School Spotlight: University Prep Charter School for Young Men Preparing Students for Both College and Career

Students in the certified CTE culinary program prepare a meal under the guidance of Chef Spencer Rodriguez.

While many high schools focus on preparing their students for a potential postsecondary education, at University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men in Rochester, New York, administrators know that today’s students need more than college prep – they need help getting ready for career success too. For UPrep Young Men, that’s means a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program focused on providing students with the academic and job specific skills necessary to get a head start on college credit or find employment post-graduation.

“College and career – we need students to be ready for both,” says Walter Larkin Jr., UPrep Young Men’s CEO, now in his third year. “If a kid goes into machining and decides one day they want to manage or own the company, they’ll need to go back to get a certificate or more education. So, it’s all about college AND career.”

To achieve this, UPrep Young Men launched a CTE program in 2016 to equip graduates with the foundation skills to excel in four-year college programs and with careful consideration of the needs of the local Rochester economy. Through this multi-pronged approach, the school sought to increase the likelihood of its graduates to attend and succeed in college and/or find meaningful employment, develop careers close to home, and contribute to the growth of the local economy.

Currently, the school provides four CTE pathways: Information Technology, Machining, Building Maintenance, and Culinary, the latter which is state certified. Starting in 9th grade, students complete a 10 week “floater” period, in which they explore each of the four tracks. At the end of the period, students complete an interest and aptitude assessment, which helps them decide on which path to pursue once they enter 10th grade.

“Why can’t you use ceramic tile for a pool?” asks Corey Bogart, the school’s Building Maintenance Instructor to a group of nine students on the day of the visit. “It’s outdoors. Frost,” astutely replies a young man.

We are here to observe the daily lesson, which is focused on different types of floor coverings. It’s a unit that will eventually require students to complete a research project into different industry career paths and demonstrate the skill to install several of the materials in the workshop. Today though is about the basics, with students expected to explain different types of tile and grout and why they are used in different locations and for different applications.

It’s not a typical high school class, but the CTE program at UPrep Young Men is far from typical. The campus is located in a small, but charming converted nursing home facility in the northern end of the Flower City. It serves 450 students in grades 7-12 and is led by Walter Larkin Jr., who in 2018, was honored as the Distinguished School Leader of the Year at the Rochester Black Men Achieve Awards.

Classrooms have enough open space for students to work on a variety of hands-on projects, including plumbing and roofing.

Instruction for each CTE pathway is conducted in the school’s three-story brick CTE building, located directly next door to the main facility. The first floor houses the school’s industrial kitchen, with commercial refrigeration and ovens and a dining hall – the Griffin Café – in which students can gain practical catering experience. On the day of the visit, the students showed up at 7 am to prepare a breakfast pastry spread. Lunch, also catered by students, including baked ziti, garden salad, potato croquettes and freshly (and expertly) prepared green beans.

The second floor of the building is for students in the Building Maintenance track, with enough open space for students to work on a variety of hands-on projects, including plumbing and roofing. The third floor is designed for coding and information technology, with computers fitted wall to wall. The machine shop in the basement. There are four instructors, one from each track, including Chef Spencer Rodriguez (Culinary), Corey Bogart (Building Maintenance), Adam Prince (Machining) and Rayvon Higdon, Information Technology.

“What makes us different?” asks Tracy Harris, Career and Technical Education Director at the school. “It’s our highly qualified instructors, who come from schools (including SUNY Oswego) with strong CTE programs…as well as our local partnerships.”

UPrep Young Men collaborates with both Edison Tech (where Walter Larkin Jr once served as principal) and Monroe I, nearby district schools with their own CTE programs. The school has also secured partnerships with Julia K caterers, Arnet Café, Morgan Cereal bars, the City of Rochester, and, the Rochester Institute of Technology. Students can participate in an entrepreneurship experience at the Rochester Public Market and the school places students each summer with the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center (REOC), an organization sponsored by SUNY Brockport and dedicated to providing students with the opportunity to gain skills for college and career. The school also provides students the chance to enroll in dual enrollment courses through the CTE program and receive college credit while in high school.

As they work through the program, students are building a portfolio to help showcase their employability as well as individual certificates that they have earned. (UPrep Young Men uses Precision exams to conduct the certification assessments.) An exit interview for senior year students ensure each is prepared to enter the job market.

“We have a 90 percent graduation rate,” says Harris. “Our goal is to prepare every student who choose not to go to college for a career. This could be a job, joining a local union, or even an entrepreneurship program.”