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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
College acceptance: All 107 members of the Urban Prep charter school's first graduating class got into a four-year college this year.

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.

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.

"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.

"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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