4 Detroit Charter High Schools Making College Happen for Students

Detroit families trust that their students will graduate and attend college. Data shows if they attend these charter schools, they’re more likely to achieve just that.

When you’re the parent of a prospective college-bound student in the city of Detroit, you want to  be certain the high school you choose will support your goal. You also want a school with a strong track record of helping students plant their feet on a college campus after graduation.

Here’s a fact that might surprise you — and help you make the all-important decision of where to send your student. Among the top eight open-enrollment high schools in Detroit for college enrollment, every single school is a charter school. 

This research comes from Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office (GVSU CSO), Michigan’s largest authorizer of charter schools. University Prep Science and Math, University Preparatory Academy and University Prep Art and Design Middle/High School — all GVSU charter public schools — occupy the top fifth, sixth and eighth slots respectively.

Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, authorized by Central Michigan University, fills the third top spot. 

“By every metric, the top schools in Detroit are all charter schools,” says Dan Quisenberry, President of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which reported these metrics on the association’s site.

Laser-focused on student achievement

U Prep Schools’ achievements are not coincidental, according to Danielle Jackson, CEO of University Prep Schools, a 10-school charter district in Detroit with graduation rates of 95-98%.

“The soul of U Prep Schools was born out of a deep commitment to the long-term success of our scholars,” Jackson says. “We interrogate our programs and structures to ensure we deepen our scholars’ postsecondary success. Our team of educators, some of whom are first-gen college students themselves, understand the important role we play in college access and completion.”

Jackson is also CEO of Detroit 90/90, a decades-long promise that 90% of students served by the U Prep charter district will graduate and be accepted to a college of their choice.

Supporting students beyond high school

Educators at U Prep Schools and Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA) agree that one of the most important factors for the postsecondary success of their students is a solid plan. At JRLA, that plan is baked right into the school model of educating and supporting students for four years post-graduation.

“Our school’s 9-16 model is the only one of its kind in the city,” says Wendie Lewis, Principal at JRLA. “It means we are not finished with our scholars when they graduate from high school. Our mission is to help them matriculate and go on and be great in their postsecondary pursuits.” 

best-detroit-high-schools-for-college-prep
Photo credit: Jalen Rose Leadership Academy

Students who start at JRLA as freshmen — and may not have thought about college themselves — commit to creating a postsecondary plan as a requirement for their graduation. According to JRLA’s website, 72% of graduates attend college within a year of high school graduation, compared to the state average of 67%.

A required elective for all students at JRLA is “college-bound scholars,” with a student-led capstone project detailing where they go next. “Scholars must find out where they are going, what it costs, whether funding sources are necessary and if it’s a good fit. It’s an all-encompassing plan,” Lewis explains.  

Students must pass this class to graduate — and they must have no fewer than six postsecondary acceptance letters in hand before they receive their diplomas. Some of these letters can be other postsecondary opportunities, but two must be acceptance letters to colleges or universities, Lewis says. 

Building resilience through support

The school’s founder and namesake, Jalen Rose, wanted JRLA to be a “Cranbrook in the city,” says Lewis. “He wanted Detroit’s scholars to have opportunities and resources to graduate and go on to be successful, and that’s why we have the 9-16 model. We won’t just say goodbye and good luck because we know ultimately they won’t be as successful without a well-developed plan and ongoing support.”

Once students graduate from JRLA, they are supported by Alumni Success Coordinators who provide the “cocoon” that all college students need — and these resources are based on information gained through hours of interviews with alumni who shared details about what they needed most to succeed.

From combating imposter syndrome to yearly completion of financial aid forms to having a microwave for their dorm room, JRLA grads can be assured that the systems and structures that helped them get into college will help them stay in college. 

Alumni Success Coordinators even counsel families who struggle to see their kids leaving home for the first time.

“Those first-year scholars attending college can call home and share their fears and deficits and their family will often say just come home. And that’s a barrier,” says Lewis. “We want them to persevere and go beyond. So, we put more systems in place by creating small communities on campus to help provide that cocoon.”

Knowing barriers and overcoming them

In many high schools, students are tasked with figuring out their own future, but in schools with a significant first-generation college population, the barriers to postsecondary education are considerable. That’s where educators and administrators at U Prep Schools concentrate their efforts, says John Johnson, Director of Postsecondary and Alumni Affairs with U Prep Schools.

best-detroit-high-schools-for-college-prep
Photo credit: U Prep Schools

“Obviously, the cost of higher education is a barrier, and it’s grown dramatically over the last several years. Even with financial aid and Pell Grants and the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which are all great for tuition and room and board, but the additional non-tuition costs of books, travel, even utility bills affect students’ abilities to navigate to college graduation,” Johnson says, adding that even the process of completing the FAFSA requires support. 

Fear of leaving home, of tackling the unknowns of college life, and succeeding despite very real obstacles — all of these are barriers that educators at U Prep Schools tackle with students every day. And that support translates into achievement for U Prep scholars.

“College is for everyone. Maybe Harvard isn’t for everyone, but there is a college or institution that fits everyone, so we find where our students are academically and mentally,” Johnson says. “We define college as a four-year university, a two-year college, a trade school, an apprenticeship. When we broaden that definition, a postsecondary plan is more attainable for our students.”

Open-enrollment schools are open to every student

The fact that these top charter schools are open-enrollment means they are accessible to all  students without testing barriers, making that postsecondary dream — and the support to get there — available to more Detroit students.

“We have dynamic students with dynamic gifts and we learn their talents with a goal of creating a positive self-image. We take inventory of the areas they need help and figure out how to support them,” Johnson explains. 

“If they’re not great at math, we offer afterschool tutoring or the Wayne State University Math Corps. Some just need the encouragement to succeed. Our students should leave high schools with the encouragement and motivation to go to the moon and the directions of how to get there. We are a network of individuals, teachers, principals, hall monitors, cafeteria workers, who pour into them constantly,” he says.

best-detroit-high-schools-for-college-prep-u-prep-schools
Photo credit: U Prep Schools

 U Prep Schools work continually to foster partnerships with colleges and community programs to offer mentorship, scholarships and support — something Johnson says is possible because they are a small charter school district and can act independently and creatively to assure student success, while still adhering to state educational standards.

A new Early Middle College program in partnership with Lawrence Technological University means students can attend high school and college at the same time, achieving an associate degree at no cost. 

Stackable scholarships and support programs offered by GVSU CSO make attending Grand Valley State University accessible, and innovative partnerships with LTU, Oakland University, Bowling Green State University, and College for Creative Studies provide barrier-busting support.

Sometimes, early support helps students picture themselves attending college in the future. At their eighth grade graduation ceremony last year, U Prep students learned they were accepted into the Pathway to GVSU program.

“If students stay at a U Prep high school and keep a 2.7 GPA and receive consistent programming from GVSU, they get automatic acceptance and a tuition-free scholarship to GVSU,” Johnson says. “Parents said thank you! We are thankful to GVSU because they made this happen.”

Content sponsored by The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office.

Learn more about Jalen Rose Leadership Academy at jrladetroit.com. Learn more about U Prep Schools at uprepschools.com.

This post was originally published in 2023 and is updated regularly. 

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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