How Charter Schools Can Provide Transformative Education

By design, a charter school is empowered to pivot to meet the ever-evolving needs of students. Learn how Detroit’s oldest and largest charter school network provides this transformative education.

In an educational landscape that has always focused on classroom learning, assignments and homework turned in on time, charter schools can offer a refreshing alternative to this traditional one-size-fits-all approach. At University Prep Schools (U Prep), Detroit’s oldest and largest charter school network, students and educators are engaged in transformative education in an environment that is responsive to ever-changing student needs.

Within U Prep’s 10 K-12 schools in three distinct districts — University Preparatory Academy, University Prep Art & Design and University Prep Science & Math — about 4,600 students are supported through continuously evolving approaches to educating young scholars.

This charter school network is confident enough in the abilities and commitments of its students and 624 staff members that it has made a promise that 90% of students served will graduate and be accepted to a college of their choice. Known as the Detroit 90/90 Promise, this commitment is a defining difference for U Prep’s unique approach to education.

“While we have three distinct programs that we offer students, what unites us is a deep belief in investing in children as humans. It’s about the pedagogy and the teaching and learning environment that we create, but also the culture and community that kids arrive to every day,” says Danielle Jackson, CEO of Detroit 90/90 at U Prep. This investment is all about understanding student needs and personalizing the educational experience so students can see themselves in it, Jackson explains.

Facing a global economy that will require problem solving not yet imaginable, U Prep creates an environment that helps students become comfortable with taking risks, Jackson says. “It absolutely requires risk and failure, so we create a culture that says it’s safe to fail and you can dust yourself off and try again. It’s not an indictment of your intelligence. Knowing this, kids can produce some amazing educational experiences,” she says.

Creating transformative education requires disruption to the traditional public school approach to education, and that’s where U Prep schools shine. “Education has always been oriented to the currency of school as we knew it. That means do as you are told, submit assignments on time, and there is a predetermined road map to take so something happens on the other end,” Jackson says. “What we know is there is no one-size-fits-all. That’s a rigid way of being where the institution of education is its own machine.”

Danielle Jackson, CEO of Detroit 90/90 at University Prep Schools. Photo credit: U Prep/GVSU Charter Schools Office

As a charter school district, U Prep embraces the understanding that there’s a more responsive approach to education — one that more efficiently takes students’ needs into account. “Charter schools are really gifted to make adjustments in real time when something isn’t working,” Jackson explains.

Transformative education is all about the ability to adapt, Jackson says. “I was listening to a podcast that defined this very well, so I don’t want to take credit for describing it this way, but It’s about a teacher planning so well that they can let it all go when kids come into the learning space,” she says. In other words, a lesson might be planned down to the letter, but if a student asks or answers a question that sends the students into an unanticipated direction, the teacher can let go of the path and pivot while still achieving that same expected high standard.

Lessons gained from the pandemic

Because its platform is accustomed to pivot to meet the changing needs of students, U Prep schools are finding balance between the virtual and in-person modes of learning, and taking what works from each. “It’s a messy yet exciting space to decide which part gets to stay. We have some really great lessons about making learning come alive for kids in a virtual space, and now that we are back in person, we are deciding what role we want in front of the kids and what parts of their own working spaces do we want to leverage,” Jackson says.

“We still have that ability to hear from our teachers about what is working and invest in that,” she adds. “It’s a dance that doesn’t always feel good in the moment, but it’s a wonderful dance about how to create the best recipe for coming out of this pandemic.”

Lessons from the pivot into and out of virtual learning for students prove to Jackson that the U Prep community is a strong foundation. “I am so proud it could bring me to tears to talk about the U Prep village. Before the pandemic hit, our parents knew who we are and what the U represents — that we care about our families and really want to partner with them to ensure each child get to that next step that will change the trajectory of their life,” she says.

With continued concerns about kids’ wellbeing in a still real, yet managed, health crisis, U Prep staff are in close communication with families to share information. “We might be seasick, but we are moving in unison. That investment in our community is paying dividends as we move through this pandemic.”

Transformative and responsive

The act of balancing student engagement with standards and assessments provides continual opportunities for U Prep teachers to invest in new instructional methods. “We are constantly looking at student engagement because we know when kids are excited about learning they are much more likely to take risks. We wanted to invest in project-based learning in a deeper way,” Jackson says, adding that a close eye on the future career marketplace helps guide education — and that should shift as needed.

Photo credit: U Prep/GVSU Charter Schools Office

“The marketplace is telling us it doesn’t need talent that can just fit into the system. It needs people who can come in and create new systems,” she says, and this requires education that is responsive and ready for that shift. “There are many standards that schools have to touch, but the 21st century ‘4 Cs’ (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity) are fairly simple.”

The point Jackson is making is that traditional public school standards struggle to accurately assess the vital skills future employers need. “You have to pivot,” she says. “You still need the content knowledge but how do you assess the capacity to adapt in a scantron? It’s so much more complicated.”

Benefits of support from GVSU Charter Schools Office

As a charter school district authorized by Grand Valley State University (GVSU), U Prep benefits from the support and partnership of GVSU’s involvement, including the accountability that a charter school authorizer requires of its schools. In fact, the very existence of charter schools relies upon their ability to maintain standards and be responsive to the needs of the communities they serve.

“It’s important that we are held to the same level of accountability, and even more so, than traditional public schools. If public schools experience financial trouble they can keep operating, but a charter school will be closed,” Jackson explains. “That litmus test for viability is more significant for a charter school.”

A “greater depth of access” is a huge benefit to parents of kids in charter schools, says Jackson. “A parent can call me right now, and as CEO, I will give them what they need. I will ask how I can help them. This is not happening in traditional education spaces.”

As a parent herself, Jackson recognizes that having a choice in her child’s education is a privilege and urges parents to consider deeply what environment is right for their family.

“I want to support parents in thinking about what it is that their child needs. What type of environment, teacher, culture do they thrive in? For some, being in a system where they have to self-advocate works, but others need a small, intimate space where parents will get a phone call if one assignment is missed. A place where if a child isn’t having a great day, people who care will reach out,” she says.

“Parents also need to ask what kind of involvement they want to have. I want our parents to take full advantage in the practice and the right of choosing a school.

Content brought to you by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office. Learn more about the transformative nature of a charter school education at gvsu.edu/cso.

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