“We fully intend to make this a flagship school for the district.”
— Mark Roosevelt, quote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2008
When UPrep opened in fall 2008, it was supposed to be one of the strongest schools in Pittsburgh.
Higher education was baked into Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 University Preparatory School’s vision. Banners for Harvard, Pitt, Temple and more would deck the halls. Classes would be smaller and the school day longer. And UPrep would have a formal partner in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.
Over a decade later, when Eric Graf arrived at UPrep to start his second year as principal (and his first in the building, thanks to COVID), he found it haunted.
“As I went through the closets, you could just see the ghosts of all the other initiatives that had been attempted at the school,” Graf said. “Binders of things.”
Graf said he doesn’t see UPrep as a university preparatory school, except in name.
“The name University Prep is something that carries over from the initial vision for the school,” Graf said. “In the years since it’s been established, that vision has atrophied and changed. And in many ways, ‘UPrep’ has — the name has kind of become a little bit of an albatross around the school and an irony.”
Graf said he embraces a shift in the school culture. If the focus of UPrep is just higher education, “we are leaving out the majority of our students who may be on a different career path. … Our school should serve our community and students where they actually are.”
UPrep’s struggles don’t have just one cause. Pitt’s involvement in the school has waned significantly since it was founded in 2008. The school has been no exception to decreased enrollment across the Pittsburgh Public Schools district. And turnover in the principal’s office has created instability.
Last year, UPrep parent Sharhonda Brandon-Walden took her daughter Chloe out of UPrep and enrolled her at Oakland Catholic because she said things were “chaotic” and “rough” at the public school. (Her younger daughter, Mashonie, stayed at UPrep during that time.) But this year, Chloe is back as a senior honors student and Brandon-Walden said she’s already seeing big improvements.
“I can see their growth, I can see that they’re trying,” Brandon-Walden said. “It has transformed so much in one year. I feel like they need more community support, and more — I feel like Pittsburgh Public, like the district, needs to give them more.”
Graf hopes to see UPrep continue to grow under more stable, long-term leadership in the coming years.
“One of my core tasks or missions here is to increase enrollment, and I think that that can be accomplished,” he said, by providing “some stability of leadership and really putting forth a clear vision of what the school can be.”
“The school says it offers a ‘total college-going culture.’”
— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2009
If standardized tests are a good measure of a student’s education — and some say they aren’t — things do not look good for UPrep. Across the 11th-grade Keystones and the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade PSSA exams, most UPrep students don’t reach proficiency.
Such low proficiency rates may be alarming to some, but Graf takes them with “a real grain of salt.”
“I think [students] view standardized testing as part of a system that hasn't served them and I can respect their choice to not participate in that fully,” Graf said. “I do push them but ultimately … I can't force a kid to take a test or to take a test seriously.”
Almost 90% of UPrep’s student population is Black, and more than 86% is economically disadvantaged, two groups that typically score lower on standardized tests. Most test-taking UPrep students are part of a “historically underperforming” subgroup, meaning they have a disability, are economically disadvantaged and/or learn English as a second language. In 2022, at least 94% of UPrep students taking each test were designated as historically underperforming.
The district intended to educate as many as 600 students at UPrep annually, but enrollment has fallen far below that, down to 292 students this year.
UPrep is below average in graduation rates, particularly since the pandemic, and just 34.5% of students qualify for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship, versus 55.9% district-wide.
“Pittsburgh Public Schools and the University of Pittsburgh will be ‘re-examining’ their partnership at the district's University Prep School.”
— The Pittsburgh City Paper, 2011
In June 2008, the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education voted to close Schenley High School because of “deteriorating conditions” in the building, complicated by asbestos. Rising ninth graders set to attend Schenley would be absorbed by other schools, including the brand-new Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 University Preparatory School.
Pitt planned to focus its resources provided to UPrep on three pillars: technology, tutoring and teacher quality, according to Erika Kestenberg, director of the Pitt-UPrep partnership at Pitt’s Center for Urban Education from 2011 through 2013. The Heinz Endowments* granted UPrep $500,000 to buy students laptops, an innovative concept in 2008. According to Kestenberg, more than 100 Pitt students signed up to tutor at UPrep in the first year of the program. Pitt’s Center for Urban Education held office space inside UPrep. The university planned to provide professional development for teachers and even to play a role in the teacher hiring process.
The first problems arose over summer 2008. According to Alan Lesgold, the dean of Pitt’s School of Education from 2000 to 2016, then-Superintendent Mark Roosevelt promised Pitt a say in who would teach at UPrep. However, teacher union contracts did not allow this. (Roosevelt, who left the district in 2010, declined to confirm or deny accounts of decisions, citing fading memory.)
