Former Milliones School offers U Prep

Originally, the School at 3115 Centre Ave. was Heron Hill School. It was renamed and renovated as Margaret Milliones Middle School. Last year, after being shuttered in a 2006 round of school closings, it reopened amid controversy with a new name, University Prep.

A year later, the Hill District six to 12th grade school is still controversial, but is beginning to form its own identity.

HELPING OUT—Seventh grade math teacher Fabyonne Williams helps one of her students at U Prep.

“I would think being able to walk to high school would be a plus—but those aren’t the calls I’m getting,” said Mark Brentley Sr., Hill District school director.  “My concern is still at the board level with the hit-and-miss method of closing and opening schools. It continues to be disruptive to the community and the students.”

Visiting U Prep, as it’s called, one gets the impression that for Principal Derrick Hardy, disruption is not an option. Last year he was the principal at Vann Elementary, where many of the sixth- to eighth-graders came from. Prior to that he was an assistant principal at Westinghouse High School.

“Here we are preparing all our learners for matriculation from a four-year post secondary school. We have college trips for every grade, halls are decorated with college banners and classrooms are named after institutes of higher learning,” he said. “The U Prep program is for every student.”

Class hours are staggered and middle school-aged students enter and leave the building through a different door, and on a different level than the high school students. Students also wear uniforms of blue or white shirts and khakis.

“If everyone is doing their job correctly, you’ll never see a sixth-grader and a ninth-grader together,” said Hardy. “The only exception would be for eighth-graders taking advanced ninth grade courses.”

The building’s first floor is for pre-school children, The second floor contains the sixth and seventh grade classrooms as well as a swimming pool, and one of two gymnasiums. The third floor houses the eighth- and ninth-graders and also the renovated, 421-seat auditorium.

“When they made this Milliones, they separated the auditorium into two floors and made it classroom space. We reclaimed it,” said. Hardy. “We don’t have a performing arts program yet, but we have this beautiful space and we have some activities scheduled for this winter.”

The fourth floor is for the 10th grade students, currently the highest grade at the school, it also houses a chemistry lab. Next year, an 11th grade will be added and a 12th grade in 2011. By then, the fifth floor renovation will be completed to house 12th-graders and a 12th grade cafeteria.

U Prep offers all middle school sports, and when the 11th grade is added next year, all high school sports will be offered.

But the school’s focus will remain academic, with 86-minute classes for all students, mimicking college classes, laptop computers, which students may take home and, if they graduate, keep and teachers from the school’s partnership with the University of Pittsburgh providing students with tutoring in foreign languages, civics and science, as well as professional development for teachers.

“Every day our teachers are learning how to be better,” said Hardy.

The school is designed to have no more than 600 total students, which means about 13 students per classroom.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said the school, with its university partnership, focus on academic rigor and small class size, might be a model to expand on.

“One of the things that was happening at our high schools, even Schenley, over time, it was easy for kids to fall through the cracks,” he said. “It’s my impression that it’s harder to do that at U Prep. If you look at high schools around the country, the ones that are succeeding are the small ones.”

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