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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.

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"Every single adult in the building – from the director of finance that handles payroll to the CEO to all the teachers – has a very clear understanding that our mission is to get students to college," says Kenneth Hutchinson, the school's director of college counseling.

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"We start in the freshman year," adds Mr. Hutchinson, who grew up in Englewood. "It's not about helping them fill out applications; it's about building strong applicants."

Senior Milan Birdwell says he always knew he wanted to go to college, but he had no idea how he would get there. When he transferred to Urban Prep as a sophomore, he had a grade-point average of 1.6. Since then, he has raised it to 3.04 and posted a respectable score of 21 (out of a possible 36) on the ACT. "It's like someone opened a door, and behind that door is a future," he says.

Milan has been accepted to five colleges and is waiting to hear from the University of Rochester in New York – his top choice.

The success that Urban Prep has seen so far can be replicated, King believes. Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University who has been researching single-sex black schools, concurs.

"What this school shows is that under the right conditions, black males can thrive. They can be very successful," Professor Noguera says. The key to its success isn't that it's all-male, he adds. It's "the attention they pay to teaching."

Urban Prep is already expanding. Last year, it opened a campus in East Garfield Park – an African-American neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. This fall, it will open a third campus in the South Shore neighborhood.

Still, certain aspects could be tough to replicate on a large scale. Like most charter schools, Urban Prep raises a sizable amount of its budget (about 20 percent) privately. It operates outside union rules and requires an enormous time commitment from its teachers.

Teaching there is incredibly rewarding, says Eric Smith, the head of the English department, but isn't for everyone. "There is an emotional cost," he says. "We're now surrogate [family] to almost 500 young men. It's hard finding a balance."

Despite the school's success, some challenges remain. While test scores have improved considerably – Urban Prep ranked third out of Chicago's 98 high schools for growth, according to one model – King would like them to improve more. The average ACT score is about 17 – higher than the district average for African-American boys, but lower than he'd like.

Most important, King says: College graduation, not admission, is the goal. The school is doing what it can to prepare students for the leap they'll make when they move to a college campus. For one thing, most students participate in at least one summer college program. Also, counselors will be assigned to all graduates to help them over the next few years.

"It will be very hard for them, which is why we want to have this support piece in place so students don't give up," says King.

The 100 percent acceptance "is a big deal," he adds. "But we don't consider it a completion of our mission. We consider it a milestone.... We're supposed to make sure that they finish college."

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