Changing expectations for students in Detroit

Nov 23, 2011

Thirteen years ago, Doug Ross lost Michigan’s Democratic primary for governor -- and that might turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to education in Detroit.

Ross, who had been a state senator and commerce director, decided to turn his attention to education. He felt ,even then, that there was a need to change expectations about what schools could do. So he founded a non-profit institution called New Urban Learning, which began a charter school aimed at African-American students in Detroit called the University Preparatory Academy, which has since expanded to seven schools. “We had a philosophy of changing the culture,” he said.  He wanted to find a way to give poor African-American students the drive to succeed.

His approach has been working. Currently, Ross told me that ninety-five percent of University Prep students graduate from high school. That compares to a graduation rate for Detroit Public Schools that he estimates is less than fifty percent. How does he do it?

“I say to my students, I will not let you drop out. You have got to succeed, and I will harass you until you do.”  What is even more amazing is what happens after graduation. One hundred percent go on to some kind of post secondary education.

For most, this means four-year college. For others, community colleges or some kind of skilled vocational education. They are Detroit’s kids who have a future.

Evidently, the new boss at Detroit Public Schools thinks Ross is doing something right. Two months ago, new Emergency Manager Roy Roberts hired him. Ross is both serving as Chief Innovation Officer for the district, and in charge of the fourteen charter schools run by the Detroit Public Schools. Currently, he’s also wearing a third hat -- he is still on the board of his New Urban Learning charter schools.

Everybody knows that if Detroit Public Schools are to survive, they have to be fixed in a hurry. Eight years ago, they had a hundred and fifty thousand students. Now, that is down to sixty-six thousand, and Ross told me over lunch, “the decline is accelerating.”

The new chief innovation officer is still in the process of making recommendations to Roy Roberts, whose primary job is to deal with the deficit.

But Doug Ross thinks he knows a big part of the solution. Not every school is salvageable. But he wants to give those schools that are wide autonomy to come up with their own formulas for success.

“Over the past thirty years, not a single large urban district in America has had any meaningful success using a centralized approach,” he said. Success comes, he added, when you implant in the breast of every student that drive to be successful.

Currently, the vast majority of kids from affluent suburbs have that drive, which is constantly reinforced by their parents.

Maybe only a third of urban kids do. But Ross says his University Prep Schools have done so by creating a culture of high expectations. To what extent he can make his ideals reality in Detroit is yet to be seen. But at age sixty-nine, he says “I would like to be able to say that my most meaningful work is yet to happen.”

For the sake of our futures, we should all hope he is right.