When I joined Urban Prep Academies in 2006 as the founding math teacher at what was to become the nation’s first all-boys public charter high school, the school’s faculty and staff had one central goal.
We were on a mission to get black boys from Englewood – a racially segregated and economically distressed neighborhood in Chicago, and a community described in the media as one of the city’s most dangerous – to and through college.
Each spring, Urban Prep Academies boasts that 100% of seniors graduating from each of its three campuses gains admission to a four-year college or university. But if you look beneath the 100% college acceptance claim – which sometimes gets misinterpreted as 100% actually going to college – you may find results that raise serious questions about the quality of education at the school.
College acceptance versus college readiness
For starters, the reality is only 12.8% of Urban Prep students at the West campus met Illinois’ college readiness benchmarks. Further, only about two-thirds of the class of 2017 at Urban Prep’s West campus actually enrolled in college. A little less than 44% of the school’s 2016 graduates were persisting in college based on the latest report.
In a statement to The Conversation, school officials maintained that a major reason its graduates don’t persist in college is due to lack of money.
“The number one reason we are given as why Urban Prep graduates choose not to continue pursuing their degree is a lack of financial resources and proper supports at the colleges they attend,” Dennis Lacewell, chief academic officer at Urban Prep Academies, wrote in an e-mail to The Conversation. “This is consistent with national data related to first-generation and black male students going to college.”
However, in my own and other higher education scholarship, lack of money is sometimes related to students’ lack of academic preparation for college. For instance, at least two young men who participated in my study of Urban Prep’s graduates revealed that they lost an academic scholarship because of low GPAs.
West campus recommended for closure
The future of one of the school’s campuses – Urban Prep West – became imperiled in December 2018 when officials at Chicago Public Schools recommended shutting it down. That decision was later overturned by the Illinois State Charter School Commission.
When the school was in danger of closing, “some students stated” that they “didn’t care” if the school closed down or that it was “good” that it was closing.
One student spoke about how the “teachers put on a show” for parents, but treat students badly “behind closed doors.”
Reflections from Urban Prep graduates
Urban Prep graduates expressed similar sentiments when sociologist Derrick Brooms and I originally set out to conduct the research that led to my book – “Urban Preparation: Young Black Men from Chicago’s South Side to Success in Higher Education.” Our aim was to describe how students at Urban Prep saw the school in terms of helping them complete college.
Two of the young men shared how they felt like “commodities” and “caged in” at Urban Prep. Another young man revealed that “there was more time being put into the look of the school than the actual students.”
These young men admitted they did not want to let the school’s supporters down. They said they did whatever was asked of them to gain admission to college, which they knew would reflect well on the school. The young men’s comments point to pressure they felt to “look” the part of being college-ready, despite feeling as if they may not have initially had the necessary academic tools to succeed in college.
Several of the young men reported that they rarely felt academically “challenged” during their four years at the high school. Those who got to take an Advanced Placement course tended to agree these courses made them feel most prepared for college. Still, these young men’s broader reflections on their academic preparation, transition to college, as well as data from the Illinois Report Card, reveal that Urban Prep may have invested more in a portrait of academic success than they did in providing high quality educational experiences.
New lease on life
These criticisms aside, for other students and officials at Urban Prep, the March decision to allow the school to stay open is – as founder and CEO Tim King stated in a recent letter to supporters – a “major triumph.”
Publicly available data show that the school’s SAT scores and other indicators of college and career readiness remain a troubling reality. For instance, Urban Prep West students averaged scores in the 31st percentile on the SAT, which is considered “pretty low.”
Lacewell, the chief academic officer at Urban Prep, told The Conversation that Urban Prep students “outperform their peer groups on myriad metrics including high school graduation rates, daily attendance rates, standardized test growth.” Technically, that is true.
However, not everyone is convinced that Urban Prep West deserves to stay open.
“The school is not set up to be successful, and we are potentially just delaying a school closure because they’re not going to be able to do the turnaround that needs to happen,” Bill Farmer, one of two members of the Illinois State Charter School Commission who voted against keeping the school open, stated at a hearing in March. “There needs to be a bigger systemic approach to infuse areas with the appropriate resources they need.”
Race at the center: Looking beyond 100% college acceptance
Much of what the public knows about Urban Prep is based on images of clean cut young black men doning black blazers, button-down shirts and red ties, sporting the baseball cap of the college they intend to enroll. But that is where the cameras stop rolling. And this is precisely where the public must continue to ask probing questions such as: Do they enroll college, do they persist and do they complete? And most importantly, do these young black men feel prepared to pursue their own dreams despite being confronted by “antiblack racism?”
Boasting about 100% college acceptance rates claiming to “change the narrative” about young black men and boys does very little to answer these questions.