Can Tim King’s Urban Prep Academy provide us a blueprint to a better Chicago Public Schools?

Can Tim King’s Urban Prep Academy provide us a blueprint to a better Chicago Public Schools?

"It’s tough to be what you don’t see."

These are the words of Tim King, the CEO and Founder of Urban Prep Academies.

We are all familiar with many of the woes Chicago Public School children have. Roughly 50% of Chicago Public School kids graduate high school. A 2006 University of Chicago study found that only one in 40 African-American boys in CPS eventually graduate a four year college.

Then came Urban Prep Academy for Young men in Englewood. Founded in 2006 by Tim King, the former President of Hales Franciscan High School, Mr. King said he "wanted to create a school that was going to put black boys in a different place, and in my mind that place needed to be college."

With a lot of hard work from his first two graduating classes, Mr. King was able to put his students in that different place. In 2010, 107 of his graduating class of 107 went on to four year colleges and universities. Yesterday, Urban Prep announced that everyone in its graduating class of 2011 were accepted into a four year college or university. All 104 students. Two years, 211 students. 211 opportunities at a better life. 211 foundations for life built by Urban Prep.

"It’s tough to be what you don’t see."

During a talk on education last Saturday, these words had a powerful effect on me. I was transported back thirty years, thinking about how I wanted to emulate my father when I was growing up. I had the fortune of having young parents. When I graduated high school, my mother just turned 41 and my father was still, for a few more weeks at least, 39 (whereas my son isn’t quite three and I’m 38). Their youth was my good fortune, because I was able to see them work hard through their twenties and thirties and see and appreciate the rewards of their hard work.

Like many households (as I later learned), my mother owned the closet in the master bedroom. My father’s shirts and suits were kept in the closet in my room. Seeing him come into my room every morning to put on a suit and leave to catch a train downtown had a more powerful effect on me than anything I was ever told. I didn’t realize the power of his routine, until I was walking around downtown in a suit, thinking about my father.

In Chicago, only 2.5% of black male CPS students graduate from a four year college. A college degree is becoming a prerequisite for entrance into the middle class– and given today’s economy, the degree doesn’t guarantee it. In Chicago, over 97 of 100 black male public school students will not get the education necessary to enter the middle class.

"It’s tough to be what you don’t see."

As Mr. King was speaking, I had a tough time keeping from welling up– and the person weeping next to me didn’t help. I thought about my blessings– about having an example. I thought about his mission to give these children an opportunity. And how he is physically out there using his blood, sweat and tears to make the lives of these children better. By creating an environment where students will– through ritual– find themselves in college.

For four years every morning these students recite their creed that they are dedicated, committed and focused and, most importantly, that they are college bound. And thus far, with his recipe of respect (by giving the students respect, they will respect others and more importantly respect themselves), responsibilities, rituals (the students all wear red ties in school, until a student is accepted to a four year college, then the student graduates to a red and gold tie, which is ceremoniously presented and tied for the first time, in front of the entire school during morning assembly– think about seeing that freshman year and striving to reach that goal) and relationships. Urban Prep successfully creates a culture and environment where kids embody success and then have no choice but to embrace it and eventually attain it.

By seeing success around them, the kids personify it.

The most powerful moments of the afternoon came when Mr. King showed an unscripted video of his students answering the question, "What do you like about Urban Prep?" The young woman next to me openly cried as the kids spoke of their focus, their drive, their determination. Their love for Urban Prep and their love for each other.

Given the state of the Chicago Public Schools, it is normal to just want to throw our hands up and give up, frustrated by the depth of the problems and lack of solutions. Then you meet a student of Urban Prep and remember what’s at stake.

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