Going for It: Rapid Reinvention

Urban Prep Academy: success model

This fall, all 107 members of the Class of 2010 at one of Chicago's most prestigious schools will enter four-year colleges and universities. Their school has been heralded as a successful model of education. The students have been feted as some of the best and brightest up and comers in this country, young leaders who are expected to achieve major success in life and in career fields from business to science.

Those predictions are far different from what most people expected of these students just four years ago when they entered high school. Back then, only four percent of them were reading at grade level. Most were failing in math and science. They were among the most educationally endangered of all American students--young black men. Some had lost friends or loved ones to drugs, violence and the other scourges that can negatively impact children growing up in big cities. Most were from families who were financially challenged and all lived in one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods.

The key to their success has been their hard work and determination not to be among the negative statistics and the teaching, nurturing and support of the faculty and staff of the Urban Prep Academy, a public charter school which as founded in 2006 to give young men who seemed to have little hope for success a path to achieve it. Urban Prep is Chicago's only all-boys public school.

Urban Prep Academy was founded by Georgetown University and law school graduate Tim King, who decided on a career in education while teaching history at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District. "I was in law school and George Murray, who had been a priest at Georgetown, called me and said he was the new president of Carroll, and he wanted me to teach a history class," said King, 42. "I taught the one class because I could fit it into my schedule. I absolutely fell in love with being in the classroom. I started as a full-time law school student and a part-time teacher and became a full-time teacher and part-time law school student."

King, who graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1993, taught at Carroll for four years before returning to his hometown of Chicago and taking a position with an exclusive private school. It wore on him that few of his students were African American. Chicago's schools tend to very segregated, he said.

"I would see these young black men on the street and I just kept thinking, 'There's got to be a way to offer a quality education to these young men,'" King said in a telephone interview. "I kept thinking money should not interfere with them getting a quality education."

The more King thought about it, the more determined he became. He formulated a business plan. He applied with Chicago public school officials to open a charter school. He sought investors. He hired quality educators--smart people, who, like him, were committed to proving that young black men were as capable of learning as anybody else.

In 2006, he opened the first Urban Prep Academy campus in one of Chicago's more troubled neighborhoods. Students were recruited via a flier that was sent to local residents offering them the opportunity to apply for admission in a lottery. One hundred and fifty young men were selected in the random lottery. Most were academically deficient. Most lived in homes where money was a problem. Each had seen first hand the devastation poverty, drugs, violence and hopelessness can visit on young black men.

And each decided that they wanted a way out and that Urban Prep Academy was the route they would take. "I knew I wanted to do something big with my life," said Tyler Beck 17, who has been accepted at a dozen colleges and universities. "When I first heard about Urban Prep, I was thinking, 'I don't want to go to an all-boys school.' But when I went to orientation, I saw that it was something that I had never seen before and I wanted to go there."

The first week of school, students were given watches and stern instructions not to be late. They were issued uniforms--black blazers, khaki pants, white shirts and ties in the success colors of crimson and red. They started school at 8:30 a.m. and did not finish academics until 4:30 p.m. Then it was time for tutoring and enrichment. They attended class on Saturday. Their parents were treated as partners.

The failing grades turned average and the average grades turned superior. They excelled in classes like Shakespearean literature and Latin. They began to formulate plans for the future and began to see a way out of their past.

They bought into the school's motto: "We believe."

Next: One of King's students journey to success and the one's he couldn't rescue.


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  March 23, 2010; 7:34 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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