Celebrating the Inspiring Individuals of CMU’s Partner Schools

In 1994, Central Michigan became the first university in the nation to authorize a charter public school. For the past 26 years, CMU has been a leader in the quest to ensure every child in Michigan has access to an innovative, high-quality public school education. On this page, we celebrate the individuals of the CMU charter school family. The impact the teachers, school leaders and board members have had on the students they serve, as well as the alumni whose lives have been transformed through their world-class education.

Yuliya Velhan
2021 Graduate – A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School, Southfield

The road to valedictorian is never easy. It’s an achievement that never fails to impress. However, even amongst the accounts of the absolute best and brightest, there will always be stories that shine through. Yuliya Velhan’s story, co-valedictorian of the 2021 graduating class from A.G.B.U Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, is one of them.

Six years ago, Yuliya emigrated from the Ukraine and didn’t speak English. Today, she’s been accepted to Brown University on a full scholarship with plans to matriculate in the fall and is valedictorian of an impressive graduating class from her high school that produced 33 graduates, 85 college and university acceptances, $4.5 million in total four-year scholarships, including eight full scholarships to the University of Michigan.

The work it took to get from point A to B was arduous to say the least.

“Arriving in the United States with no knowledge of English was more difficult than it may seem,” said Yuliya. “During the first couple of months, when I was assigned homework, I would come home, and my mom and I would translate the whole homework assignment word by word so I could understand what I had to do. It felt as if I would never be able to learn the language. Not only that, but there were only a few other students in my grade who spoke Ukrainian, and they wouldn’t be in every single class with me. Therefore, I was left to figure out most things by myself.”

However, the teachers and staff at A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School went above and beyond to ensure Yuliya’s transition was a smooth one.

“The faculty at Manoogian School truly tried their best to accommodate students who didn’t speak English. Mrs. Babloumian, the ESL teacher, was always there to resolve any issue if it ever came up. In addition, every teacher did their best to help students. While those things might have been small, like allowing ESL students to work in groups, work on a simpler version of an assignment, or simply trying to talk slower while teaching the lesson, all of those things were very helpful along the way. It was evident that the faculty wanted the best for their students and were expecting them to succeed.”

And in Yuliya’s opinion, that fostering environment that the teachers and staff at A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School cultivated made a tremendous difference.

“My parents understood the importance of personalized attention for each student. At a big, public high school, where there are thousands of students, it is easy to get lost in the crowd. On the other hand, here at Manoogian, the teachers know every single student in the school and can quickly notice if a student needs help. This type of nourishing environment allows students to build bonds with teachers and grow both academically and personally.”

Now, with diploma in hand, Yuliya is set to head off to Brown University this fall with plans of double majoring in computational biology and public health. Yuliya already has plans of pursuing a master’s degree and hopes to one day work for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention—goals she’ll undoubtedly achieve with ease as she has displayed with her accomplishments in high school.

For more information about A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School, please contact Dr. Hosep Torossian at torossian@manoogian.org.

Stephanie Yassine
Executive Director – Sanga Consulting and Alumna of The Dearborn Academy

Today, Stephanie Yassine serves as executive director at Sanga Consulting, the educational service provider for Escuela Avancemos. But her career with charter public schools actually began much earlier, when her family chose The Dearborn Academy for her to attend as a second grader.

“Prior to transferring to The Dearborn Academy, I was attending a suburban school district and struggling both academically and with my self-esteem. That district had, without cause, determined that I needed to be placed in an ELL track and had wrongly diagnosed me with dyslexia.” Yassine remembers. “Both my parents advocated for me and decided that a smaller school with an innovative educational program was exactly what I needed.”

Looking back, Yassine believes it was a life-changing decision.

“As I reflect, I realize that if my family did not have a school of choice option then I could have easily been one of those lost students, forgotten due to my lack of self-esteem and confidence in my academics,” Yassine said. “My experiences as a bi-cultural, bi-racial learner in the educational system ignited my passion for educational equity for all students.”

In her graduate studies, Yassine decided to focus on community organizing with a specialty in educational studies. Ultimately, she advanced to her present position at Escuela Avacemos—a career choice that feels particularly right. After all, Escuela Avancemos’ mission is to prepare, educate, and inspire every child, every day to become lifelong learners and leaders in a 21st-century world.

“I am proud to work at a community school so invested in the academic and emotional success of every child,” Yassine said. “Escuela Avancemos, similar to The Dearborn Academy, is a school that I would have thrived in as a child and I am proud to lead and support a school that applies these values in everything we do.”

