a new school year amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant and sluggish vaccination rates across Michigan and the United States.

This fall, we welcome our scholars and crew back to the classroom, reuniting with them for in-person learning, which, for some children, will be their first time in the school building since the pandemic. While reopening will undoubtedly look different this year, one thing is clear: sound operational management of the reopening process will be critical to building public confidence and ensuring our student’s and crew’s success.

We learned from COVID and education is that preparedness is crucial. The experience provided an opportunity to introduce new learning modes to reach every student, prepare for emergencies more effectively, and make systems and structures more resilient. I have the privilege of serving as the senior executive director overseeing operations for U Prep Schools. 

I often work behind the scenes, coordinating services and support of multiple operating departments, developing plans, procedures, and protocols for our scholars and crew. Leadership, collaboration, and communications within and across major operational and academic departments have never been more important to ensure a smooth reopening process and to safeguard the welfare of our students and crew upon return to the school buildings and through the school year. 

Although I have worked in this capacity throughout my career, the heart work and lean-in on empathy, culture, relationship building, teamwork, intention, and transparency – at all cost – is restorative and well-aligned with my personal and professional mission to offer the very best services, support, and equity to our community. 

U Prep teachers wearing masks, expressing their enthusiasm for education, even during COVID.
We have had our lives upended by COVID. Yet, we remain passionate about educating our scholars and preparing them for success and a future full of possibilities!

Moreover, as the U Prep’s Operations Department leader, it is our priority to provide easy and quality access to education to our families and those in the community surrounding all of our school campuses. This imperative is the anchor of effective and successful operations, especially this fall when schools are likely to look much different from before. The following are highlights of COVID actions that our education community has taken to ensure the safety and establish a climate of awareness to achieve the best results during the reopening of schools this fall and throughout the school year: 

COVID TESTING & VACCINATION. We initiated an inquiry to establish ourselves as a site for COVID testing and later vaccination administration. Every Wednesday, in partnership with Wayne Health between the hours of 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, our UPA High School campus continues to serve as an onsite COVID Testing and Vaccination Clinic to U Prep families, staff, and the community at large. Individuals ages 12 and up can receive the vaccine on-site via walk-up or drive-up at no cost. Parents must be present to sign a consent form for minors, and proper identification is required for adults. Qualified health care professionals from Wayne Health administer the vaccine in a safe, secluded area. 

OPENING FACILITIES, SCHOOLS & CLASSROOMS. Our facilities team took early precautions as we began planning for in-person learning for the last quarter of this past school year and enhancement in preparation for our return to entirely in-person in the Fall. Investments in proper PPE equipment and standard sanitizing procedures in line with CDC regulations were established; modifications to our HVAC systems and the installation of refillable water stations, and a myriad of new COVID in education settings protocols and procedures were created for optimal safety of our scholars and staff. 

TECHNOLOGY SUPPORT & RESOURCES. We distributed Chromebooks to all scholars who desired a device, upgrading their access to 1:1 with technology. Security, collaboration tools, and network connectivity become top-of-mind. We ensured adequate security controls in place, including upgrades to multi-factor authentication and email security. Finally, we help educators, scholars, and their families by providing training and clear, easy-to-understand support for a connected, swift, and reliable experience. COVID will not get in the way of our scholars’ education.

COMMUNICATIONS, MESSAGING, AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT. We remained committed to our promise of transparency and inclusion and offered the space for parent and staff voices throughout this journey. Weekly communications to our families and crew were distributed that included updates on positive COVID reports and up-to-date staff vaccination data. We encourage crew, scholars, and their families to participate in and comply with new procedures and practices. The latest update from U Prep Schools’ CEO, Mrs. Danielle Jackson, can be found here.

COVID and the U Prep Education Community

Finally, as we prepare to come back together again, as one school community, we do so with the understanding that we all carry apprehension based on our own life experiences and trauma from the COVID epidemic.  I am confident, however, that we – as the U Prep community – will continue to wrap our (socially distanced) arms around one another with intention and compassion that will result in overall academic excellence for every U Prep scholar. 

Author: Cassandra Washington is the Senior Executive Director of Operations at Home Office for U Prep Schools. She has dedicated her career to providing safe spaces for children to learn, develop and create. She is a graduate of Davenport University, where she earned her EMBA in executive management and leadership and undergraduate degrees in human resource management and school business management. She is one of the newest members of the Home Office Senior Leadership Team, who comes with over 20 years of experience in Human Resource and Operations management. Her greatest reward is being a U Prep parent for eight years and counting

School Uniforms Don’t Have to Exist: Reimagining the Landscape at U Prep

Allowing students to wear spirit wear instead of school uniforms, reflects their school pride, instead of forcing them to look alike, feel policed and under guard; denotes freedom of expression; and creates a community of trust from student to school leaders and staff.

