Featured post

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

Featured post

Culturally Responsive Education Informs Our Practice

We are celebrating our 20th year of serving families in Detroit. Our investment in innovation and transformation plays a pivotal role in our scholars’ success. In honor of that, we are launching U Prep’s first blog, “The U Crew Collective”. I have the pleasure of celebrating a phenomenal crew as they showcase lessons learned, how we respond to new challenges, and ways we celebrate our scholars’ brilliance. I hope you find helpful information, resources you can use right now, topics that generate dialogue about your practice here or in your school, or inspiration in your pursuit of excellence in educating our children.

In our inaugural post, I have asked Dr. Curtis Lewis to share how Culturally Responsive Education informs his leadership as Chief of Teaching and Learning and our collective work at U Prep Schools.

Liberation Through Education
Part I – CRE is a Life-long Commitment

Culturally Responsive Education – An Epiphany

Over the span of my career I have researched and examined best practices, led case studies and collected data, all for the purpose of discovering the premier practice, tool, and strategy necessary to provide the highest quality education to black and brown children, thereby changing the narrative of their unexpected success and prominence in the world.

In my quest, and early on in my teaching career I was introduced to components of Culturally Responsive Teaching. It was refreshing and brought self assurance to my work when I learned that there was an actual concept that described my contemporary practice and belief system for educating children. My life’s mission has always been to transform the education system and make it equitable for all children. Even in my early days as an elementary school teacher, I was determined to convert students from dependent to independent learners, and empower them by stretching their intellectual capacity and holding high expectations. Knowing that there was a practice – Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) – and a description attached to my way of educating youth, particularly, in inner city communities, was invigorating!

A Shared Vision

I have studied, and have proven success with CRE in the K-12 space, and over the years I have partnered with like-missioned organizations and individuals who share my same passion for this work. Researchers, fellow educators and philosophers such as Dr. David Kirland, Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, and the late Khalilah Brann, Founder of Culturally Responsive Educators of African Diaspora (CREADnyc) collaborated with me during my years as an elementary, middle and high school principal at the now, U Prep Art & Design district. Together, we trained teachers and school staff in the concept and practice of Culturally Responsive Education. Today across all U Prep Schools, it continues to be our collective focus and is ingrained in our academic vision. Innovation and intentionality is necessary in the transformation of learning communities. Finally, this concept has emerged at the forefront of educational conversations and research. I would caution any leader in understanding that it – CRE – is not a quick shift; it is an evolution that takes time. We, at U Prep are dedicated to expanding our proven success across our network of schools, and we are invested in this long term approach to providing quality to our scholars.

At U Prep Schools we describe Cultural Responsiveness is not simply a practice; it is what informs our practice and allows us to make better choices for eliciting, engaging, motivating, supporting, and expanding the intellectual capacity of all students. Culturally Responsive pedagogies and practices examine instructional philosophy and practice critically, both acknowledging and searching for the presence of historical forms of oppression embedded in curriculum, instruction, policy and approaches to teacher-student relationships. (Adopted from NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity & the Transformation of Schools)

Key Components in Activating the Practice

At U Prep Schools we lead our network of teaching and school leadership staff through the concepts outlined in author Zaretta Hammond’s text, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain. Collectively, our educators have been developed and have learned that within instruction, CRE comprises both what is taught and how it is taught. CRE is expanding and enhancing materials to include learning a broader scope of the nation’s collective culture – specific to our school community – this means emphasizing teaching about Africa and the contributions and culture of African-descendants. It serves to honor the learning styles and the culture of the population we serve through our specific teaching practices.

It is imperative that I take a pause to highlight the importance of providing a safe space within CRE for teachers to activate vulnerability in order to address unconscious biases that may otherwise affect their expectations of student performance and their ability to develop as a culturally responsive educator.

As a practice, culturally responsive education is not as simple as infusing pieces from one’s culture from time-to-time, but it is allowing individuals to see themselves in the teaching and learning, and overall culture of the school. This means that school discipline must be culturally responsive as well – it must match the learning – and staff must have a shared belief in this mindset. Restorative Practices is a key element, and driving force for building school culture and community. It is social science that derives from the practice, Restorative Justice (RJ). An emerging field within the justice system, RJ embodies a set of principles designed to mediate conflict, strengthen community, and repair harm. Dr. Fania Davis, a leading national voice in this movement, challenges legal minds by inviting this fundamental shift in the way they think about and do justice. Through the execution of Restorative Practices, at U Prep Schools our scholars are provided a safe space to resolve conflict. They are equipped with techniques to ensure that all person-to-person interactions are respectful and productive. The practice serves to repair and restore, which contributes to the development of a community oriented school culture.

As a veteran educator I have witnessed the positive effects of engaging students through a culturally responsive education. Mindsets shift, a sense of belonging emerges, and academic achievement is attained. Children who may have once found school and its concepts too difficult to comprehend, later discover themselves excelling in rigor and exceeding high expectations. Because of the results I’ve researched, and from experiencing proven results from CRE concepts, I believe in this work; I am driven by this work, and our children deserve this level of intentionality and diligence from educational leaders whom their parents entrust to design their educational path.

Liberation Through Education

Join us on this journey of discovery of “liberation through education” in a three-part blog series. Next month, we will take a deep dive into how CRE translates into self actualization for students. The final entry in this series will examine the positive effects CRE has on scholars in college, career and future life goals. CRE is a life-long commitment that will improve student outcomes and transform the landscape of education.

Dr. Curtis Lewis is the Chief of Teaching and Learning at U Prep Schools. He is veteran educator with over 20-years of experience in the classroom and educational leadership in the elementary, midde, high school, alternative, and collegiate levels. He is a graduate of Michigan State University where he earned his Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate of Philosophy in Curriculum Teaching and Educational Policy. He has been a member of the U Prep and PSAD community for nine years, both as a founding Principal and school leader for the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies K-12 District, and as the Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction.

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