In February 2016, 16-year-old Amina Morris was a freshman at Pittsburgh Milliones, also known as University Prep, on the day dozens of students got into a brawl. She was in gym class when the school went on lockdown. Police officers were already roaming the halls. But that didn’t stop Morris from being attacked.
“The whole school was basically fighting,” says Morris. “When I got jumped, there was a lot of them and I was backed into a corner. I got stomped and pushed around.”
That was the last day Morris would attend UPrep. She was homeschooled for the remainder of that school year and now attends Sto-Rox High School.
“I had to be homeschooled because I couldn’t go back to school,” says Morris, who believes the girls attacked her because they didn’t like her cousin. “I’m not allowed to play sports anymore. I wanted to cheer, but I wasn’t cleared for cheering because of the concussions I had and all the medications I’m on. It ruined a lot of stuff for me, going through high school.”
Morris only attended UPrep for one year, but unfortunately, she’ll never forget her experience there. And as if the negative impact the attack has had on her health wasn’t enough, it also hasn’t been good for her name.
“If you Google my name, it’s just everything about that brawl,” Morris says. “I don’t like that at all.”
While Morris’ reputation might have been damaged by the media attention that February fight received, the reputation of University Prep is on the rise. The following school year, administrators made changes to the culture, structure and curriculum at the school. And they say improving absenteeism and suspension rates show their efforts are working. Next year they plan to go even further.
Christopher Horne was among the first teachers at UPrep when it opened in 2008. He eventually left to work in the Penn Hills school district before returning to the school to serve as principal. The now-legendary fight occurred during his first year.
“It was a challenging culture,” says Horne. “The summer before my first year of leadership, there were just a lot of things going on between the two main neighborhoods that feed into my school, Garfield and the Hill District. It just really erupted when they were in the same space after a summer of instigating and violence.”
But he says he learned a few things from that unfortunate incident. Today, Horne says, the administrators and staff at UPrep do a better job of trying to monitor conflicts on social media because that’s often where these kinds of fights are born. But, he says, overall it’s the culture at his school that’s changed.
“When you compare my first year of leadership to year two, it’s all about relationships, building positive relationships with student and staff,” says Horne. “They know what my expectations are. They know that I care. I empower people to lead by example and make good decisions.”
As a result, suspensions from fighting are down 85 percent from Horne’s first year. That school year, 35 percent of students at the school had been suspended at least once. The district average for grades 6-12 schools is 24 percent.
Horne also changed the start time at the school back to 8:38 a.m., and as a result, he says, the school has seen its chronic absenteeism rate drop by 11 percent. The year of the fight, 67 percent of students in the school were chronically absent, compared to the average for grades 6-12 schools of 37 percent.
“Eighty-five percent is a huge decline,” says Horne. “It’s what the students have always wanted. The students have really made a decision to be focused on education.”
This summer, teachers have been working to move even closer toward the current vision for UPrep. They’re developing a behavior-management plan to ensure consistency across classrooms for staff and teachers. Another team of teachers is studying culturally relevant pedagogy to help train other teachers on how to make learning relevant in the classroom. Yet another is developing a list of college, career and life skills they want students to have when they graduate, in order to set benchmarks for each grade. One more team is focused on improving community and family engagement.
“I’m very excited about all the different supports that are in place. We’re continuing to improve,” Horne says. “The narrative is changing around what University Preparatory School at Margaret Milliones was and is now.”
Part of that change emerged in the weeks immediately following the fight. At the time, Briana Jinar, a literacy coach at UPrep, and her students discussed the media’s portrayal of the school and African Americans, and decided that they wanted to change it.
“In my classroom, I like to try to give my students a way to be agents of change through positive means,” says Jinar, who has worked at the school since it opened in 2008. “It’s a source of frustration to see how their school is portrayed in the media. We had so much press about the fight, but there were a lot of good things that the students were doing that did not receive media attention.”
To combat the negative press, the students created Behind the Scenes, a social-media page that was designed to change the narrative about their school in the media. The students posted pictures of themselves with signs that said positive things like “I’m an honor roll student,” and they shared photos from other positive events.
“They said, ‘We’re not going to worry about what the media says about us, we know what we are,’” says Jinar. “It’s a totally different environment now. They changed the narrative themselves, and now they’re becoming what they knew they could be. They didn’t fall into that media stereotype, even though it’s really difficult for them to see it every day.”
And the following school year, the school underwent several changes to ensure progress continued. That fall, UPrep began offering entertainment technology (web design, photography and animation, for example) as part of a career- and technical-education program. A new student-envoy program gives students the opportunity to earn a leadership role where they can work with administrators, teachers and staff to develop strategies to improve the school. The school even won a grant to create its own greenhouse.
Most importantly, this past school year, students were finally able to earn college credits at the Community College of Allegheny County while taking classes at UPrep. It’s a program that was part of the original vision for the school.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for students. They’re being exposed to something that was promised to them years ago,” says Jinar. “Whenever I have a student who used to be roaming the hallways, and now he comes into my classroom and says, ‘I’m going to get my college ID today,’ I get goosebumps. It’s fabulous. They have a sense of purpose now.”
Incoming school-board member Sala Udin, who will represent the Hill District school, says these kinds of academic improvements are paramount to ensuring UPrep is a place where students can feel safe.
“The establishment of a school district where excellence is the standard, where parents are engaged, is the kind of school district that will ensure the safety and the education of the students,” Udin says. “It’s not just the question of physical safety that has to be solved. We have to solve the systemic fundamental problem of an education system that isn’t educating kids.”
Udin has kept his eye on UPrep since it opened nearly a decade ago through his involvement with education watchdog group A+ Schools and the Hill District Education Council. In the days after the fight, he helped form a task force on school violence to address issues at the school. Since then, he says, he’s seen improvements, but academic achievement remains an issue.
“That was a very difficult time for us when that big fight occurred,” Udin says. “A year later, the principal is confident that changes have occurred even though things academically are not where any of us would like to see them.”
Unfortunately, these changes came too late for former UPrep student Morris, who said she never felt safe at the school. She says she hopes keeping attention on UPrep will ensure another kid never has the same experience.
“I’ll never forget it. It was upsetting. I was scared. I didn’t feel protected. It wasn’t a good feeling,” Morris says. “I want to help other kids. Maybe by getting the story out it could help other people.”