Change is necessary.

Approximately five or six years ago, high school students from two of our districts challenged our leadership with our said vision and mission to develop self-expression and innovative academic mindsets, thereby developing the independent learner. Liberating our students and developing independent thinkers and learners is what we strive to do at U Prep Schools. We not only welcome student voice; we actually value it. Their ask was if Leadership might consider relaxing the dress code, allowing them to activate their freedom of expression and liberation in all tenets of their learning experience. 

When I was asked to contribute to our monthly CEO Blog with the topic surrounding our decision to move away from school uniforms at the high school level, my initial and very direct thought was, “school uniforms are disproportionately required in low income or urban schools, where the population is predominantly comprised of black and brown children.” I am aware, however, that the history and implications of school uniforms are far more nuanced than that and deserve in-depth language to support my very informed, yet, opinion. If I may have just a few minutes of your time, I’d like to walk you through the history of traditional school uniforms, dispelling the myths that followed, and U Prep’s charge to change.

The History of School Uniforms

We can trace school uniforms back to the mid-1800s when the first Native American Boarding School came into existence on the Yakima Reservation in the State of Washington. European immigrants traveled from the east coast to the west to begin colonizing the native people in very intentional ways, beginning with strict boarding schools. Per the American Indian Relief Council, the goal of the boarding schools was to “use education as a tool to “assimilate” Indian tribes into the mainstream of the “American way of life,” a Protestant ideology of the mid-19th century. The reformers assumed that it was necessary to “civilize” the native Indian, and make them accept European, white male-dominated beliefs and value systems. In other words, the goal was to destroy Native American culture in favor of the new “American way.”

By the 1880s, there were more than sixty of these boarding schools promoting the “prized values of white society”: order, discipline, and self-restraint. In 1879, the most well-known boarding school opened in Pennsylvania, The Carlisle School. The motto for the Carlisle School was “Kill the Indian, save the man”. The typical student was between the ages of 14-18, although some were much younger. The institution sought to do away with all outward signs of tribal life that the children brought with them. The long braids worn by Indian boys were cut off.  Boys and girls were segregated by gender, and forced to wear school uniforms mandated by the school’s leadership. Boys wore military-style uniforms and the girls had European-style dresses.

The students were given new European names, including surnames. Traditional Native foods were abandoned, forcing students to acquire the food rites of white society. In addition, students were forbidden to speak their Native languages, even to each other. SOUND FAMILIAR? The Carlisle school rewarded those who refrained from speaking their own language; most other boarding schools relied on punishment to achieve this “aim”.

The expectation of the school to its graduates was that they serve as models upon returning to their reservations. Instead, the Carlisle students returned adrift, trained for jobs that did not exist, ostracized by their peers, and still victimized by white prejudices.

School Uniforms in Urban Schools

Now, let’s fast forward 110 years or so to the mid-1990s, when former then Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton reintroduced the idea of school uniforms in “low-performing” (urban) schools as a key focus during his campaign. President Clinton leveraged a rash of violent crimes that were allegedly committed over designer clothing to push his school uniform agenda. A 1996 New York Times article captured this quote from President Clinton: “It’s tragic when young people without a balanced upbringing, without grounded values, without a secure education, wind up believing that it’s alright to kill somebody for a pair of sneakers or jewelry or a designer jacket.”

My query following his statement, like many intellectuals in this work for improving the educational experience for all children, was, “How do school uniforms solve the systemic issues in America that lead to black and brown youth disproportionately experiencing ‘unbalanced upbringings, no grounded values, or insecure education”? Perhaps you are now beginning to recognize the myth behind the mandate of school uniforms, particularly in underserved communities.

The reality? School Uniforms have never proven to influence student achievement or behavior. I believe the misconception of some parents, derived from their child’s school mandating a uniform, is the belief that their child attended a “good school.”

U Prep’s Charge to Change

In the Summer of 2020, as part of our network’s Culturally Responsive Education training, our senior leadership led professional development sessions for all school leadership teams with the guiding text, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy. The text introduced the idea that African Americans suffer from something called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome or PTSS which focuses on three concepts:

  • Vacant esteem
  • Ever-present anger
  • Racist socialization

For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on Racist Socialization. Dr. DeGruy writes that “many of us have adopted the attitudes and views of a white, racist America. Many of us see ourselves, and our community through a European, or white, lens. We both mold ourselves to accommodate white prejudices and endeavor to adopt their standards.”

This manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Many African Americans have adopted white standards, including those of beauty and material success, as well as violence and brutality. “School uniforms are a very clear example of a beauty and material standard created from the lens of white people and largely accepted by black people. The violence that allegedly inspired school uniforms can also be directly attributed to the same violence white people have inflicted upon communities of color since the birth of this nation.” 

At U Prep, we seek to develop the critical thinker and innovative problem solver who recognizes a community challenge and offers solutions to ultimately improve the whole. This is a paradigm shift and one that follows our practice of culturally responsive teaching and learning. Allowing our students to walk the halls in spirit wear that reflects their school pride, instead of strict or conservative outerwear that forces them to look alike or feel policed and under guard, denotes freedom of expression, builds school pride and creates a community of trust from student to school leaders and staff. We are a community in every way!

Author: Jerry Lawrence is the Assistant School Director at UPA High School. He has dedicated his career to improving the lives of black and brown children both on the East and West coasts. Jerry is a graduate of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Social Work. He received a Masters in Educational Leadership from Grand Valley State University. Jerry has been with the U Prep Schools network for six years and has served as the Internship Coordinator, Dean of Culture, Assistant School Director of Culture, and now the Assistant School Director of the 11th and 12th grade.

Jerry Lawrence, U Prep Assistant School Director of the 11th and 12th grade

Liberation Through Education: Part III

Culturally Responsive Education: Reflection – Beyond the School Walls

When we incorporate Culturally-Responsive Education (CRE) into our counseling practice, we begin to create counternarratives. A more culturally responsive approach to college counseling and access, that refrains from a deficit viewpoint and considers the contextual needs, cultural knowledge, and assets our students embody, will help them realize their college aspirations and career goals.

Looking Back to Move Forward: Over the last couple of weeks, I have experienced some very proud and exciting moments. As I scrolled through my social media pages, I saw so many of my former students graduating from college. It was exciting because they were all students from my first class as a counselor at University Prep Art & Design (UPAD). For the past six years, I have had the pleasure of supporting the graduating classes at UPAD with developing plans to help them reach their postsecondary goals. As a college coordinator, I have the distinct role of navigating students through the complicated process of filling out college applications, financial aid, scholarships, housing applications, and much more. Above all, however, I believe my biggest responsibility in this role is to help students believe that they can reach their dreams. It is an honor and more than a job to me, it’s my passion. 

As I draw close to the end of my sixth year in this role I reflect back to my first year as a college coordinator. I had the goal of being a hero who would come in and save students by getting them out the hood and into college. I had my checklist of items that I needed each student to do: 

  • College Acceptance Letter: CHECK 
  • FASFA Completed: CHECK 
  • Scholarship: CHECK 
  • Choosing Your College and Orientation Date: CHECK 

It was near the end of my very first year. I was going through my checklist with each student, and came across a student who hadn’t made his official college decision. This was weird to me because we had met several times and decided on a school that matched perfectly to his needs both academically and financially. I angrily called him to my office so that we could discuss his procrastination. I had an entire speech in my head of what I would say to him “YOU ARE GOING TO MISS OUT ON THIS OPPORTUNITY!” “YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER!” and my all time favorite “YOU CAN’T APPROACH THE REAL WORLD LIKE THIS!”

When the student walked into my office I wasted no time in questioning him. “WHY HAVEN’T YOU PAID YOUR DEPOSIT AND SIGNED UP FOR ORIENTATION?!” The student looked at me as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He paused and said, “Mr. Johnson, I… AM… SCARED”. My anger instantly turned into disappointment. Not toward him but disappointment toward myself. In my attempt to be a hero, I never took the time to listen to what he may be going through. In our many meetings over the years, he always came across as confident and sure of himself but today, he was a student who needed someone to listen and validate him. 

He talked and I listened for over two hours and he shared with me that he was the first in his family to go to college, and that he was afraid that he would let his family down if he didn’t make it to graduation, and that he had never been away from home. The part that broke my heart is when he told me, “I don’t know if I am good enough.” My instant reply was, “What if you are good enough, and what if you do make it.” He responded with, “I never looked at it that way.” As we finished our discussion, we signed him up for orientation and I gave him a hug and assured him that he would be alright. 

That conversation was transformational for me because it made me change my entire approach to this work. In the words of Tina Turner “We don’t need another HERO” (I just aged myself ) Our students needed someone who could relate, support and validate their experience.  