Shelby Hollins
Graduate of Jalen Rose Leadership Academy

When it comes to the success of students in the charter public schools it partners with, Central Michigan University goes the extra mile. The university provides Spirit of the Future Scholarships to charter alumni who choose to attend CMU after graduation—and Shelby Hollins, a graduate of Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, is one of its current recipients.

Today, Hollins is a CMU junior majoring in health administration and minoring in substance abuse. She is involved in the Nonprofit Leadership Student Alliance and the Collegiate Health Administration Preparatory Society on CMU’s campus. She also volunteers with R.I.S.E Advocacy, a non-profit that helps and guides survivors of sex abuse and/or domestic violence.

“Receiving this scholarship has reduced my financial difficulties, gave me the motivation to continue my education, and helped me put aside my doubts during my academic journey,” Hollins said. “My college career is supported by having a team of individuals who are checking up on me during the semester and asking if I need any additional resources.”

Hollins said her family chose JRLA due to its 9-16 model and small class sizes, that they were happy with the choice.

“Throughout my time at JRLA, the college team worked with each student individually on every aspect to be prepared on entering the next phase of our education journeys,” Hollins said. “Faculty gave support and honest feedback through the process of being a college student.”

In the future, Hollins said she hopes to work in public health.

“I want to focus on health practices, educating individuals on health promotion and disease prevention and providing educational webinars and hands-on activities,” Hollins said. “In the future, my plan is to focus on working with communities to provide more resources and support, which will guide me into building beneficial relationships that can help people grow.”

Uche Uchendu
ELA Academic Specialist – Pembroke Academy, Detroit

Each year, Central Michigan University offers Charter School Educator Awards to assist charter public school educators with the cost of tuition as they pursue their graduate degrees. Uche Uchendu of Pembroke Academy is one such educator.

“The prospect of paying out of pocket for graduate school was overwhelming, making furthering my education feel out of reach. Fortunately, the tuition assistance I received from CMU through the Charter School Educator Award ensured my goal was attainable,” Uchendu said. “The skills and the new credentials I have gained have impacted my performance in my current role by increasing my knowledge base and setting me up for future promotion.”

It was the inspiring story of Uchendu’s father, for whom education was transformative, that helped draw Uchendu into her role as an educator.

“My father’s experiences showed me that teaching was the noblest profession anyone could have,” Uchendu said. “Through his experience, I learned very early that a teacher had to be committed to student learning along with personal and professional growth. I knew I had to be an educator!”

Uchendu says becoming a charter public school educator has transformed her life.

“I continue to be overwhelmed with joy when I see a student’s grades improve because of interventions I put in place as an academic specialist. Knowing that I have a part in inspiring them to succeed adds immense value to my own life,” Uchendu said. “Having this level of impact in another person’s life is a privilege I do not take for granted.”

Uchendu’s coursework at CMU helped her grow immensely as an educator.

“What an inspiring experience I had! I loved the interaction with colleagues from various parts of the country,” Uchendu reported. “I learned so much by exchanging ideas as we collaborated on assignments and projects. These positive and invigorating experiences will continue to shape my professional life for years to come.”

George McManus III
Board President – Countryside Academy, Benton Harbor

For Countryside Academy founder and board president George McManus III, charter schooling is an approach that’s always been grounded in simple good sense.

“The six founders of Countryside were all farmers in Berrien County with children attending various school systems. We felt the charter school concept would allow us to create a learning environment for our kids that closely reflected our values as parents,” McManus said. “We developed a theme based on agriculture and environmental science. The six founders all served as board members.”

During the past quarter century, McManus says he’s learned a lot.

“Being a board member at Countryside Academy has been my second education,” McManus suggests. “I was not trained in education, so learning education law was new and interesting. Also, working with truly dedicated people at the school as well as supportive parents has been a blessing for me.”

Despite early obstacles, which included a federal court challenge and the work associated with establishing a school location, McManus says Countryside has become a local success story.

“Enrollment has grown to over 700 students, and we’ve expanded our facilities over the years to include a gymnasium, Early Learning Center Campus, and 107 acres of land,” McManus reports. “Our newest addition is our Agricultural Resource Center. We’ve also developed CTE agriculture and aviation programs.”

McManus’ experiences as a board member have proven to be very positive. Today, he says he understands education law more fully and enjoys strong relationships with truly dedicated people. He also appreciates the challenges associated with delivering a quality learning experience to local students.

