When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Tim King and hear him speak.
King is the founder of Urban Prep, a group of three high schools serving young black men in some of the poorest sections of Chicago. He started his first high school, after two rejections from Chicago public schools, as a contract school in 2006. Later Urban Prep was made a public charter school. The second and third Urban Preps followed later. Total enrollment is now 1,400.
Urban Prep's sole goal is to prepare young African American men for college. So far, 100 percent of
its graduates have been admitted to four-year colleges, which is noteworthy given where its students start. All students are admitted by lottery. Freshmen typically arrive several years behind their grade level; most are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (a measure of poverty in school districts); most come from single-parent homes.
After eight years in Chicago public schools, some Urban Prep students can't catch up or don't buy the program; some drop out. The first year's class enrolled 166 freshmen and graduated 107. There is much respect and support from teachers and fellow students at the school, but the work is hard.
Still, 100 percent of those who stick it out go to four-year colleges. In the rest of Chicago, almost 60 percent of African American male students drop out of high school. Only one in 40 finishes college, and a growing number of these are Urban Prep graduates.
What King and his team have accomplished is remarkable, but what surprises me is that anyone would think it is some kind of new idea.
The Urban Prep Program
The school year begins with a convocation ceremony during which freshman students are given
blazers with the school crest on the breast pocket. Students wear khakis, blazers, shirts and
red ties to school each day.
Each school day begins with "Community," at which accomplishments are recognized,
announcements are made and the school creed, a series of statements in which the students
commit themselves to hard work and persistence through adversity, is recited.
The school day runs longer than the Chicago average, ending at 4 p.m.
Students and teachers address each other with their titles and surnames: Mr. Young, Mr. Jones.
All are expected to treat each other with respect.
Each year's class is divided into groups of 25 students who are guided by a Fellow, a recent
college graduate who has demonstrated an interest in the success of young black men. The
Fellows keep tabs on individual students and their progress. They tutor during the school day,
share lunch with students, stick around late for after-school activities and are in contact with
parents. (There are many applicants for each Fellow position.)
When Urban Prep students are admitted to colleges, they trade their red ties for red and gold
The school year ends with a tropaia (trophy) ceremony in which the highest achieving group
receives the school's Pride Award. (The school emblem is a lion.)
Why It Works
If you have sent a son to Boy Scouts or Little League or a traditional summer camp, you will get this instantly.
Boys want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want affiliation with other boys they respect. They deeply crave guidance and recognition from honorable men.
I looked around the internet for reports about Urban Prep, and one interested me. It came as the school year was starting in 2011. At a school meeting, parents reported that members of a local gang were harrassing students, injuring some. One mother reported that she was spending $60 a week on cabs to take her son to school and bring him home.
What Urban Prep offers is entry to something better than a street gang. It can be a threat to street gangs. It puts the incentives in the right places.
Tim King, the founder of Urban Prep, is a great speaker. If you get a chance to hear him talk, by all means go.
King announced recently that he plans to take his concept to at least one school outside Illinois next year. If I were running an inner-city school district, I'd give him a call.