University of Michigan. Howard University. Hope College. Brown University. Copies of acceptance letters from the Classes of 2014 and 2015 line the halls of Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a public charter school a mile northeast of the city's central downtown district.
The letters serve as motivation for students, who want to be sure their acceptance letter will someday proudly adorn the wall.
More than 60 percent of the students at DEPSA are eligible for the federal free lunch program, meaning they come from a family that probably earns less than $30,000 a year, depending on its size. Despite all the challenges involved in growing up in or near poverty, college is an expectation for every single student at DEPSA, according to Ralph Bland, the superintendent of DEPSA.
The school is authorized as an International Baccalaureate World School. Each student must complete a major personal project — known as the "IB project" — a special requirement about which students can be quite passionate. "Nah, I have to work on my IB project," a student reportedly told a suitor asking for a date earlier this school year. Clearly, academics is the highest priority.
But the focus at DEPSA isn't just getting into college, it's completing college. This is especially crucial given the levels of student loan debt that American students who fail to graduate from college accumulate.
The students least likely to graduate are those who show up at college and need remedial help. That's why DEPSA focuses on college prep at an early age and stays with students throughout college. They even have an office devoted to helping alumni in college. The office isn't there to give students tutoring help, but to ensure students know how to get connected with those resources on their college campus. They're ready to help for academic, personal and even financial problems, offering help with the complex FAFSA forms.
It helps that many of DEPSA's students have already been exposed to college classrooms long before they graduate high school. The school has a relationship for dual-enrollment with the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Students in grades nine and above can do dual-enrollment classes, and students can take two classes per semester. The school even provides a bus for students to get to the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus, some 20 minutes away by car. When students start college, they have a head start toward graduation thanks to the credits they got from dual-enrollment.
That's how one DEPSA alumna will be skipping from a freshman to a junior at Central Michigan University. The student was brought up multiple times by Bland and other staff members during my tour. So far, every DEPSA alumnus is on track to graduate from college on time.
I spoke with three DEPSA seniors, all facing difficult college decisions. Gatlena has been in DEPSA since the second grade, and now she's deciding between a few schools, including Georgia State, to study business marketing. "Everything [at DEPSA] is centered on getting in, getting scholarships," she told me. The scholarship aspect is especially important for Gatlena. Bland mentioned that Gatlena's mother passed away when she was young, but her devoted grandmother hasn't let that hurt her future. Gatlena said she feels more prepared for college than students she's met attending private or boarding schools. "I would definitely be ready if it started tomorrow."
Devorae, who plans to study biology, said she's undecided and considering many schools, including Michigan State University, Indiana Tech, Howard University, Central Michigan and Ohio State University (there seemed to be more that she couldn't remember). Devorae came to DEPSA relatively late in her education, and even considered leaving to attend Cass Tech High School, the most-renowned school in Detroit. She's glad she stayed at DEPSA, however, recalling of her public school days, "Teachers there didn't care if you made it." She said she understood the problems Detroit Public Schools are having, but opposed teacher sick-outs that cancel school because students are missing learning time.
Tariq also plans to study biology on a pre-med track. He's attended DEPSA since the fourth grade and has done well enough to apply to Harvard, currently his first choice school. "It was non-negotiable for me: my family said I was going to college," Tariq said. He added that DEPSA prepares students so well for college that, "if you go to college and don't succeed, it's your fault." One teacher noted that Tariq was interested in becoming an OB/GYN and eventually wants to open a non-profit clinic.
Not every school in Detroit can be as good as DEPSA. But Bland says the goal is to create as many high-quality seats for Detroit students as possible, similar to what the principal of University Prep Science & Math Elementary told me. Some low-quality charter schools need to close, Bland says, but so do some district schools. "The district has to survive. More charter schools are going to come on board. As a city, we have to embrace that reality."
Soon, copies of acceptance letters from the class of 2016 will be framed and hung. Georgia State. Michigan State. Even Harvard might soon be added to the walls of DEPSA.
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.