This month, for the fourth year in a row, all 167 seniors at the all-Black, all-male Chicago charter school, Urban Prep graduated and are going on to college. EBONY.com caught up with the schools's CEO and founder, Tim King to discuss how his vision of producing excellent Black male scholars almost didn’t come to be.
EBONY: What was the moment in your life where you knew that you needed to bring this vision of a free, all-Black, all-male school in Chicago to fruition?
Tim King: I can’t say that there was one moment in my life which changed the direction of my life, or made me realize that this is what I had to do. There was no one epiphany. Certainly, I didn’t set out to be involved in education. I went to law school and happened upon education quite accidentally.
There were many moments along the way where I was resistant to this notion of being in education, but clearly it was calling me. And clearly this mission to try to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for Black males was constantly present, and I’m happy that I listened every step of the way and stopped being resistant to it, because the result is Urban Prep and these young men who we currently serve and who have graduated from our schools.
EBONY: What were the reasons you were so resistant to answering this call?
TK: Probably the biggest one was, it just wasn’t part of the plan. My plan was to go to college, go to law school, and then put my law degree to use either through being a lawyer, or working for someone in some capacity where I’d be utilizing my legal education. I certainly never expected that I would be an educator; I didn’t expect that I’d start some school. I had spent my entire life with one idea of what I was going to be doing with my life, and this was a different path that hadn’t occurred to me. But ultimately, I got the message. A good plan is often one that you change.
EBONY: Do you see any parallels between your life and the life of the students you’re working with now? Having this idea of what your life is supposed to be, and where you’re going to go, and having people tell you where you should be?
TK: I’ve never been asked that question, but it’s a wonderful question. Yes, as a Black man, there are similarities between the way I experience the world, and the way society reacts and responds to me and the way society reacts and responds to the young Black men that are our students. But that’s where the parallels end. My experience growing up was so different than the experience that these students have. I think it is grossly unfair that we live in a society in which, because I happen to be born in my family, I get all of these benefits of private education and great schools, a great home, great neighborhood, great opportunities during the summer.
One of the things we hope we can do at Urban Prep is broaden the level of experience of these students so they can grow up to be leaders. They can grow up to be positive contributors to society. They can grow up believing that they’re valued and worthwhile so they see value in others, and are willing and ready to work really hard to make changes in our society more broadly.
EBONY: So now that you’re in your fourth year of getting 100 percent of the students enrolled in college, do you know if all of your first class are still on track to graduate from college in the next year or so?
TK: We have three full-time team members who are devoted exclusively to tracking our alumni and supporting our alumni in college. The number of students that we have enrolled in college is about 83 percent, which is twice the national average for African American males in terms of college persistence. So we are very confident that what we’re going to see is a large number of our alumni graduating from college next year, and in years beyond.
We’re basically giving them six years to get their bachelor’s degree because there was a study done by the University of Chicago which found that only 2.5 percent of African American males in Chicago public schools will end up earning a four-year college degree by the time they’re 25. So we’ll have a big chunk of them finishing up next year, and then we'll have a smaller chunk who will finish in the following year, and then more that will finish the next year.
EBONY: In Delhi, recently, there was a parade of men standing up against rape culture and that was a very powerful image. We had an article on EBONY.com recently about the absence of Black men from that conversation here in America. Is that anything that you are considering teaching about in the future in order to help build successful Black communities across the country?
TK: It is not a part of the curriculum to teach students how to treat and interact with women. What is a part of our curriculum is an eight-pronged approach to what it means to be a good person. That’s based on the eight core values of Urban Prep. We educate them about how to engage with all people, including women and folks of different races, by teaching them how to live their lives well, how to be real positive contributors to their society. So that's the way we get to that. There’s no lesson, “Today we’re going to learn how to treat a Black woman,” but there is a lesson on, “Today we’re going to talk about what it means to be respectful, what it means to be selfless. Today we’re going to talk about what it means to possess integrity.” And so, through those lessons, we hope what we’re doing is creating very strong, positive, young Black men.
There’s also really strong anti-violence school culture that is based on respect, and responsibility, and relationships, and rituals. So on a daily basis, they are reminded of their responsibility to live in a non-violent way, and also to be respectful of folks.
EBONY: You’re building these men who are doing well in school, but if they’re wearing a hoodie while they’re walking home they could be victimized. Particularly in Chicago, with the violence against young Black men being such a threat, is that something you all openly talk about?
TK: Oh, yeah. It’s not just that the violence is kind of an academic thing, like, “Oh, let’s sit down and analyze what happened with Trayvon.” It’s real, and happening to our students! We’ve had this year – this year alone, since January – we’ve had three Urban Prep students shot, one fatally, and we’ve had two Urban Prep parents shot and killed. So the violence is very real for our families.
So yes, we have very open conversations about what’s happening in our communities, what it is we can do, and what our students feel like they can do as members of these communities, what it means to be in a gang in the city of Chicago and how you can get out of that life if you're in that life or how to avoid that life… We’ve got folks who are trained in grief counseling to work with our students who lose family members or friends to violence. We teach them what it is they need to do in order to stay safe, and we let them know that we are there to help them if they ever need help.
EBONY: So as far as the future of Urban Prep, do you see these Chicago elementary school closings as an opportunity for you to come in and start this bottled up, signed, sealed, delivered method of teaching students to a younger group of people?
TK: We definitely would like to expand our program to the elementary school level. We would like 6-12 or 7-12 schools. So I expect that in the future, we will see Urban Prep creeping down into the elementary school level, starting with a 7th and 8th grade program, and then ultimately be K-12 schools.
We’re pursuing expansion presently in a suburban community outside of Chicago, a heavily African American community. There’s strong demand and interest in our program, so we’re looking to open a school out there. If we’re approved, that school would be 7-12, so we would start with younger students at that point and perhaps go down to the elementary school level. And we’re looking at places outside of Illinois, too. I expect that in the next few years, we will see Urban Prep campuses all over the country.