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UPrep celebrates 10 years of helping students into college and careers

Public-private partnership between GRPS, business leaders

Prepping Ahead

Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy was opened in 2008-09 as the first Center of Innovation in Grand Rapids Public Schools. A public-private partnership patterned after Detroit’s University Preparatory Academy, it was founded by a group of seven CEOs committed to providing students and families more school choices:

  • Jim Hackett, retired CEO of Steelcase and current CEO of Ford;
  • Steve Van Andel, chairman of Amway;
  • John Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam Medical;
  • Dan DeVos, CEO of DP Fox;
  • Michelle Van Dyke, former president of 5/3 Bank and current CEO of Heart of West Michigan United Way;
  • Fred Keller, founder and chairman of Cascade Engineering;
  • David Frey, Frey Foundation trustee.

UPrep currently enrolls about 435 students in grades 6-12. It features small class sizes, block scheduling, internships, early college courses and community mentors. Campus visits and financial aid nights help students swing the costs and learn the choices of college.

When Chyna Figures was a sixth-grader at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy, she and her friend Maya Thompson agreed they wanted to start their own law firm someday.

Now both in college, they’re still on track for that plan.

Figures, studying criminal justice in her second year at Grand Valley State University, said the connections and encouragement provided by Principal Kenyatta Hill were key to motivating her dream.

“When I said I want to be a lawyer she was like, ‘Yes, that is a great field for you. You have the potential to be a lawyer, and I know you’ll do great in that field,’” Figures recalled.

She also credited her field experiences at Cooley Law School and a local law firm – and earning 22 college credits by the time she graduated – at a 10th anniversary celebration of the innovative school commonly known as UPrep. The academy was founded as a collaboration between Grand Rapids Public Schools and leaders of the West Michigan business community, to give students the experiences and resources to get a running start on college and careers.

In an airy reception hall at Grand Rapids Downtown Market, Figures and other students described UPrep as a cozy and close-knit school where they know their classmates and can count on their teachers for personal and academic support.

“When we need help the teachers will help you one-on-one,” said Karla Lopez, a junior who’s earning early college credits and is interested in criminal justice or medicine. “Everyone’s just so caring about each other. We’re like one big family.”

Chyna Figures, a 2017 graduate and current student at Grand Valley State University, said UPrep fueled her desire to become an attorney

Connected to Community

Students said internships, guest speakers and volunteer work also are huge for connecting them to career possibilities and the community, which provides a living classroom around the custom-constructed school building at 512 S. Division Ave.

“We’re connecting the past, present and future around what we want to do, not just connecting here but with the city of Grand Rapids,” said senior Kaleb Richardson, who plans to study kinesiology.

UPrep graduates more than 90 percent of its students, and virtually all grads enroll in a post-secondary institution, a fact proudly highlighted at the celebration.

Daniel Williams, principal of GRUPA at its founding, speaks to the reception crowd, with the school building visible behind him at far right

Principal Kenyatta Hill credited rigorous coursework, project-based learning, mandatory student presentations and a nurturing school culture. “Our relationships are so key to who we are: having that small-school, family environment,” Hill said.

Business leader John Kennedy, a key player in establishing and supporting UPrep, praised Hill for knowing where all her students are academically and what they need personally. The school’s teachers are “the leaders in the trenches every day to ensure our students have the knowledge they need to thrive in society,” said Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam Medical.

Displays highlighted different components of the U Prep program

After being honored for his contributions, Kennedy said the work he and his wife, Nancy, have done for UPrep and GRPS is “the most valuable investment we’ve ever made” as philanthropists.

It’s also the most rewarding, he added, citing the high graduation and college-going rate.

“Even if we only had a small part in that, that is the most amazing thing to know how we’ve impacted those lives,” he told the crowd.

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Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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