Every parent wants their child to get a great education that has lasting impact. Some parents recognize the power of choosing a school that will help their child achieve this goal. This is exactly what Anton Horton’s mother wanted for him. So, instead of choosing the default neighborhood high school option, she sent him to University Preparatory Academy (UPA), which is part of the 10-school, three district University Prep Schools in Detroit.
“My mom sent me to UPA because of the way it looked, because of the classroom sizes and because it was a good space for me,” Horton recalls. Immediately, Horton recognized the impact of student-teacher relationships on academic success. “When teachers build relationships with kids, the kids will perform, no matter who they are.”
Today, Horton holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and serves as Interim School Director at University Prep Art & Design Middle School, located in Detroit’s Cultural District. And, he says, the path to his current role started in the hallways and classrooms at UPA.
“I played sports and ended up going to Adrian College and had the opportunity to work as a summer intern for Detroit 90/90 Promise,” he says, referring to the measured initiative that 90% of students who attend U Prep schools will graduate and be accepted to a college of their choice. “I was able to go to the different schools in our district and saw that they all had the same vision and mission, and all the buildings looked nice. I could see myself working here one day.”
Horton took the relationship skills he developed as a student at UPA and applied them as a leader at Adrian College.
“There were about 30 other students from Detroit and about 50% of them left Adrian, either because they couldn’t afford it or they couldn’t keep up in the classroom,” he says. “So, I started an organization to focus on the retention rate of African American students at Adrian.” Seeking to understand what fellow students needed to feel supported and building relationships to meet these needs, Horton created rituals to empower those around him.
“The biggest thing it did was to move people to want to be change agents at Adrian — and then be change agents wherever they are now,” he explains.
A professional home at U Prep Schools
Through this effort, Horton says he developed an “educator’s mindset” with a goal to improve urban schools to better prepare students.
“I spoke nationally about retention rates and increasing the number of students of color who graduate. That experience encouraged me to come back to speak at high schools, middle schools and elementary schools,” Horton says. Initially, he adds, school leaders expressed doubt about how students would connect with a Black male educator — since few students have lived this experience.
Those leaders were incorrect. “Students received me like they had known me. They shared what they were going through, their home life and what they planned after school,” Horton says. “It was a trigger. I realized I should go into education and take it seriously.”
After he graduated from Adrian College, Horton served in the Army National Guard and then attended grad school at Wayne State University. He has served in several roles, all within the three districts that make up U Prep Schools — and he’s working toward a doctoral degree in education policy.
Horton’s not the only U Prep graduate to contribute professionally within the organization. In fact, says Danielle Jackson, Chief Executive Officer at U Prep Schools, alumni are “sprinkled into just about every area of our operation.” And that fact serves to remind everyone that their work — the lasting impact U Prep has on students — is still important.
“It gives me a sense of joy,” Jackson says. “There’s something to be said about them coming back and seeing a face they recognize. In the charter space, there’s so much transition that happens, but being here and seeing, 10 years later, that you are getting more than anecdotal stories about former students, that reminds you that the work is still important.”
Authentic relationships make the difference
From his desk at UPAD Middle School, Horton embodies the relationship-centric values so important to the student experience at U Prep schools — and he shares these every time he interacts with students, teachers and staff.
“The most important thing to me is that students are able to be themselves and feel loved and supported each day. It’s a vision that every school in the network embodies, and we all have the opportunity to make sure that happens,” he says. “We want students to feel that no one is limiting them from attaining their vision. That’s important.”
Alumni feedback supports the value of relationship-building skills, especially as they relate to college and career experiences, Jackson says.
“We talk openly with our students about how relationships matter,” she says. “Relationships with adults form the gatekeeper for student success. It’s important for them to know that someone will check in on them. And alumni say they feel they have had a lot of practice in building relationships and rapport.”
The world has evolved from automatic regard afforded to teachers due to their age to an environment where respect and trust must be earned — particularly in the high school space, Jackson explains.
“In the ethos of U Prep as a whole is a fundamental belief that relationship trust is the underpinning for the learning process,” she says. “I have to feel like you are genuinely getting to know me and you are extending a level of trust. We talk about relationships all the time and about how we are strengthening them. Kids have agency, particularly today.”
Helping students recognize what is possible
Authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office — Michigan’s largest charter school authorizer — U Prep Schools meet the same high public school standards, but are afforded a level of flexibility about how they achieve these goals. And that can make all the difference for students, Horton says.
“Being a charter school means you can do things that are nontraditional. Teachers can teach how they want, and our school is big on peeling back what holds us back systemically,” he says. “We come to the table with different ideas each year, and we are big on ensuring teachers feel 100% supported. They can advocate for themselves within the charter school network.”
Strong relationships create the conditions for teachers to teach at their highest capacities, Horton says, and continual exposure to the success stories of people in their own communities fuels student achievement.
“We help students see what is possible,” Horton says — and Jackson agrees.
“We are majority African American, and so we recognize that kids need to see themselves in the world. If you want to inspire a child to take risks in career pathways that are underrepresented, you will have a better story to tell if you can present them with at least one example or talk about what it means to be trailblazing in an environment where people don’t look like you,” she says, adding that University Prep Art & Design schools, in particular, expose students to career pathways in art and design.
“Being able to have representation makes our rhetoric around what is possible real, not a pie-in-the-sky aspiration,” she says.
And Anton Horton provided a great real-world example during a recent annual leadership conference.
“He was able to say, ‘I remember being a student and having a voice in what I’d like to see happen,’ and he walked away with big ideas about where he wanted to see change,” Jackson says. “Now, he’s in the seat to execute on the vision he had. What better story can you tell? All of this means something. It all matters. It does have meaning.”