Culturally Responsive Education and College Counseling 

When we think about Culturally Responsive Education, we often do so in relation to students’ experience in the classroom. There is not enough conversation surrounding CRE in counseling practices. I can make a case that CRE  is just as important when counseling students. Our students grow up in a world that tells them: 

  • Because they are black, their lives don’t matter 
  • Because they are from Detroit, they are less than 
  • Because they come from low and working-class backgrounds, they can’t achieve. 

When we incorporate CRE into our counseling practice, we begin to create counternarratives to the aforementioned views. I suggest a more culturally responsive approach to college counseling and access that refrains from a deficit viewpoint and considers the contextual needs, cultural knowledge, and assets our students embody to realize their college aspirations and career goals. Too often, when we measure college readiness, we do so based on white middle-class students as the dominant measure for academic and personal standards to determine if a student can succeed in their pursuit of college and life.

However, our students have gained a specific set of skills and resilience that has allowed them to survive and thrive in Detroit when it was at its worst. That same resilience can be translated to their success in college and beyond. Dr. Shaun R. Harper Provost Professor in the Rossier School of Education and Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California discusses this in his presentation “This too is Racist” When we devalue the experience and capabilities of Black students, we are committing to racist behaviors. To overcome this, we have to tell our students that their lived cultural experience matters and is valued. In addition, we also have to help our students unpack the cultural experiences they have and translate them into tools to help them reach their personal and professional goals. 

Taking a New Approach

I decided to transform the approach I would take as a counselor and take a more culturally responsive approach. I had to move away from being a hero and take on more of a restorative approach. I remember Dr. Chris Emdin calls it “ Restoration over Rescue Mission”. With that in mind I decided to approach this in three different ways.  

  1. Listen: Often, our students are told to be “seen and not heard.” I have to create more opportunities for students to express their fears, concerns, and experiences. We can’t help students until we understand them; we can’t understand them till we listen to them.
  1. Student-Centered: Move away from my own personal objectives when meeting with students. Allow them the opportunity to discuss their needs, goals, and plans and respond and support appropriately. Remember that each student is different and requires a unique approach.  Instead of looking at their experiences as setbacks and deficiencies, we must help them understand those experiences are tools that have helped them grow personally and professionally. Help them translate how those experiences can lead to their success in college, career, and beyond. 
  1. Empower: Students should walk away from counseling and coaching sessions empowered to reach their goals. Many students are victims of oppression and racism and may need the motivation to move forward.  Before students leave high school and transition into the next stage of their life,  they should have a positive self-appraisal of themself (self-actualization). They should believe in themselves and know that they can achieve any goal they set for themselves, despite the obstacles and experiences of their past. 
  1. Love: Our students deserve to be loved. I charge every educator to move away from robotic interactions with student and instead approach students with love and their well-being 

What CRE Means to Me

The thing that I had to learn as a counselor is that I had to meet the needs of the students and not my own objective. Access to a college education is not enough. TOO many of my students feel that they won’t make it in college because they feel they are not good enough or because they feel they don’t deserve it. As educators we have to provide students with the tools and self assurance to deal with the pain of fundamentally being disempowered and oppressed.

When we liberate students through education, we create students that transform and do not conform. But we must be careful in our approach because education in the past (in some cases currently) has been used as a tool to oppress communities of color. This is why providing students with a culturally relevant education is paramount. By infusing CRE, we can create conscious and self-empowered individuals who use their educated voice for themselves and their community. He/she uses that educated mind to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression and inequities to create a better world for us all. 

As I was scrolling through my social media and seeing each of my former students in their college cap and gowns, I ran across the student I mentioned earlier. There he stood with his Cap and Gown on and a caption that said, “I DID IT” I enthusiastically sent him a message that said, “Congratulations, Bro, I’m proud of you. If you need anything, call me.” Within an hour, my phone rang, and it was him. He said, “I don’t need anything. I just had to say thank you for everything, it was a hard journey, but I did it!” With a huge smile, I replied, “it was my pleasure, Brotha!” 

Author: John Johnson is the College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design. He has over 12 years of experience helping students to and through college working at both the high school and collegiate levels. He graduated from Michigan State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications. He also has a Masters’s Degree in Education & Training. He is a 2020 Detroit New Leader Council Fellow and currently a 2021 San Diego State University Equity in College Counseling Fellow. In 2020 he was awarded the Influential Educator Award by the Michigan Chronicle, and most recently, the 2021 Fred Martin/Coleman A. Young Educator of the Year. 

John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School
John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School