The head of one of Detroit’s largest charter school networks departed abruptly last week.
Mark Ornstein left his post as CEO of University Prep Schools effective January 22 for what officials described as personal reasons, the same day a letter was sent to parents assuring them that “the day-to-day experience will be seamless for your scholar.”
Danielle Jackson, the network’s chief academic officer, was named interim superintendent. A native Detroiter, Jackson has been with the network for a decade, including a four-year stint as principal of University Prep Academy High School. She was an elementary and middle school teacher.
University Prep officials did not immediately return a request for comment, nor did Joe Aristeo, president of its board of directors. Attempts to reach Ornstein were unsuccessful.
As the leader of 10 schools enrolling roughly 4,700 students, Ornstein was a familiar face in Detroit’s powerful charter school sector, and his perspectives appeared often in print.
When he joined the network in 2013, it was considered one of the more successful charter systems in a city where few schools have managed to break the link between poverty and low academic achievement.
The network had met its first founding promise — that 90% of its students would graduate high school — and was close to meeting the second, to enroll 90% of those graduates in college. Most of its schools operated in gleaming new buildings, thanks to tens of millions of dollars in donations from the Thompson Foundation.
Six years after Ornstein took charge with a promise of taking the network “from good to great,” its graduation and college enrollment numbers remain high. Still, its graduates — like many across Detroit — often struggle to make it through college. Of the high schoolers who graduated in 2015, half were still enrolled in college within three years.
Doug Ross, the founder of the network, said he doesn’t know why Ornstein left.
“I don’t think it signals any kind of crisis or discontinuity,” he said. “As always when you change leadership, it’s a chance to assess where you are and figure out if your next leader has certain strengths.”
Ross, who previously ran the network, said he no longer is involved in the day-to-day operations. He added that he believes the district should focus on helping students graduate college.
Ross is now Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s adviser on increasing the percentage of Michiganders who obtain postsecondary credentials. He previously worked for Detroit Public Schools as chief innovation officer.
Ornstein joined University Prep in 2013 after stints as a school district administrator in Delaware and Philadelphia.
His tenure was marked by his successful effort to prevent University Prep’s roughly 350 teachers from forming a union.
More recently, he joined a chorus of charter leaders calling for more amicable relations between the Detroit district and its charter sector, which compete with each other for a limited pool of teachers and students.
Click here to read the letter sent to parents regarding Ornstein’s departure.