This year, some high school students chose to leave football games and ASB behind in exchange for more academics and higher education.
University Preparatory High School (UPHS) is a small charter school nestled away on the west side of College of the Sequoias in Visalia. It serves around 250 students and provides a more direct, one-on-one type of learning. “It always comes back to what’s best for students,” Lead Teacher Helen Milliorn-Feller stated. “We’re strong as long as we are continuing to think.”
The non-traditional high school began back in 2009 and will experience the tenth anniversary of its conception this educational year. The idea of creating a preparatory school began with its former principal John Kelly.
“He had the idea to apply for a dual enrollment grant,” Milliorn-Feller recalled. “We really wanted to demystify the college experience for high schoolers. We saw a need for higher education and filled it.”
Students are able to take college classes alongside high school classes, with some college level courses being viable substitutes for high school requirements. In fact, students are mandated to take 20 college units for high school graduation standards. Language classes fill part of that stipulation as UPHS does not have a resident foreign language instructor, so students must choose between Spanish, American Sign Language, and Portuguese at COS for their two required years.
The school also places a large emphasis on technology and 21st century learning. Teachers expect every student to have a laptop to perform in class and, if a student cannot afford one, the school supplies it.
However, UPHS has come a long way. The original classrooms were three defunct science labs in the administrative building. The students only had three teachers and three college classes they were allowed to take. In its first year, the school only had freshman and sophomore classes with the first graduating class departing in 2012.
Charter schools often have more autonomy to pursue a specific direction with its curriculum as opposed to other public schools. University Prep’s administration wanted to take their material on a different path.
“Teachers guide learning here,” said Milliorn-Feller. “Students really get a chance to explore themselves and answer tough questions. We spend a lot of time analyzing texts and applying them to real world dilemmas and issues.”
Though it’s not for everyone, she warned. Students who want to attend must be ready to dedicate themselves to their work.
UPHS tends to draw in more academically driven kids who are more focused on their education and tired of traditional public school.
“I didn’t feel challenged,” said alumnus Alicia Wilson on her experience in a Visalia Unified School District middle school. “I got a lot of opportunities I don’t think I would have at a larger school.”
Most of the kids at UPHS are striving for the bare minimum of an Associate’s degree. Some students, like Wilson, even graduate with an AA. “I have two Associate’s degrees I earned during my four years at University Prep. The biggest advantage the school offers is the ability to get a head start on your college career for a very low cost.”
Wilson graduated COS with a transfer degree in Math and Teaching, then graduated a week later from high school.
“I definitely plan on getting my Associate’s,” said Cassidy Dodge, a sophomore. “I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s free.”
Students also enjoy the small school environment cultivated by the administration. “I really like the student to teacher ratio,” said Chinmayi Reddy, senior and President of the Robotics Club. “I feel like I can ask questions and go to my instructor after class and speak with them personally about any problems I might have.”
The student community and interpersonal relationships also benefit from small school mentality. “I love the community here,” said Claire Toomey, the third in her family to attend University Prep. “It’s very tight-knit and it’s easy to make friends.”
Some of this stems from the extracurricular organizations students are allowed to create. The administration allows students to create their own clubs, very similar to College of Sequoias club policy. There must be an interest, by-laws are a necessity, and governing officers must be elected.
“Club Council was huge,” said Alexandra Feller, an alumnus and daughter of the Lead Teacher. One Friday a month, the Presidents and Vice Presidents of every club meet in a classroom to discuss upcoming issues, mirroring COS’ Inter-Club Council. “It gave me a lot of good experience planning events with other people and being on a committee.”
Feller led an initiative during the 2017-18 school year to move away from plastic plates and cups towards biodegradable and reusable dishware which is still in place.
Some student-run clubs on campus like the Robotics Club have the opportunity to compete yearly. The Arborbotics team plays in the FIRST Robotics Competition and is ranked 17th in the 2018 Central Valley Regional against teams from Sacramento, San Diego, and Hawaii. The UPHS Science Olympiad team also competes every year in Turlock at CSU Stanislaus.
The school’s Drama department puts on a show every year as well. In February 2018, they performed Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky at the Main Street Theater in Downtown Visalia. They had five performances complete with student-run light, sound, marketing, and student-designed art deco inspired sets.
UPHS enjoys much freedom with its curriculum and instruction, but “it’s a niche school,” said Lead Teacher Milliorn-Feller.
“I want to go to a UC for my undergrad work,” said Reddy. “Probably either cellular biology or microbiology. Eventually, I’d want to end up in a seven-year M.D. program.”
“I want to start a fashion line,” said Zebadiah Facundo, a junior. “And I found that a Business or a Communication major would work out for me. Maybe even both.”
While University Prep is a niche school, there’s a market for it. Every February, eighth graders flock to the school to apply to be a student. The application process includes an essay and a face-to-face interview, but former student Alicia Wilson said “I strongly encourage every interested student to apply.”