Issues continued as the school year started. UPrep purchased students’ laptops with its Heinz grant, but struggled to utilize them. A lack of teacher training in technology hindered its use in the classroom, according to Kestenberg. And the school required that parents sign a form accepting responsibility for lost or damaged computers before students could take them home.
“Computers back then [were] super-expensive things,” Lesgold said. “You have a rather low-wealth population demographic. … Needless to say, not every parent signed that.”
After three years, according to a 2014 article in the City Paper, laptops were only available for students to take home on a case-by-case basis. By then, UPrep’s second principal, Derrick Hardy, said the computers were “antiquated.”
Other initiatives lasted for years before they died out. The first principal of UPrep, Sito Narcisse, implemented a uniform requirement at the school as part of an attempt to set high standards for students. Enforcement of the uniform requirement eventually faded out.
Fewer Pitt students signed up for the tutoring program after the first year, and Pitt students no longer tutor in the building today. Lesgold said the program struggled because teachers had to dedicate extra time to keep tutors up-to-date on which students needed help with which material.
This kind of mentorship is missing at the school today, said Brandon-Walden.
“I think it would be very helpful if Pitt students could go into the school to encourage the students, you know, engage with them so they'll want to be Pitt students themselves,” Brandon-Walden said. “Just that push for, you know, advancement in your education would be helpful.”
Pitt’s physical presence within UPrep started out strong for the first year, but the school took back some space in the second year, and more in the following years. Lesgold said by the time UPrep’s second principal, Hardy, was well-established, he had “basically taken back all but one of the rooms we had.”
Said Roosevelt: “Schools of education do not necessarily fully understand the challenges of an urban school like Milliones, and sometimes they will balk and back away when they realize how tough everything is.”
As various plans and programs at UPrep began to wane, Kestenberg said communication with Hill District community members was lacking in transparency and timeliness.
“The saddest part for me was going into the community and hearing the voices of community members saying, ‘This is what we were promised, and none of it's happening,’” said Kestenberg.
“People didn’t have anything good to say about us.”
— Former UPrep student quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2017
In nearly 15 years, UPrep has had six principals. The school’s changes in leadership have contributed to “instability” that hindered the school’s opportunities to grow, Graf said.
Called to the office: UPrep’s revolving door of principals
- May 2008: Sito Narcisse starts as head principal
- June 2009: Narcisse resigns for personal reasons
- July 2009: Derrick Hardy starts as head principal
- July 2015: Hardy resigns for personal reasons
- July 2015: Christopher Horne starts as head principal
- June 2018: Horne resigns for personal reasons
- July 2018: Virginia Hill named head principal
- May 2019: Angela Allie and Shemeca Crenshaw assume temporary school leadership responsibilities at UPrep
- July 2019: Hill transfers from UPrep to Dilworth
- August 2019: Alvin Gipson starts as head principal, stays in role a few months
- July 16, 2020: Eric Graf starts as head principal
“What's challenging in a very large school district, especially when you have turnover of administrators, is one administrator may have one vision and be buying or spending resources on one thing, and then the next person comes in” with different priorities for how to use the school’s resources, Graf said.
When Hardy, UPrep’s second principal, left the school in 2015, one of the school’s founding teachers stepped in as principal.
Christopher Horne had left UPrep in 2010 to become an associate principal in Penn Hills, but he returned to UPrep to take on the role of head principal for his first time. He said he doesn’t think the district should have hired him.
“I thought I was going to be the best principal ever,” said Horne, now a principal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “But looking back now, and being a seasoned, experienced principal, I mean, there's no way you can bring a new principal into that space with no support and expect for the school to do well.”
Ebony Pugh, PPS spokesperson, said an assistant superintendent provides direct support and supervision to each school administrator, and principals and assistant principals participate in the monthly Leading and Learning Institute for professional learning. Additionally, the district provided contract support to UPrep at times.
Horne compares Milliones to other Pittsburgh schools with many African American students from low-income communities, such as Westinghouse Academy or Perry High School — schools where the people have lots of passion for helping kids, but not enough resources. Horne said he needed more mental health specialists, social workers, family and community engagement specialists, mentoring, staffing support and behavioral specialists.
“It is not preparatory for university, as much as it’s preparatory for the penitentiary.”
— Sala Udin, now president of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2016
Horne said the district decided to bring students from Garfield and the Hill District, two “rivaling neighborhoods,” into the same school.
“There were fights from the start from those different sides,” Horne said.
In February 2016, four students started a fight that grew to dozens of students and made national headlines. Police arrested about 30 UPrep students after the incident. The next school year, total enrollment dropped from 548 to 385 students.
A task force on school violence formed after the fight, crafting recommendations for the school and then disbanding by October that year. That fall, Horne said he saw a change in culture. Fewer fights broke out, teachers handled conflict better and a previously strained relationship with Pitt was “emerging” with new mentoring programs.
