The U.S. education system has to expand the social emotional learning for our students. Teaching mindfulness, addressing trauma, providing access to healthcare and mental health services are necessary structures to support student success.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Danielle Jackson.
With more than 20 years of experience as a K-12 educator, Jackson is CEO of University Prep Schools (U Prep Schools) in Detroit. She previously served as chief academic officer as well as principal of U Prep Academy High School for four years. She has taught and led at the elementary and middle school levels. Jackson holds a bachelor of science degree in elementary education, as well as a master’s degree in educational leadership from Wayne State University.
In addition to her work at U Prep Schools, she is a certified professional coach and has served on the board of directors of a local charter school. A native Detroiter, Jackson understands firsthand the needs of the community U Prep Schools serves.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Schooling had a profound impact on my life. In my K-12 experience, I went from a small elementary school to a large elementary school on the northern east side where I felt anonymous. I was lost by fourth grade and it worsened upon entering middle school. I was ready to give up on life, literally.
Seeing the impact my environment was having on me, my parents made the ultimate sacrifice to send me to a small, private, all-girl Catholic school in Detroit, and it changed my life. I was deeply seen, pushed beyond my comfort zone academically and physically, and I discovered my own potential. I graduated high school committed to providing my experience to children in Detroit for free. That decision would expand my work as a teacher to include work in coaching and assistant principalships and as a dean, principal, chief academic officer and, eventually, to CEO.
I believe in the power of the educator. We hold our kids’ potential in our hands, and we have two choices: we can open the doors of their minds or close them. As I deepened my experience as an educator and leader, I wanted to be a model who would promote the evolution of education in urban spaces. That is what attracted me to University Prep Schools some 13 years ago. We believe our role is to prepare students for success in life, college and career. And that goal inspires us to think outside the box as we listen to our students’ demand for an educational experience that reflects who they are and what they want to accomplish in the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remember in my second year of teaching, I was assigned to fourth grade. I had a class of 32 students. As a young teacher, I would experience frustration with my students as I tried to balance the demands of the curriculum and pacing with the needs of my kids. I told myself I was hiding it well when I had to redirect a student. I pulled her out in the hallway, modeling my best management behavior, when she shouted, “I know you don’t like me; I can tell by how you look at me.” I felt such shame in that moment because the truth hurt. Out of shame came an important lesson I will never forget. I remembered that when I was a child, like this student, my teacher had more power on how I defined my value than my parents ever could. From that day forward, I never forgot that we hold the power of children’s reflections of who they are in every interaction we have and that is sacred work.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are redesigning our curriculum to incorporate more culturally responsive pedagogy. The strategies we use to engage our students with educational material take full advantage of the rich culture they bring to school every day. We want our students to see the myriad of contributions that Black people have brought to our country. We are moving toward more project-based learning experiences where students engage in learning in the classroom and in the field with experts. These projects will embolden our students to actively participate in the renaissance of Detroit. We are committed to empowering youth to be change agents for themselves and their community now. When students get a taste of what it feels like to have agency in their experience before they go to college, it positions them to use their power and influence in whatever career path they choose.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I remember. I remember what is was like to be a K-12 student, a first-year teacher, leading my first team of teachers, and then leading a school. I remember what it was like to lead academics. My experiences over the last 20 years across K-12 have given me a perspective about the practices that can push the limits of traditional educational practices.
While we have made strides in demonstrating our students’ gifts and talents, we have a way to go to change the narrative on how brilliant our students are. My work today is about bringing together talented students, teachers, leaders and parents to shape the education space of tomorrow, and I am honored to share what I have learned with your readers.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I would rate our education system at about a C-. The U.S. education system requires a facelift, one that reflects the varied ways in which humans learn. Yet we continue to assess learning in one-dimension, standardized testing. Our teacher preparation programs have been slow to respond to develop new teachers’ skills in inquiry-based teaching, relying more heavily on teacher-led practices. And finally, the system must be more responsive in supporting the effects of trauma that many of our kids bring to school with them daily.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
I have to “shout out” teachers first. My teacher crew and teachers across our country continue to inspire me with their willingness to go above and beyond to meet our students’ needs, despite the challenges they face and the level of scrutiny we encounter. They deserve our support and investment in their development to meet the changing landscape of the 21st century learning expectations.
I also believe our nation’s attempt to agree on a set of standards to drive what learners need to know and be able to do is a step in the right direction. Our education system must be designed to produce talented young people who are ready to innovate, collaborate and problem-solve. Standards create an agreed upon skill set to make that happen.
Many systems across the country have instituted Restorative Practices and moved away from punitive discipline structures. Historical discipline practices and codes of conduct bled into the school-to-prison pipeline. Restorative Practices reminds us we work with children and it is possible to hold them accountable for the choices they make and still leave them whole.
I am also excited about the collaboration happening between schools and the private sector. More and more adults are giving back by visiting schools and sharing their stories. Companies are opening their doors to students for internships and traditional field trips to bring authenticity to learning.
Finally, the introduction of 21st century skills connects the jobs of the future to the educational practices of today. I think this will help us strengthen the U.S. in the global marketplace in areas of STEAM.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
We must get to equal funding for all students. Like many other institutions in our country, we can acknowledge the tenants of systemic racism in education. If we believe all kids deserve the highest quality of education and that the success of our economy relies on it, then why are we still allowing a monetary advantage for middle- and upper-class zip codes?
