Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 University Preparatory opened nearly 15 years ago with Ivy League ambition, but now faces tanking test scores and slumping graduation rates. Its principal aims for a new identity.
by Alexandra Ross, PublicSource
“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.”