“Starting a charter school is a lot of work if you want to do it well. And in the beginning the project was grueling. But as the days, weeks, months and years passed, our little school grew, appropriate policies were put in place to guide us, new programs and facilities were added, and financial stability was attained,” McManus said. “Then came the first graduating class and I knew all of our achievements as a board were going to pay off for kids each year. It always comes back to the kids. I realize what we have accomplished every year on graduation day.”

Dr. Luay Shalabi
School Leader – Central Academy, Ann Arbor

When school leader Dr. Luay Shalabi speaks about his experiences at Central Academy, one word comes to mind: joy.

“It’s very hard for me to describe the joy I have when I pass high school diplomas to students who started their first year at Central Academy in preschool,” Shalabi said. “Students, staff and parents have formed a very strong net over the last 25 years. Any visitor who walks in the school hallways will get that feeling from the first minute.”

Shalabi should know; he’s been part of the Central Academy team since its founding in August 1996. He began as a board member for the first year, then became principal of the school in July 1997.

“I was a hardworking student since my early years in school, maybe my love for school and my teachers led me to think that teaching is all what I wanted to do in my life,” Shalabi recalled. “Moving from a traditional public school system to Central Academy made me appreciate and enjoy my job tenfold. I very much enjoy the freedom that I have as a school leader to implement whatever is good for the child without the need to go through any complicated red tape. This has allowed me to nurture and encourage teachers’ creativity to implement great ideas.”

As Central Academy has grown, Shalabi says it’s developed a true sense of family.

“Today, I work with middle and high school students who are the children of students who graduated from Central Academy,” Shalabi said. “I feel especially proud when I walk in a classroom to observe two of my teachers who graduated from Central Academy.”

Shalabi says having Central Academy graduates now contributing as team members is particularly exciting.

“More than 14 Central alumni work with Central and our service provider, Global Educational Excellence (GEE),” Shalabi said. “Another point of pride is observing, mentoring and coaching principals in the organization including those who started as teachers with me in Central Academy. All of this has contributed to strong family ties that distinguishes Central Academy and makes it very unique.”

Mr. Allan Pall
Teacher – New Branches Charter School, Grand Rapids

Allan Pall has been teaching at New Branches Charter Academy since it was a private school, before it re-opened as one of the state’s first charter public schools in 1994. This makes Pall one of the very first charter school teachers in the entire state.

But that’s not the only reason Pall is a unique educator.

“Before joining New Branches, I had volunteered in a number of schools. I noticed that there were not many males teaching in lower elementary grades,” Pall said. “Too many students of that age don’t have fathers living with them at home. I wanted to be a positive male role model in early education.”

Pall remembers the early days of New Branches’ status as one of the state’s first charter public schools as being fraught with unexpected challenges.

“One big problem was that there were challenges in the court that held up our payments from the state, so the whole staff went without pay for several weeks,” Pall said. “Parents took it upon themselves to give us money for groceries. We had to vacuum our classrooms and mop our floors. What got us through these tough times was that the staff stuck together through thick and thin and keeping our focus upon our students’ needs.”

But Pall says the close collaboration of the New Branches team made it possible to weather those difficult days.

“I have always felt that I am working with friends. Our staff has always been close, caring, and supportive,” Pall said. “This has never changed. I can ask for help from anyone and they will make time for me.”

It’s this sense of shared purpose and direction that makes New Branches such a strong and stable part of the community.

“We partner with our parents to help their children become the best version of themselves. We are responsive to our parents, and we seem to be on the cutting edge of what is new,” Pall said. “Best of all, talented staff seem to choose us. When times are tough we have proven time and time again that we are tougher. We have always been ‘the little school that could.’”

Dr. Hosep Torossian
High School Principal – A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School, Southfield

It is rare to find an engineer serving as a high school principal, but at A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian Charter School in Southfield, Dr. Hosep Torossian has followed a unique path where his diverse knowledge base has provided impactful experiences for the students at his school.

Torossian began his professional career as a chemical engineer after graduating from the University of Toronto in 1978, an occupation he enjoyed for 21 years which allowed him to travel the world extensively. But it was an opportunity to join A.G.B.U. Alex and Marie Manoogian School as a temporary high school mathematics teacher that kicked off his 20-year journey in education, and he hasn’t looked back. Torossian found his new passion in educating the students of his community and he quickly became the high school’s assistant principal and now serves as the principal.