In addition, I believe we need to reduce the focus on standardized testing. Standardized testing assesses limited modalities of learning, and (as colleges continue to pull out of its use) research calls into question the cultural bias of testing formats and the barriers to advancement from an overreliance on test scores for children of color, in particular. While student performance has a place in teacher evaluation, we need to invest in teacher and leader development to meet the changing demands our educational system is responding to.
We need to diversify our teacher force. Our classroom teachers must reflect the children they serve. Our work in Culturally Responsive Education reminds us that the three layers of culture we refer to as “deep culture” in Zaretta Hammond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” when left unseen can lead to a lack of relationship-building between students and teachers, and of misreading behavioral and verbal cues of students and overlooking skills students possess. Conversely, when deep culture is shared and revealed in classrooms, we minimize the distance between the teacher’s practices and student skills sets to bring learning to life. Which leads me to my next point.
Curriculum must become more culturally responsive. Kids from different backgrounds have different cultural experiences and we need to reflect the truth in our classroom practices and historical accounting. All children, regardless of race, deserve to learn and understand the whole story of our nation’s history. We want to courageously confront the legacy of slavery in our institutions and its impact on our country today and, at the same time, systematically dismantle the barriers our students continue to face in classrooms where their cultural experiences are not valued.
Lastly, the U.S. education system has to expand the social emotional learning for our students. Teaching mindfulness, addressing trauma, providing access to healthcare and mental health services are necessary structures to support student success.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
STEM skills, mindsets and dispositions are good for all kids. I think we can engage young people by moving out of the way. Kids are naturally curious; given a set of materials and some inquiry-based instruction, they surprise you with models they build. Second, believe they can do it. You would be surprised how many children are stripped of the opportunity to engage in STEM because the teacher believes it’s too hard. Finally, employ a culture of error. Far too long school has been a place that glorifies perfection, yet many a book has been written and hit the best seller list for all we learned from getting it wrong. Learning happens in the messy places.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
I know when I was younger, girls read, and boys solved math problems. Those gender roles persist. We must make certain our girls and young women have the same access and opportunity as boys and young men to challenging math and science courses. It’s important for girls to see themselves as powerfully smart in all areas of study. Women’s voices and perspectives are critically important, and our spending power reflects it. Pushing our girls to pursue STEM subjects ensures our perspective will continue to be reflected in innovative solutions in medicine, engineering, tech and more.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
There has been some progress in engaging girls and women in STEM, and there is more work to do. We still have a need to create niche programs to provide access for girls to see STEM as a path for them. Until the career fields reflect the proportion of women in our country, we must keep pushing to dismantle the barriers that deter girls from entering into the field. Exposure to women who are already in the field, and particularly to women of color, shows the path has been started and that it is within their reach. Secondly, gender-based STEM programs in school make it safer for girls to explore subjects and be exposed to the vast spectrum of studies in STEM. Finally, examining scheduling and counseling practices in school ensures we are removing the barriers that get in the way of girls to pursue STEM-related courses in our schools.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I am a supporter of STEAM. Learning is best when integrated. The challenges facing our country today and the innovation we need to recapture and/or maintain our competitive edge in the marketplace, calls for all of our children to garner the critical skills and disposition in STEAM. By integrating the arts, we make what is naturally happening in our brain’s “connection” become an experience in schools. Lastly, STEAM stimulates all parts of the brain. Find an engineer who leverages his/her experience in music or visual art, or an artist who leverages his/her experience in engineering, and I will show you a product that pushes boundaries.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Every child deserves to:
Feel safe to engage holistically in the learning environment and process. If there is a student who often struggles with anxiety, the student should feel emotionally and psychologically safe to advocate for her needs and receive the support of all the adults who interact with her.
Have access to the resources he/she needs to be successful. COVID-19 showed us firsthand the inequities found in the way we resource schools and communities to be able to respond to a changing educational landscape. If we prioritized tech in all schools, as well as Wi-Fi accessibility, we could have responded more seamlessly.
Demonstrate competence orally, written and through project work. We have many examples of students who scored low on standardized testing; however, their project work and leadership demonstrated a level of intellectual ability the test score did not reveal. As a result, we are able to place students in college by providing a comprehensive portfolio of experience and achievement beyond the test.
Experience a culturally responsive learning environment where they are valued and challenged to use their agency now. Our schools have been safe spaces for our LGBTQ+ students and black students to address bias. They use the joy and pain of their experiences to examine public policy, representation in the arts, and innovation, leading to the discovery of agency right now. Students will show us the way if we are willing to listen.
Lastly, if we plan to deliver this to every child, every teacher’s pay must reflect the value of education in our country. During COVID-19, our teachers have been validated in so many stories of shared empathy and compassion for how hard teaching really is. Imagine how many more talented people would be attracted to teaching and persist in teaching (most teachers leave the profession before their fifth year and many after their first) if the pay was more significant.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “Life Lesson quote is by Dr. Martin Luther King: You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
Many times, life gets complicated and if you are like me, you want to control and predict. Well, the first part of this quote that isn’t always cited is “Take the first step in faith.” As I get older, I am leaning more toward taking the step rather than obsessing about what might be around the corner. Most often what I find when I get there is that it is never as bad as I predicted and is better than I imagined.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Vulnerability is required in teaching and in leading in education if we are going to confront the inadequacies of our system. Courage is required if we are going to break out of the traditional ways of schooling and be willing to try a new approach. Brené Brown’s work has been instrumental in my personal growth, and I reference her work in my conversations with students, parents, teachers and leaders all the time. I would love to sit down with her to chat about how we can expand daring leadership in our education system.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow University Prep Schools at
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!