In a successful educational environment, students thrive when they can invest in relationships with peers and teachers. But a strong, reliable community rarely exists by accident. University Prep Schools, a three-district, 10-school network of charter public schools in Detroit, has built a framework designed to support students and everyone in the educational environment. The initiative is called “Crew,” and it’s every bit a part of UPrep’s culture as the district’s commitment to academic excellence.
In each UPrep school, every community member belongs to at least one Crew, which Danielle Jackson, CEO of University Prep School, best describes by comparison to, of all things, whitewater rafting.
“When you are whitewater rafting, you’re in a boat with eight others and you are hitting a rapid and your life is flashing before you. It’s at this time you are counting on the guide and those with the oars in the water and everyone else to do what we need to do at the same time so we can live to the end of the experience,” she describes, adding that the same analogy can be applied to rowing in general. “It’s that active nature of doing what we need to do to empower young people to be engaged and to help them get to the finish line.”
As UPrep grew, adding schools and forming three distinct districts — UPrep Academy, UPrep Art & Design and UPrep Science & Math — the entire network embraced Crew and as a result, students never quietly struggle, blend into the background or fall through the cracks.
“What’s beautiful about the three districts is that inherent in their birth story is community at their core,” Jackson says. “We have a collective responsibility for every scholar in our care to ensure they are successful.”
At UPrep, Crew is not just for kids and it’s not something that happens to kids. By contrast, Crew is a resource for every member of the educational community so that everyone can better serve UPrep students and each other. “We have classroom Crew, grade level Crew, all-school Crew, even parent Crew. It’s an ecosystem that is instrumental in the learning process for our kids.”
What Crew looks like at UPrep
The Crew experience may look different in each classroom, grade or school, but in lower grades, Crew typically gathers first thing in the morning. “Students and teachers will circle up and it’s an opportunity to sit around the circle and greet each other with some form of ‘good morning,’ and it’s that gut check for how you are doing today,” Jackson explains.
During Crew, there might be a reading, a quote or a sentence from the text that will be studied that day. There may be an introduction to an initiative that’s being launched or a game to play to get everyone thinking. “Crew sets the tone for the day,” she says.
In higher grades, Crew might take place during the middle of the day as an academic check-in, a place to discuss struggles and reaffirm accountability. For teachers and staff, Crew is a place to consider what the group needs, then modify or adapt to meet that need. “There’s agency in Crew,” Jackson says. “If there’s an event that took place, a disagreement or a fight, it becomes a restorative circle where individuals can speak to the harm to those involved and make amends. To that end, we bring parents along in the restorative process. We want them to understand this is what we are doing in school.”
It’s not uncommon for students and faculty to check in about world events during Crew, and, in the thick of the pandemic, students leaned in to talk about social justice issues surrounding the murder of George Floyd. “We went virtual and kids would show up at Crew. It was the glue that helped all of us navigate that early part of the pandemic,” Jackson says.
As UPrep focuses on how to responsibly bring mental health conversations into Crew, Jackson says that within the boundaries of their expertise as teachers — not psychologists — UPrep teachers work to build emotional vocabulary that extends beyond “mad, sad and glad” to help children explore the complexity of their emotions.
“We want our kids to be bold, take risks and innovate and we want them to do this without being psychologically safe? No one takes risks if they don’t feel secure,” Jackson says. “Crew is a place of active community building where we create belonging and connection through authentic relationships mixed in with some restorative practice work. It’s when we get disconnected that we can get into trouble and we all need our village where we can be our authentic selves, even when we are a hot mess.”
And, in the face of life-changing events like the loss of a parent, all UPrep students know that their Crew, with consistent support, encouragement, belonging and connection, is there to help them through.
Crew is about academic achievement, too
As students invest in Crew, they begin to recognize their own agency in their work and their contributions to a productive and safe classroom. “Part of the learning experience is that you can’t always pick who gets in your boat, and in college or at work, you’ll be asked to form a workgroup and you don’t always get to pick who sits at the table,” Jackson says. “Collective ownership isn’t without its challenges.”
Through Crew, each student has the opportunity to reaffirm their own commitment to their academic work and get timely reminders of their accountability. “Students learn how to leverage these relationships for personal growth and development,” Jackson says, adding that academic achievement is the key outcome — as well as each student’s ability to self-advocate for that success.
“If we peel back the tape and academically we are average, that’s not anything to celebrate, in my opinion. We consider the purpose of creating community and the purpose of belonging and connection in the face of challenges in math or English language arts, and it becomes ‘What do you want to do about that? What part do you own? What is your mindset that helps or hurts? Set a goal and we will talk again next week,’” she explains.
When even the youngest students can verbalize the value of Crew, they demonstrate just how Crew impacts their daily experiences at school. “There’s nothing more precious to hear than a young student say, ‘Today, I’m going to work on my craftsmanship because yesterday I gave up on my writing. I will persevere today,’” says Jackson.
Through Crew, faculty and staff help students build skills they can take with them well beyond UPrep, but Jackson admits that this piece is still a work in progress, especially when students graduate and go on to college.
“We have done a great job of building community but our curiosity is leaning toward making it so transparent so kids can take it and do it for themselves. We made assumptions about how this community building would transfer, but we’re also getting feedback that while Crew was an important structure at UPrep, we see some students struggle to make community beyond,” Jackson says.
One goal is to find ways to help students bridge that gap and build their own communities of support — with peers over coffee or Cheerios in their dorms.
“The relationships are meaningless if the concept doesn’t translate into success post-high school,” she says. “It’s about how we create connections and put kids where they are willing to go because they are surrounded by folks who make sure they are OK. They should be taking risks and trying things with effort and work and we should get better every year at producing UPrep kids who are successful when they leave us.”
Here’s what a few members of UPrep’s educational community have to say about Crew:
“Crew gives students an extraordinary way to experience other students outside of the normal environment of the everyday classroom. It exhibits the spirit of the name CREW, which is the elemental basis of what we want our children to understand: that working, talking and figuring things out TOGETHER in a crew-like manner is advantageous in the world that we are preparing them to face. Crew invites our students to be open-minded and resource-driven in a positive, rewarding atmosphere of like-minded scholarly achievers.”
Tiffany Holman, parent of scholars DaZaria (fifth grade) and DuJuan (fourth grade) at University Preparatory Academy Elementary, Ellen Thompson Campus
“Crew is a foundational stone in the necessary relationship-building process of teaching. Before you can truly teach scholars, you have to know them and they have to know you. Crew allows this time for connection. Also, middle school is such a fundamentally developing time for young people and having dedicated time to helping them grow academically, socially and mentally is rewarding for both them and me. This also prepares scholars for the future relationship of both high school and college advisors. Crew is one of the many reasons I love UPSM Middle School.”
Erica Hogan, eighth grade ELA teacher at University Prep Science & Math Middle School
“My favorite part about Crew is that our teachers taught us unity. When we first got into the high school, no one knew each other and by the third week of school, we were all joking around and having fun with each other. Finally, I really appreciated the way Crew taught us about time management and more importantly how to balance our school and personal lives together.”
Alize Snyder, senior at University Prep Science & Math High School