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Chicago school board moves to take over once-lauded charter serving Black boys

Students in uniform stand in an auditorium at a charter school in Englewood.

Urban Prep Charter Academy students attend school leaders’ press conference Tuesday afternoon in Englewood, where they called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to halt a plan for the district to take over two of the school’s campuses.

Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat

Chicago’s school board moved Wednesday to take over two South Side charter campuses that specialize in serving Black boys — an unprecedented step to pull the school’s charter but preserve an academic model officials acknowledged has delivered for many students.  

School board members voted unanimously to revoke the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men’s charter. They forcefully rejected the school’s arguments for more time to prove they are on the right track, and voicing dismay at the school’s response to a sexual misconduct investigation involving the school’s founder. 

Urban Prep leaders pushed back forcefully, calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to halt the district’s plan to take over its two campuses. 

Urban Prep, which once received national recognition for steering its students to graduation and college admissions, has come under intense district scrutiny in recent years. Its founder, Tim King, resigned his positions as CEO and board chair this summer after a district watchdog report substantiated allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a former student — allegations King has strongly denied.  

The district has also rung alarms about the school’s financial management, which is the focus of an ongoing district inspector general investigation, as well as its services for students with disabilities and the number of licensed teachers it employs. 

In a Tuesday news conference on the Englewood campus and during Wednesday’s board meeting, the school’s leaders and supporters decried the district’s own track record of serving Black male students and said the school, run largely by Black men, has delivered better outcomes. They said Urban Prep has gotten its finances in order more recently, and accused the district of using the allegations against King to launch a takeover of the school.

But school board officials were unmoved.

“It’s an egregious report, and it should make everybody upset,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, referring to the investigation’s findings about King. “It’s shameful to me that the Urban Prep board had this information and did not act swiftly.”  

However, district officials said Urban Prep has forged a strong academic model and a supportive environment for Black boys, who in Chicago and nationally have long faced the widest academic disparities. In an unusual move, district CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday the two campuses, which have a combined enrollment of about 370 students, will remain open under district management — either as free-standing schools or as programs of existing high schools. It plans to keep teachers and staff at the school.

“We want to make sure high-quality programs continue for children in Bronzeville and Englewood — it’s essential,” Martinez said. But, he added, “We cannot compromise. We need ethical behavior, and we need to make sure we are protecting our children.”

The school can appeal the district’s decision to the Illinois State Board of Education. The state took over a third Urban Prep campus in 2018 after the school board revoked its charter.

Tensions between school, CPS boil over

The inspector general’s report alleged King groomed and sexually touched a student who was 16 at the time. According to the report, the relationship continued after the student graduated, and he eventually came to work at Urban Prep; the report also says he continued to receive pay and benefits long after he stopped working there.  

The district said the school’s handling of the investigation was troubling because it allowed King — who was featured on a 2010 People Magazine cover as “hero of the year” —  to continue interacting with students after the inquiry substantiated the allegations.

Urban Prep also refused to email families about the investigation’s findings, and appointed King to two boards after he resigned, according to board documents. 

Meanwhile, an ongoing district watchdog investigation is taking a closer look at the school’s finances. The district says that for years the school relied on district cash advances and high-interest loans to make payroll, racking up more than half a million dollars in finance charges in the process. 

Yet Urban Prep still defaulted on paying salaries, leases, and vendors providing services for students with disabilities. The school  was able to use a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan during the pandemic to balance its books, but a separate inspector general investigation found it inflated the number of employees on the loan application. 

During public comment at the school board meeting and during a Tuesday press conference, Urban Prep officials and supporters decried the plan to revoke the school’s charter. They argued that district leaders can’t come in and replicate the charter’s climate and culture, which is steeped in the sense of identity and backgrounds of its leaders. 

They touted the school’s outcomes, from its attendance rate to the 100% college acceptance rate that the charter has long made a cornerstone of its model. 

(The rate of College Prep students who actually enroll in college within a year of graduation has plunged in recent years to 48% on the Bronzeville campus and 63% on the Englewood campus, according to state data.) 

Troy Boyd, the chief operating officer, asked the board to at least delay the vote on revoking the school’s charter, insisting the school has done everything the district asked of it, and that its financial problems are a thing of the past. He called Wednesday’s vote “tragic.”

“The non-renewal of Urban Prep would mean the end of something that has been transformational for the city,” he said. “We won’t stop fighting.”

At the meeting, a string of students, dressed in the school’s uniform of navy blazers, red ties, and khakis, spoke about the impact the school has had on them, which many credited to the Urban Prep’s leadership and educator team of largely Black men.

Avery Barnes, a sophomore at the Bronzeville campus, said at the school he came to see his value as a Black male, built close relationships with educators, and went on several college visits as an underclassman. 

“I feel like Urban Prep has already started the process of preparing me for adulthood,” he said, adding that, “Urban Prep Academies needs to be renewed simply because they make young Black males feel accepted and seen in a society where we are often predicted to go to jail or end up in an early grave.”

Kevin Scott, a senior at the Bronzeville campus, said the school gives students positive role models who look like them in the classroom and principal’s office. Unlike district-run schools, it remained open for in-person instruction throughout the 2020-21 school year, Scott, a National Honors Society member, pointed out. 

“Urban Prep is more than just a school,” he said. “It’s been like a family, a safe place, a hangout and so much more.”

Men dressed in suits and a woman stand by a lectern in front of banners.

Urban Prep Charter Academy leaders and parents hold a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Englewood.

Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat

Inside Urban College Prep Englewood Tuesday afternoon, Dennis Lacewell, chief academic officer at the charter school, said the charter has made progress in rectifying past financial problems, and said Urban Prep officials had completed more financial reporting than at any CPS schools. 

Leaders dismissed the district’s claim that the school has compromised its students’ safety. He also argued that the district has been unfairly attacking Urban Prep for some time by revoking the license for its downtown campus in 2018, and disparaging the charter to potential financial lenders. 

“Despite CPS’ lack of success and commitment to Black male students, they have the audacity to think they can be successful taking over Urban Prep and turning it into a program of another CPS high school,” Lacewell added. “It is both ludicrous and infuriating.”

But school board members and district officials said they could not allow the charter’s current leadership to continue on. The board has granted the school a series of short-term extensions of its charter amid mounting concerns, in part because of its reluctance to cause any disruption to students at the height of the pandemic, members said.

“At this point, unfortunately, all doubt has been removed that the leaders of the organization do not have students’ best interests at heart,” board Vice President Sendhil Revuluri said.

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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