A Lesson in Teamwork

On the surface, Bob Thompson and Doug Ross have little in common. But their shared vision in starting an alternative high school in Detroit is a classic study in cooperation.
Mr. Ross
Doug Ross Photo by Marvin Shaouni

Last month, the first graduating class of University Preparatory Academy (UPA) High School in Detroit marched across the stage of the Detroit Opera House.

The graduates were the result of a kind of high-stakes poker game in education, and the most recent — possibly most dramatic — attempt to fix Detroit education in a long line of efforts. UPA founder and superintendent Doug Ross had in 2000 begun his charter-school experiment with 112 sixth-graders. He vowed that at least 90 percent of this class of 2007 would graduate, and that among those, at least 90 percent would go on to post-secondary schools.

Accomplishing this feat, or anything near it, in a district that graduates at best 60 percent — or as low as 22 percent, depending on whom you ask — required extraordinary effort by teachers, parents, students, and staff. It also took a heck of a lot of money, since charter schools are prohibited by law from raising public funds for buildings.

The man who furnished most of that money, former road builder and multi-millionaire Bob Thompson, was slated to attend the graduation ceremony, along with Ross. The success of these Detroit students was a shared vision of two men who, at least at first glance, share very little else.

“Great person, but he’s not the guy that I would go to lunch with,” Thompson, a staunch Republican, says of Ross.

Ross counters: “When he first came to meet with us [in 2002], I took my picture of me and Clinton off the wall.”

Ross, 65, is 5 feet 7; Thompson, 75, is 6 feet 2. Ross is loquacious, and loves public speaking. Thompson is blunt and likes his privacy. Ross favors Armani suits. Thompson’s attire doesn’t usually suggest millionaire. In fact, Ross says, “I hope he won’t be insulted,” but when the two first met, “he looked like he bought his clothes off the rack at Sears.”

Ross was born and raised in Detroit, the son of an enterprising immigrant and founder of the Ross Chemical Co. in Detroit, which afforded a decent lifestyle. A good and obedient student, Ross earned a history degree from the University of Michigan. He spent most of the next 40 years as a politician and public servant, serving in the Michigan Legislature and in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Gov. James Blanchard. He isn’t a millionaire, which is why, when he needed to build his students a high school, he needed someone who was.

Thompson was born on a farm in Jonesville, Mich., in a home with no indoor plumbing or electricity. His family goes back several generations in North America. A “discipline problem,” he barely survived high school. Two years after graduation, his parents forced him to attend college. He managed to graduate from Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. But he took freshman English three times and majored in industrial arts education because that was the easiest course of study available. He doesn’t regret any of this, by the way. “Guys like me never look back,” he says.

After graduating, Thompson was a U.S. Air Force pilot. He had worked during college for road crews and liked the machinery, the risk, the elements. After his discharge, he started his own construction business. In 1999, he sold it for more than $442 million. His decision to distribute $128 million to his employees, which made most of them instant millionaires, earned him some unwanted headlines.

Thompson and his wife, Ellen, established the Plymouth-based Thompson Foundation, which supports several worthy charities. A bottom-line, profit-and-loss statement kind of guy, he wanted to see tangible results. And he wanted to help. Education seemed the most needy area, Detroit the biggest risk. And Thompson likes risk. He heard about Ross’ middle school in an older building on St. Antoine in Detroit. He and Ellen paid a visit in the spring of 2002.

Meanwhile, as the Thompsons had mulled over philanthropic options, Ross had taken his own risk in 2000 when he founded UPA. His political/public service career had come full circle, ending with his loss to attorney Geoffrey Fieger in the 1998 gubernatorial Democratic primary.

It was about then that Ross’ and Thompson’s similarities came into play and made way for their mission. Like Thompson when he retired, Ross, then 56, was at a crossroads. Like Thompson, he was looking for a new challenge. And like Thompson, he was a results-oriented risk taker. Both men are reformers.

“They come from very different backgrounds, but there are many aspects in how they are very tenacious about solving problems that makes them a good match,” says Mark Murray, president of Meijer, Inc., in Walker, Mich., who first suggested the two men meet. “Both of them understand complicated systems and are very results-focused – and if you have people who are results-oriented and you get them around issues of children, in particular issues of education, many of those differences become irrelevant.”

Ross paired up with (the late) Bill Beckham, former president of the Skillman Foundation. Both believed Detroit’s system was a shambles, no matter who was in charge. “The system is obsolete,” Ross says. “You could have Napoleon or Gandhi as the next superintendent, but until they dismantle these big factory schools, they’re going to get the same results. It can’t be fixed. It has to be replaced.”

Ross was two years into his grand experiment with a model of small student bodies, individualized learning plans, and strong advising teams when the Thompsons appeared.

Thompson and Ross knew nothing about each other. They went to lunch to talk. Ross drove and warned Thompson there might be chewing gum on his car seats. “I thought, ‘I know his kids are grown; he doesn’t have any grandkids. He already told me that.’ So I asked him, ‘How would there be chewing gum on the seat?’

“And he said, ‘Well, kids who don’t come to school, I go get ’em.’ Well, right away, I knew this is my guy, right?”

Bob Thompson
Bob Thompson

Thompson toured and liked the middle school. He asked Ross: What do you need? How about a high school, Ross replied. Thompson agreed to build a high school to Ross’ specifications — but the deal rested on those 90-90 results. “He said, ‘If you don’t, we’ll throw you out,’” Ross recalls. In 2003, a UPA campus opened near Detroit’s Cultural Center.

Shortly after, this happy story hit a snag that brought Thompson more unwanted publicity. Encouraged by UPA’s results, the Thompsons offered $200 million to build 15 charter high schools in Detroit. When the Detroit Federation of Teachers organized vehement and at times nasty opposition, the Thompsons were devastated.

“You know,” Thompson says, “when you get up in the morning and say, ‘Boy, we’re gonna do something that everybody will like and this will be a wonderful thing,’ and then it wasn’t, it was bad. But you need to go through those valleys in life. And we did. We said, ‘We don’t want any more of this. This is nuts. We’re in the paper, and people are beatin’ us up.’ So we quit.”

Ross understood the opposition more, but he fundamentally disagreed with the “adult interests, even legitimate ones, trumping the needs of children. I think Mr. Thompson was hurt that people ascribed all kinds of other motives to him — white Republican takeover, all this kind of stuff.”

Ross and Thompson stayed the course at UPA, which is planning its fourth school — a second elementary. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick spoke at UPA in the spring, praising it and trumpeting the need for improved schools. Others also supported Thompson’s initiative, and state lawmakers recently passed bills allowing more charters in Detroit.

This spring, Thompson listened to some first-graders read a story at UPA Elementary School on Holden Street, his gangly frame perched awkwardly on a student’s chair. As the kids finished, Ross arrived and led the applause. He and Thompson chatted briefly. They did not go to lunch. Later, while filming a video that was to be part of the graduation ceremony, Thompson praised Ross, saying: “The risk my wife and I took will not change our life. The cost of these buildings isn’t going to make our life any different. The risk of the people who invested the time and energy in this process — the teachers, the administration, Doug Ross — those are the people who took the risk because they could have wasted several years of their lives.”

Ross, of course, credits Thompson’s tenacity. “I suspect there are times he throws up his hands and says, ‘What do I need this for?’ But he keeps coming back. And that’s one thing I admire him for. In spite of everything, he keeps coming back.”