Earlier this year, just as news of a possible coronavirus outbreak was being reported, I lost my closest friend, Rob DeBlois, who died at age 65 shortly after retiring from a brilliant career in education. The loss is a tough one for me personally. But it’s also tough for the field of education. To my way of thinking, Rob had been one of the key figures in American education in recent decades — and I expect his legacy will continue to influence precollegiate education for years to come, especially regarding how we support low-income, at-risk students.

There is so much to say about Rob’s personal life. But here I want to focus on his work in education. I will only note that in college Rob broke his neck in a diving accident, which left him a quadriplegic for life. For a man who couldn’t even get himself out of bed in the morning or feed himself without help, it’s astounding that he was able to accomplish so much.

After college, Rob taught English and ran a summer school program in Providence, Rhode Island, for urban students. In 1989, seeing a greater need in Providence, Rob started The UCAP School, a groundbreaking, highly successful, year-round, independent public middle school for kids at risk of dropping out. He then ran the school for 30 years straight.

UCAP is an acronym for Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program. The school’s mission is to serve urban children who are not being well served by the mainstream education system. All the students here are at-risk because they not only come from poverty, they are also at least one year behind their peers and, thus, without intervention, likely to drop out before completing high school.

The UCAP School predates the charter school movement, but it functions the way better charters function, as an independent school making its own decisions about how best to serve a particular population of students. In this case, however, the school settled on a model that remains rare in education: an accelerated learning program in which students play a central role in the pace of their own learning. And the results have been impressive. Statistically speaking, without intervention, 80% of the target students would drop out of school. The UCAP School turns these numbers around and helps 80% or more finish high school, with many going on to college.

More details about the challenges of creating and running such a school are in the book Against the Current and the documentary Accelerating America — both of which dig into the school’s efforts at educating at-risk students. What I want to highlight here is the school’s approach to education. To me, UCAP’s accelerated model stands out as an important element of our educational landscape — and one I would love to see replicated or adapted more broadly.

By necessity, the accelerated program is also an individualized learning program — a concept increasingly supported by brain-science research. It’s not about placing students in front of computer screens and having them respond to prompts. It involves highly talented, well-trained, committed teachers working with a classroom full of students with different experiences and needs to help them pursue learning at their own pace. Some of the lessons are group lessons. Much of the work involves students working independently, but they are always among teachers and peers. There’s plenty of direct instruction. The curriculum is fairly traditional in terms of subject matter, and students do prepare for and take standardized tests. But the school also offers arts and athletics, takes students on field trips, offers extensive counseling, connects students with local organizations through its Beyond U program, and aims to build community in every way possible.

For students, the carrot is the opportunity to learn at an accelerated rate and catch up to their peers so they can finish high school on time. Thus, a student can complete three years of education in two, or two years in one. Sometimes, students move slower. But the system succeeds because the vast majority of the students eventually learn that their effort is what matters. They learn, in other words, to take charge of their learning.

The UCAP School is not magic. The system is challenging for the teachers. Some kids do drop out. But year in and year out, the school has had more success with its students than the vast majority of inner-city schools have had with their students. And while the teaching takes a different kind of effort, the UCAP teachers by and large love the work and stay in the job longer than most urban teachers do. Perhaps an even better measure of the school’s success, the current dean of students is a former UCAP student who went on to college to study education and returned to help others find their path.

The UCAP School has evolved over the years, but it has held tight to its core mission to serve at-risk kids with an accelerated model. For its impact on students, the school has been named a national middle-school model by the Carnegie Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. Education guru Ted Sizer also championed and supported the school as an important and highly effective model.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, The UCAP School has had to adjust to distance learning along with all other schools. But in some ways, it is better prepared than most — based on the fact that students have long been encouraged to take charge of their learning and manage their time, while the teachers understand how to be effective academic coaches, teach life skills, and offer ongoing social-emotional support.

Those of us who knew Rob well can’t help but sing his praises. For his part, Rob preferred to talk about the remarkable educators he worked with and the amazing students he had gotten to know over the years. While I’m deeply sad to have lost such a friend, I do know that the school he established will continue to thrive without him. I mostly hope other cities in the nation will take a closer look at The UCAP School and find their own way to add it into their education system. It’s clearly valuable for at-risk students, of whom there are way too many, but it also holds application for any school wanting to empower students to take charge of their learning — and their lives.

For more on Rob DeBlois, here are some links:

Do Not Discard — Feature in the UNH Alumni Magazine.

The Lucky Man — Feature in Brown Alumni Magazine.

Accelerating America — Documentary film by Tim Hotchner. (Official Trailer on YouTube.)

Against the Current — A book-length profile of the school. Out of print, but still available — and relevant.