Throughout his 20 years in education, Torossian saw a need for additional STEM education and has brought numerous opportunities to his school. A.G.B.U is now known for their STEM programming, including an automotive engineering class and robotics program. They also feature the program Project Lead the Way that brings computer science, engineering design and medical curriculum to the students through hands-on challenging projects.

“I am very proud to be part of the CMU family as we celebrate the Golden 50th anniversary of the Manoogian school, and its 25th year as a charter school authorized by CMU. I credit the success of the Manoogian school to our amazing faculty and staff,” Torossian shared.

Torossian holds a doctorate degree in education from Central Michigan University. He has also been an adjunct professor at CMU since 2005, teaching courses focusing on strategic planning, curriculum, educational leadership, education finance and emotional intelligence. In 2017, Torossian was named a top five finalist for the Michigan Charter School Administrator of the Year by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Emily Doerr
Academy Board Member – Woodland Park Academy, Grand Blanc

Service to her community is intertwined throughout Emily Doerr’s personal and professional life. Not only does she have a background in community economic development, but she also serves her community as a board member at Central Michigan University partner charter public school Woodland Park Academy.

Doerr graduated from CMU in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree and a wealth of leadership experience. While on campus, Doerr was a Centralis Scholar. She also started the Fencing Club and a co-ed acapella group called Central Harmony. Doerr also held numerous roles within the Alternative Breaks program serving as a participant, site leader and fundraising chairperson.

“My education at CMU definitely put me on the path of a career focused on community and economic development, primarily because of Economics classes I took with Dr. Jason Taylor and Honors College coursework I took with then-Honors-College Chair, Dr. James Hill. They both emphasized looking at societal issues with an analytical mind, developing an action plan for incremental change through building consensus, and using data to substantiate all policy and programmatic efforts,” Doerr said.

It was through an internship with the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan that Doerr found her passion for working with community economic development groups. Her internship was the start of her path in this work and she has held various roles in community economic development throughout her career. These roles include state-level advocacy, grants management for a community action agency, small business development for a regional chamber of commerce, working for two cities’ community economic development departments, statewide business attraction, and most recently, affordable housing development through her work at Metro Community Development.

In speaking of her work in community economic development, Doerr shares that “this work is constantly evolving and it ultimately assists low-to-moderate income individuals and families to help break the cycle of poverty, helping communities build economic stability.”

Doerr wanted to join the board of Woodland Park Academy to serve the Flint area while learning about how public education funding and compliance processes occur in Michigan. When reflecting on her time as a board member, Doerr states that she is “proud of the continued focus the Board maintains with our administration on building teacher capacity to increase student success.”

Dr. Firas Shalabi
Graduate of CMU College of Medicine and CMU Partner Charter Public School Central Academy

Firas Shalabi is now known by another name. That is because in May, Firas graduated from the CMU College of Medicine and will officially begin his career as Dr. Firas Shalabi. This tremendous accomplishment is a testament to his hard work at CMU, but Shalabi would be the first to say he owes equally as much of his success to the quality education he received before he left for college.

Shalabi graduated from Central Academy, a small multicultural charter public school in Ann Arbor authorized by CMU. It was there he made the decision to pursue a career in medicine following his exposure to courses in biological sciences. But in addition to the curriculum, Shalabi feels his time at Central Academy prepared him to succeed in medical school at CMU.

“I attended Central Academy for 10 years, which allowed me to develop and appreciate long-lasting relationships with my teachers and classmates. I also appreciated having a smaller class size, something I was able to value again when I was part of a class of 104 at CMED,” Shalabi said.

Central Academy’s impact on his life thus far has not been lost on Shalabi. He continues to seek out ways in which he can give back to the school and community that has given him so much by acting as a mentor to the school’s students and sharing his story with the whole student body at Central Academy’s Alumni Career Day.

Shalabi also brought with him to CMU that same desire to give back and stay involved on campus. As a medical student, Shalabi was active in several medical-related student interest groups, served on the Medical Student Council as treasurer and secretary, was involved in organizing the annual “Diversity Health Spotlight Symposium,” and was part of a group of medical students that organized and hosted the “Medical Student/Physician Suicide Awareness Program.”

Shalabi will be starting his residency training in Obstetrics & Gynecology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, but he has some valuable wisdom he’d like to leave behind. “Success is not hindered by a lack of resources, but rather, determined by how you make use of the resource that ARE available to you.”