Horne said he valued UPrep’s partnership with Pitt, in particular the Heinz Fellows program. The Heinz Fellows, a group of graduates with the Center for Urban Education, worked as mentors and advocates across several Pittsburgh high schools.
Elon Dancy, director of the Center for Urban Education, said the center saw improvements at UPrep directly linked with the program, including fewer disciplinary actions. He also said he saw students “having a deeper understanding of themselves, a deeper understanding of, kind of, collective responsibility … and connecting freedom and justice to education.”
The Heinz Fellows kept working with UPrep students into the COVID-19 pandemic, but the program ended in 2021. Dancy said funding ran out, but the center is searching for new sources of funding.
High-needs schools suffer from “deeply entrenched” structural problems, Dancy said, and the solutions need to be similarly structural and to address the ways schools acquire resources.
“When the only possibilities, the most reasonable possibilities, for you are philanthropic ones, well then you're at the mercy of philanthropic priorities and whether or not they’re interested in funding that at that time,” Dancy said.
With the end of the Heinz Fellows and the university’s original tutoring program, Pitt’s Center for Urban Education no longer sends students to UPrep on a regular basis. Nowadays, Graf said the relationship between the university and the school is largely based around dual enrollment courses and Pitt’s Hill District Community Engagement Center.
Horne said he believes UPrep could have had a stronger relationship with Pitt, if only the district and the university had better communication on what that relationship could look like.
“The opportunities were limitless,” Horne said, “and we didn't really take advantage.”
“Things are so bad at UPrep that I'm open to almost any proposal that will improve conditions there."
— Sala Udin, quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2019
Virginia Hill, principal of UPrep from 2018 to 2019, called her time at the school “painful” and “traumatic.”
“What's happening at UPrep is a travesty,” Hill said.
Inexperienced staff and high turnover contribute to UPrep’s struggles, Hill said, adding that most teachers at UPrep want to do right by their students but don’t have the tools or don’t know how. In the 2020-21 school year, UPrep teachers had an average of eight years of experience — the least experienced teaching staff of all the schools in the district.
Hill doesn’t blame Pitt, saying the university (in particular Dean Valerie Kinloch from the School of Education) tried to offer UPrep students courses and support.
“The problem was on our school district,” Hill said.
Hill describes friction between herself and district administrators from the start. Hill said she felt administrators wanted her to be “rough and tough,” motivate teachers by fear and suspend more students, but she wanted to create a school culture based in “love, safety, connection and care.”
“If you keep them in school and you educate them, then they can go back and be the type of citizen that you would live next to,” Hill said. “That's what I want to produce out of my students. I want to live next door to you. But that takes time.”
According to Hill, students were supposed to have monthly therapy, but from November 2018 to January 2019, UPrep had no therapist. She had four counselors: a special education counselor, a social worker, a middle school counselor and a high school counselor. However, she said she believes none of those can replace a therapist.
Some seniors prepared to graduate, only to find they hadn’t completed the credits required to get a diploma. Academically achieving students couldn’t take advanced classes because of a teacher shortage, and Hill said she could not get permission to have them take online classes through other schools.
Though she had an assistant principal, Hill said she was sometimes the only administrator in the school and at times there were no security guards present.
In April 2019, Hill said she broke up a fight between two UPrep students at school, tearing her ACL in the process. It took her a year and a half to recover from the injury physically, but the damage it did to her relationship with UPrep was irreparable.
Pugh was unable to comment on Hill’s assertions about her time at UPrep.
After a poor performance review in spring 2019, Hill transferred to one of the district’s K-5 schools, but said she never entered the building and officially left the district in April 2020.
“UPrep in its current form is a ‘patchwork’ of what it was promised to be."
— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2019
Graf came to UPrep in July 2020, in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic and during more than a year of virtual learning. He couldn’t meet students in the halls, but made home visits to connect with them.
Even once in-person learning returned, staff shortages due to quarantine guidelines ruled out normalcy for a while. Now, coming back for his third year — the first third-year principal since Horne — Graf hopes to bring a sense of stability to UPrep.
Graf said his relationship with the district’s administration has been positive and supportive, though he knows that hasn’t always been the case for UPrep principals.
“Many of the previous principals really had a rough ride here, and it was not a positive professional experience for them,” Graf said.
Graf said he believes UPrep is sufficiently funded, as it receives Title I federal funding and state funding as a Comprehensive Support and Improvement school.
Graf said he needs more mental health resources, but said that reflects more of a societal than a district problem. Growing up in the Hill District, Graf said so many of UPrep’s students have lived through trauma. Last year, two graduates of the class of 2022 were shot and killed. Young people in the Hill District have also been victims of nonfatal gun violence that plagues their community.
