Inner-city Chicago charter school has perfect college acceptance rate
College acceptance: At Chicago's Urban Prep charter school, all male and all black, every member of the first graduating class got into a four-year college.
In Chicago, the graduation rate for African-American boys is about 40 percent, and only about half of all students are accepted to some form of college. The chances of young black men going to college – particularly young men from the poorest neighborhoods – are not good.Skip to next paragraph
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But the Urban Prep charter school, located in the city's tough Englewood neighborhood, has produced a very different statistic. In March, this school, which is made up of young African-American men, announced that all 107 boys in its first graduating class have been accepted to a four-year college. Just 4 percent of those seniors were reading at grade level as freshmen.
It's a remarkable achievement for any urban high school, but particularly one with a population that some people are inclined to write off. It has educators examining what aspects of the school are responsible – and how replicable they are.
Some elements are easy to quantify: an extended school day that means students have an additional 72,000 minutes in school each year, a double period of English, and required extracurriculars and public service.
But many more elements seem embedded into a culture that is based on four R's, as founder and CEO Tim King describes it: ritual, respect, responsibility, and relationships.
"I say we give [the students] shields and swords," Mr. King says. "The swords are hopefully this great education. They know how to read and write and add.... Equally important, and perhaps more important, are these shields: resiliency, self-confidence, self-awareness.... Hopefully we have instilled these things, really woven them throughout the curriculum."
Even small things help, says King: For instance, the students are addressed formally, using their last name, and they wear coats and ties. (The young men swap their red ties for red-and-gold-striped ones when they're accepted to college.)
The school of about 450 students is in a neighborhood where violence is pervasive, and many students have to cross gang territory every day. It's thus crucial for the school to offer an oasis of relative calm.
"For us, it's not just about teaching new vocabulary words. We really do have to understand what is going on with this student outside school," King says. That means faculty members develop close relationships with students and are available by phone on evenings and weekends. Often, they provide help on issues that seem to have nothing to do with school: homelessness, family tensions, or money problems.
When his mother died this year, Cameron Barnes came to school the next day. "It was like family to me," says the senior, who plans to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since her death, Cameron has been largely responsible for his household and is the only one who can drive. But he hasn't lost his focus on college.
"I don't want to be on the street," he says.
Cameron was inspired by an older cousin who graduated from college. But for many students here, the teachers and members of the administration are the first positive male role models they've had – and the first college graduates they've seen. The faculty and administration are weighted heavily black and male.
The No. 1 criterion in hiring is that teachers believe in the mission, says King, who notes that some of the most successful teachers have not been black men. But having those role models is important, he adds. "None of us are particularly shy about sharing with students our life stories," he says.
The most notable aspect of Urban Prep's culture is its focus on college, an emphasis that infuses every aspect of the school – from an achievement-oriented creed that students recite daily to the framed acceptance letters that decorate the walls.