Do Not Discard
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Despite its industrial-sounding name, the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (UCAP for short) is a welcome oasis for kids in the inner city. The school is housed in an old car dealership turned office building turned school on the southwest side of Providence, an easy spit away from the endless stream of traffic on Route 95. Although residents of the neighborhood around the school live a mile or so from three of the nation's top colleges, they enjoy few of the opportunities such institutions offer. They are largely poor African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, Portuguese and Southeast Asians. While the school draws students from three school districts—Providence, East Providence and Pawtucket—all of its students are familiar with life in this neighborhood, with its dizzying succession of frustrations and failures.

"Many of these kids have been in trouble with the law and have no real adult guidance," DeBlois says. "As a result, they have not fared well in school. They are all at least one year behind their peers, have poor reading and math skills, low self-esteem, a tendency towards apathy or hostility and a distrust for authority. Without help, they will likely drop out." They are invited to the Urban Collaborative because they've shown at least a spark of desire to change things.

How does the Urban Collaborative turn life around for these kids where other schools have failed? Essentially by marrying academic purpose with compassion and support.

Although not a charter school (it actually predates the charter school movement), the Urban Collaborative acts much like one. That is, it is a public school with the independence to control its destiny. This independence has been both its greatest strength and weakness. Because it is a small, nonunionized program for the children of parents without political clout, the school was exceedingly difficult to establish and even harder to keep alive during the early years. In the first three years of its existence, in fact, the Urban Collaborative was lopped off the Providence school budget. Only a Herculean effort on DeBlois' part to rally supporters and fight for the school kept it alive. Today, thanks to shrewd planning and DeBlois' ability to draw community leaders to his side, the school is on solid footing. Last year, Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci officially proclaimed it a "premier alternative education program."

Independence has its value, too. DeBlois and his board were able to customize both the school's structure and its educational program to best suit these students. The Urban Collaborative starts with the involvement of teachers in nearly all aspects of the school, placing critical decisions in the hands of those closest to the students. The benefit of this collaboration is that the teachers, by helping to design and redesign the program, feel a sense of ownership and work harder to make the school succeed.

Rob's wife, Bonnie Hunt DeBlois '75, has been his main caretaker, cheerleader and best friend, while pursuing her own career as a school librarian.

"I love teaching," says UCAP math teacher Brian Fay, who gave up a teaching assignment in a suburban school. "One of the main reasons I like teaching here—why I sought this school out—is that my opinion about education matters. I can help shape the program. That's very unusual in schools."

When the original teaching staff and DeBlois got together in the summer before UCAP opened, they decided to set up a program of individualized instruction that would allow each student to take charge of his or her education. In most schools, instruction is group centered, and advancement from grade to grade is based mostly on the time one spends "in seat," almost regardless of competency. That is why some graduate from high school without learning how to read at the 12th-grade level, or even how to read at all. It's what allows many kids to get out of sync with their classmates and, tired of feeling lost, unsupported and embarrassed, drop out. At the Urban Collaborative, students advance academically only after they complete established criteria for each grade. This system comes with its own set of problems (mostly in the form of more work for teachers), but it also motivates and engages students who would otherwise disappear from the back row into the backwaters of society.

Tied in with the individualized instruction is a high degree of student responsibility for their behavior and for the pace of their work. Instruction is set up so students can see a causal relationship between their academic effort and their rate of promotion. This gives them the opportunity to catch up with their peers, and it helps build self-esteem and character.

The other key component of the program is its relationship with the private sector. Because the school is set up as an independent nonprofit entity, it is able to raise a substantial amount of money each year to augment the program. This is vital mostly because Urban Collaborative students, given the nature of their lives, need so much more than the average student. Donations help pay for equipment as well as school electives such as art, drama and sex education. They fund field trips and outings and extra counseling for students. The process of raising money from the private sector has also helped establish a close relationship between the school and its community. Community business people and other volunteers often work in classes and serve on committees that help shape the school's future. In turn, DeBlois points out, "Such facing public schools."

The school is obviously on to something. From the start, despite all the challenges of a start-up, a difficult population of students and less-than-responsive state and city governments, the school has succeeded. Statistics predict that 80 percent of the Urban Collaborative students are destined to drop out. The school turns these numbers on end and manages to help 80 to 90 percent of them finish high school or get their graduate equivalency diplomas. Some have earned scholarships to college. To date, more than 650 inner-city kids have passed through UCAP's doors and gone on to high school with a better sense of self and view on life.

So what's next? "There's still a lot of work to be done here," DeBlois says. "We feel that what we do we do well—that is, create a sense of community in which these kids feel like they belong and can succeed in school. The next challenge is to take it to another level, to see if we can help these kids do well academically not only relative to where they were, but in comparison to anyone anywhere. I want people to think that this is not just a great school for kids at risk of dropping out, but a great school, period."

In an article he wrote years ago for the Boston Globe, DeBlois said of life as a quadriplegic, "If someone were to ask me what I feel I missed out on most, it would not be sex, athletic ability or even the ability to walk. These are the things that television movies concentrate on because they are easy for physically sound people to understand. What I feel I missed was the opportunity to experiment with my ideals and ideas as I moved into adulthood."

One can't help but wonder what DeBlois might have done had he not broken his neck in the Lamprey River 25 years ago. Yet he has managed, despite all, to test his ideals and ideas more than most. In fact, in middle age, the experiment continues. ~

Michael Brosnan '80G is the editor of Independent School magazine, published by the National Association of Independent Schools. He wrote about Rob DeBlois and UCAP in the book Against the Current: How One School Struggled and Succeeded with At-Risk Kids. He has a master's degree in fiction writing from UNH.

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