Many of you have been sending me stories about the incredible success of Urban Prep Academies in Chicago. (The Web site is worth a visit.) The charter high school is sending all 107 of its first class of graduating seniors to four-year colleges.
Many people argue that it’s Pollyanna-ish to maintain that expectations can overcome the grim realities of these inner city teens’ lives and the deficiencies of their early education. Clearly, it is not simply the expectation that these students will go to the college that matters, but the day-to-day effort by teachers and administrators to make it happen.
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.
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.”
Ok, here’s the million dollar question. If they can do it at Urban Prep, why can’t it be done everywhere? Why can’t we do it in Georgia?