“The beat just goes on,” Graf said.
According to Graf, UPrep is at a “tipping point” of opportunity. As the city advances development of the Lower Hill and Pitt expands its campus toward the Hill District, he hopes to help students benefit from their neighborhood’s development.
“You're beginning to see … kind of the seeds of an economic transformation in the neighborhood,” said Graf. He wants to ready his students “to take advantage of it, rather than have it take advantage of them.”
UPrep has finally realized its plan for one-to-one technology and distributes Wi-Fi hotspots to students to take home — “one of the unintended positive benefits of the pandemic,” Graf said. Since 2020, in-school technology has also improved. Instead of “old-school” projectors and a dysfunctional computer lab, Graf said the school now boasts 75-inch touchscreen computers and a maker space with 3D printers, coding kits, VR goggles and more.
UPrep offers two technical education programs, one in early childhood education and another in entertainment technology. Through the PNC Partner Up program, students learn life and career skills and may receive full-time job offers for when they graduate. And while Graf doesn’t run UPrep as a university preparatory school, he encourages students who want to pursue higher education, for example by coordinating student visits to Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt, as well as field trips as far as Washington, D.C., to see Georgetown, American and Howard universities.
The D.C. field trip was “amazing” for students, Brandon-Walden said, especially because it was financially accessible.
“[The students] didn't have to pay for their meals, they didn't have to pay for their hotel room,” Brandon-Walden said. “That's a total difference from the private institution that Chloe had to pay for tuition for — any field trip, anything that they take part in, you have to pay for everything.”
Tia Herring, another UPrep parent, said she sees lots of opportunities offered at the school, including robotics and coding programs that her two sons — Antonio in seventh grade and Malaciah in eighth grade — take part in weekly.
“I think Mr. Graf is doing a phenomenal job,” Herring said. “I just hope … that they actually extend to the kids things that are up-and-coming in the world, with the change in the world that's happening right now. So technology and nursing and medical technology and maybe even investment … and entrepreneurship.”
But she also said not many other students take part in these programs, which she takes as a sign that UPrep parents need to be more present and involved.
“It can't be all on just the staff,” Herring said. “It has to be a collaborative thing with the parents as well as you know, the teachers and the counselors and you know, the principal. Like, everyone has to actually work together.”
Pitt’s involvement with UPrep now mainly centers around dual enrollment courses. Three courses — in rhetoric, social justice, and history — are offered as part of Pitt professor Esohe Osai’s Justice Scholars Institute [JSI] program in which students take college courses in high school through a social justice lens. They complete college readiness programming, visit Pitt’s campus and participate in their own research.
“The students tend to be, I think, inspired by this idea that they're Pitt students,” Osai said. “You have a Pitt ID number, you have a Pitt transcript coming at the end of the year, and that's going to be a game changer for some students who maybe have never been told that they were college bound or college material.”
Osai said both the district and Pitt are trying to support underserved high schools, and she is grateful for the support — including funding — her program has already gotten.
“Could they do more? Yes,” Osai said. “But I can say the effort’s been made to work with us and to make sure this is a collaborative opportunity for the students in the district.”
Besides JSI, Graf said Pitt stays involved with the school in smaller ways: visits from Pitt cheerleaders and band, communication with the university through a community site manager and extracurricular programs hosted at Pitt’s Community Engagement Center.
Unlike 2008, when Pitt gave UPrep more special attention, much of the university’s involvement at the school now comes from programs open to other schools around Pittsburgh. JSI, the former Heinz Fellows program, the Center for Urban Education’s Summer Educator Forum, the Hill District CEC and the High-Impact Retired Teachers of Black and Brown Children program can all benefit UPrep, but are also open to other schools. No Pitt programs provide special help to UPrep.
“The Hill District deserves top-flight schools, too.”
— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board, 2019
UPrep’s original vision has not played out as planned, but Graf maintains that he believes in his school.
Between classes, you can find him fist-bumping and making conversation with his students in the hallways, and they pop in and out of his office to ask him questions throughout the day. Over and over again, he emphasizes school culture and student self-confidence, and he isn’t giving up hope on UPrep.
“There are pockets of excellence here,” Graf said. “There have been pockets of excellence here even before I arrived, and that's something that I've come to believe in any organization, no matter what the current state of it is: There are people that are doing excellent things.”
Then again, the Hill District has heard this before. In 2014, school director Tony Esoldo said UPrep had “dramatically changed.” In 2016, Horne “[sensed] a culture change,” and in 2017, he said things were “different” and “better.” In 2019, the school board passed a resolution promising “a planning year for success” for UPrep. Now, in 2023, the jury's out yet again on whether UPrep is finally finding its footing.
*PublicSource receives funding from The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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