School of the Week: Palmer Park Preparatory Academy: FLASH! New Prep school opens in northwest Detroit

School-of-the-Week transformed, reorganized Palmer Park Academy changes climate and culture, and lives

Can a school uniform transform a school?

The display case in the commons area between the early elementary and middle school wings of this school in the well-maintained University District is the third stop on the tour that Principal Bessie Harris guides. But the Dress for Success ethic and plaid uniform program displayed behind that glass case, and its impact on Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, was clearly evident among the boys and girls in the classrooms of fifth grade teachers Gwendolyn Williams and Charles Donlon visited earlier.

The fifth graders are disciplined and serious. The rigorous, precise atmosphere as Donlon runs his 25 students through multiplication tables in perfect unison and as at minimum two-thirds of the students quickly raise their hands to answer each question he poses, are reminiscent of those in a small private or parochial school setting.

That’s intentional.

Principal Harris, herself is wearing the uniform, tells a story that early this school year, after the Dress for Success program was instituted with 100% parent support as part of the Academy’s broader Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program, several of her students were questioned by a neighbor along nearby Livernois Ave. as to whether a new Catholic school had opened in this area of northwest Detroit.

“If we’re going to impact the future, we have to dress for success,” Harris states.

Success, defined by the Principal, her 10-member school leadership team and the Palmer Park Prep Academy (P3A) faculty, isn’t simply successful preparation for high school matriculation to Cass Tech or Renaissance High Schools where fully half of P3A eighth graders have completed the DPS entrance examination this year. It’s getting the students prepared for colleges including neighboring University of Detroit-Mercy or Marygrove, or Eastern Michigan 40 miles west in Ypsilanti, all of which have already been sites of college tours arranged by school counselor Deana Harris.


Positive Behavior Intervention is actually much more than uniforms and college tours. It’s a conscious transformation of a learning environment beset by years of behavior problems and chaotic organization into a respectful, responsible, safe  educational community with broad parental cooperation and strong participation by the school’s professional educators, 50% of whom are new to P3A this school year as a result of Harris’ utilization of the Detroit Public Schools new teacher evaluation and placement model through which the principal interviewed and selected her staff for the first time in history.

A number of the staff new to P3A spent recent years in former DPS high schools including Southwestern and Pershing. The high school experience “got them ready,” Harris says.

Asked what’s unique about P3A from 99 other schools featured as The DPS School of the Week, Harris comments, “They don’t have me. And they don’t have my staff, all of whom are fully bought into our mission and vision.”

As a result, the school has adopted a Professional Learning Community model which has proven remarkable at problem solving and ensures that data drives all decision-making, her team says.

 “Kiss & Drop”

Parents understand and support the new learning climate, and have adjusted to providing assistance collaboratively where needed, while staying out of the way of professional teachers and not interrupting instructional time. Parents dropping off their students have adopted the school’s insistence that they can’t follow the child to the locker, to class, and through the school day. “Kiss and Drop” is the succinctly-named and enforced student drop-off policy at the entrances each morning bell.

Harris, at P3A for several years, had to communicate a purpose to her parents that better days were coming if they just hung on.  She and her leadership team are pleased with the results of looping 6th and 7th graders last year with the same teachers and are considering the same approach with other grade levels. She states that the effort retained parents who were looking to relocate their children elsewhere.

Other school culture adjustments resulted from moving out-of-school suspension programs to an in-school, three-day setting, ultimately with the goals of reducing risks of expulsion, truancy and students dropping out. Throughout the school year, as a positive reinforcement, students earn P3A Power Cards or “Harris” Bucks for meeting behavior expectations.

 A school where all decisions are made with all students in mind. (And several hearts )

The school motto, “A school where all decisions are made with all students in mind,” is among many statements and quotes along hallway and library walls displayed in colorful letters affixed to boards by the school’s art teacher. This one has two hearts drawn above the motto.

In fact, there’s a ton of heart and a lot of joy as part of the educational experience on the P3A campus. The East Michigan Environmental Action Council as well as the district’s Nutrition Office organize an environmental lab, outdoor classroom and 46-crop school garden built and designed by students. A neighborhood farm stand run by the school is in the discussion phase.

There’s a Smart Girlz Rock group, and a Boys 2 Men mentoring program. The community organization within the neighborhood and the school are working more closely together, and a festive annual Youth Round Up includes fun and games as well as violence prevention seminars and programs in conjunction with the Wayne County Prosecutors Office and area attorneys.

A Student Teacher Assistance Program involves pupils assigned to the office, job shadowing administrators and performing other duties for which they fill out actual time sheets and seriously view the roles as actual jobs.

School Social Worker Angela Gardner-Street, who has served at dozens of Detroit Public Schools over 15 years, says this has been her best educational experience, and that the efforts of the P3A team are to continually “meet the child where he/she is.”

Transitioning Ford Motor Co. employee Quincy Goudy serves as the volunteer coordinator of a six-sport boys and girls athletic department involving 150 of the school’s 500 students. Goudy looks forward to each opportunity to infuse the athletes with organizational skills and teamwork in addition to the recreational value. Goudy took a group of his student athletes on the five hour trip to Purdue University for a campus tour.

The school has a faith-based partnership with Oak Grove AME Church. The “Men of Oak Grove” assist in Palmer Park’s middle school lunchroom and provide mentoring.

Data Data Everywhere

Data walls can be seen throughout the building. P3A has a Climate and Culture Team and a Data Team, and they thoroughly overlap, states Chief “Data Facilitator” and technology teacher Angela Davis. Davis says that data is integrated into every facet of the school and that the team is constantly reviewing academic data which has resulted in changes to teaching styles throughout the year. PBIS itself is thoroughly data driven in terms of assessing student needs and providing additional levels of behavioral support to students in need.


Something you didn’t know…

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy began in the former Barbara Jordan (and earlier Hampton) educational facility as the district’s first Teacher-Led School in 2010. While the program formally ended last year and the school’s leadership team jokingly look back at the initiative as one sometimes plagued by “too many cooks in the kitchen,” they remark that there were benefits of helping more teachers develop leadership skills. The transition was natural, says Assistant Principal and Academic Engagement Officer Lewis Grady III. “They’re still leaders. And we work together as a family.”


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