For Young Black Men in Chicago, a Charter School Helps Them Defy the Odds
Mention the South Side of Chicago and images of a crime-infested ghetto leap to mind for many people.
For black teenagers, life becomes a vicious cycle that most can’t shake.
Close to 60 percent of young black men in Chicago do not graduate from high school. Only 6 percent of black males in the ninth grade will earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 25. And nearly half of black males between the ages of 20 and 24 are both unemployed and out of school, according to a 2016 report by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Murders are up about 72 percent year-over-year for the first quarter of 2016, according to Chicago Police Department data. Shootings have risen more than 88 percent.
Kevin A. McKee, 18, said he has lived on the south, the east, and the west sides of Chicago, and “the violence is similar. People get beat, shot, and jumped.”
McKee said he avoided trouble because, “I was taught to go from point A to point B.”
He lived with his father and brother for a long time.
“Growing up, I dealt with a lot,” McKee said. “My dad would go to work and I was stuck with my younger brother. At 11 or 12 years old, being responsible for another kid, that was stressful.”
He said he and his family didn’t have a stable home. “We shared with different people, we were always moving … I never really had nice things.”
The responsibilities he had to shoulder, and the sheer lack of money, took a toll on McKee’s academics. “I was not an A or B student. I was a C and F student,” he said.
McKee was heading down the same road as 60 percent of the young black men in his city. He was afraid for his future and could barely imagine finishing high school, let alone the prospect of college.
His life took an unexpected turn when a speaker came to his elementary school, Wells Preparatory. The speaker was dressed professionally, wearing a shirt, tie, and blazer—it was Urban Prep Academy’s school uniform. McKee was infatuated and knew immediately that he wanted to go to Urban Prep.
And he did.
It was a “dream come true” for him. McKee was accepted to the Bronzeville Campus and ended his freshman year with a 3.8 GPA.
“I felt accomplished,” he said. “I felt part of a community. I was around my brothers, people who looked like me.”
Urban Prep Academies
Urban Prep is a nonprofit organization that operates a network of all-boys, all-black public schools—including the country’s first charter public high school for boys, said founder, president, and CEO Tim King.
King launched the first school in 2006 and now operates three campuses in Chicago.
He said the students come from economically disadvantaged households and are usually behind in many subjects.
Urban Prep’s most stunning statistic is not that 95 percent of the students apply for college—but that, since the school opened its doors in 2006, 100 percent have been accepted.
The teens are surrounded by positive role models and people that push them to achieve their highest potential. “It’s tough to be what you don’t see. So it’s important that young people seek out positive role models and examples of excellence,” King said.
“Students wear a uniform shirt, tie, and blazer each school day, and we use surnames when referring to our young men. In our buildings, students are Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones, or Mr. Davis, not Paul, Rob, or Chris,” King said.
Every morning the students recite the Urban Prep Creed, a powerful reminder of the school’s motto: “We Believe.”
“It is a statement of what we want our students to believe—an articulation of our core values or resilience, relentlessness, integrity, solidarity, exceptionality, selflessness, accountability, and faith,” King said. “Words have power. By saying the creed daily, our students embody the ideals it represents.”
McKee said reciting the creed every day helped keep the Urban Prep values at the forefront and carry him through.
“It makes me feel we can make a difference at this school, turn our dreams into reality,” he said.
His dreams are now definitely reality—McKee will attend Seattle Pacific University in the fall.
“We are more than killers, guys who stand on the corner with their pants sagging, we are more,” McKee said. “I am the first in my family going to college.”
Said King, “The cycle is broken one person at a time.”