Catching everyone: College of Urban Education’s unique mission changes lives

Davenport University is the only university in Michigan to offer degrees from a college dedicated entirely to urban education. The College of Urban Education (CUE) benefits from the support given to the university’s ELEVATE Campaign, which is currently underway. 

Yamaka Bracey is a product of urban education, having attended Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), and that is exactly where she wants to be. She pursued her master’s degree in urban education at Davenport University while working as a teacher in the district.

“The class sizes were just right, and they were very detailed and hands-on,” Bracey said. “It gave me the tools I needed. It gave me opportunities that I may not have had if I had not had the courses that helped me think deeper, that pushed me to work harder, that encouraged me to think out of the box.”  

Bracey’s passion for educating and guiding students, whom she affectionately calls “babies,” is evident to anyone watching her work. As she easily makes her way through the halls of Campus Elementary on the city’s southeast side, where she is in her fifth year as principal, she alternately calls out to some students and hugs others. This is her place.

“Davenport’s urban education program allows you to deepen your understanding of the urban world,” Bracey said. “It’s not just about going in and helping. It’s really about looking at the student as a whole, and looking at their family, and making a difference the best way you possibly can.”

Davenport has had a unique focus on urban education since beginning the CUE in 2013, providing current and aspiring educators with culturally responsive practices that can be immediately used in schools and with families. The CUE has a distinctive weekly coaching and mentoring model for its undergraduate and graduate students that readies them for the intense work in classrooms, especially ones filled with students who often have complex economic and family dynamics.

“When we focus on urban students, we end up catching everyone,” CUE Associate Dean Rhonda White explained. “When you take the time to understand each student, you reach urban, rural and suburban students. It’s just good teaching.”

And the state of Michigan is in need of good teaching. A concerning shortage of those entering the teaching profession has gotten the attention of the state legislature. This summer, lawmakers approved $66.4 million in funding for a consortium called “Talent Together.” Davenport is one of nine colleges and universities across the state that are part of this push to get talented teachers in K-12 classrooms. The influx of financial support is working. During late summer, enrollment in the CUE graduate program saw an uptick, with more than 120 new students enrolling. The undergraduate program is seeing a steady increase.

Davenport has been busy with its own efforts to address the teacher shortage, especially in STEM areas. The university has signed scholarship programs with school districts around the state. Through its Urban Education Partner School Program, the university provides scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees that will lead to teaching STEM courses in urban districts. 

White has seen how Davenport’s program changes not only the lives of students, but also the lives of the teachers who earn degrees in urban education.

“There’s a huge reward for teachers,” White said. “There is nothing like teaching a group of students and seeing that you have made a major impact.”

Bracey knows she is making an impact. Before finding her career, Bracey found challenges – lots of challenges. She had five children and was working desperately to make a better life for her family by getting a college degree. While her family gave her support and motivation, she more than understands the urban environment and the family systems that are often so strained that children need more support from their schools.

“I share the experience and lifestyle of many of my parents, whether it’s struggling at home, not having enough food; whether it’s being on the welfare system and trying to get off; whether it’s trying to make a difference and feeling like you’re stuck – I can relate,” Bracey emphasized. “I’m not afraid or ashamed to tell my story. It’s not perfect, but I’m here, and I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles. I want to be that example for my parents, my families and my students.”

Bracey understands her students and families so well that she has been promoted through the GRPS system and been honored with the university’s College of Urban Education Alumni Award. Associate Department Chair Meaghan Polega nominated Bracey.

“As a school leader, Yamaka exemplifies what the College of Urban Education is all about, helping urban students reach their fullest potential,” Polega said. “She has a commitment to students on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, and she wants them to be successful in whatever they do.”

“That’s a fire that will never go out,” Bracey said. “Every fire needs to be fed, and that’s what Davenport did for me. They fed my fire a little bit more. Each class gave me a little bit more desire. Each class gave me a feeling of keep going, don’t quit. And when that fire felt like it was dimming, I had strong support from my instructors and from my classmates from GRPS.

“What it means for me is taking that chance to look at the whole child, and every opportunity that you get, to change the world one day at a time.”

Visit to learn more about the College of Urban Education and the ELEVATE Campaign, which is dedicated to supporting the university’s commitment to student success.


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