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A group of high school students stand at left. Adults are seated nearby in an auditorium.

“At Urban Prep, I learned how to mix high expectations, structure, and warmth,” writes Lori Coughran, who taught at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus from 2012 to 2014. Above, Urban Prep West students and supporters listen to testimony at the Illinois State Charter Commission in March 2019.

Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat

I taught at Urban Prep in better times. The latest news is devastating.

The charter network has long positioned itself as a direct path to college. Now, amid serious allegations involving its founder, Urban Prep’s future remains unclear.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

It was never perfect. But when I taught at Urban Prep, it was good. Really good.

Amid an epidemic of gun violence, the life of an adolescent, African American male living on the South or West side of Chicago is too often over before it begins. That’s why, during its heyday, Urban Prep — a network of all-male charter schools, frequently praised for its rates of college acceptance — was a coveted destination for young men determined to emerge alive, intact, and with a chance to succeed alongside their more affluent peers. 

Headshot of a woman with short gray hair. She is wearing a green tank top and white sunglasses.

Lori Coughran

Courtesy photo

During a time of charter sector expansion, Urban Prep, which ultimately grew to three campuses, positioned itself as a direct path to college. The network has long served many Chicago students who live in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence and gang activity. Parents who entered their son’s name into the annual admissions lottery expected that Urban Prep would make good on the promise of something better. At first, it did.

I taught a variety of subjects, mostly English, at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus from 2012 to 2014, when many of the school’s founding teachers were still in the building. Back then, there was money for college trips, and it felt like everything founder Tim King touched turned to gold. He led the organization through a period of growth and mammoth fundraising, and he was profiled and honored frequently for his efforts to improve educational outcomes for Black boys.

But now, two decades after Urban Prep was founded, its future remains unclear. That’s because King, who was once named a People magazine “Hero of the Year,” has been forced out amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving an Urban Prep student; a Chicago Public Schools inspector general reportedly substantiated that claim, which King has denied and vowed to fight. 

This latest and most serious allegation follows years of financial troubles and declining enrollment at the charter network.

During my time there, though, Urban Prep was a community, a carefully planned and near flawlessly executed vision of fellowship, camaraderie, and mentorship. Nothing exemplified this better than during the daily celebration we called Community. Held in the school gym and led by the building’s principals, Community was a time to celebrate students for their acts of service and character, their academic prowess, and their college acceptances. As names were called out, students applauded each other, shook hands, and clapped each other on the back; staff did the same. The meeting concluded, five minutes before first period, with everyone in attendance reciting the Urban Prep creed, beginning and ending with the same maxim: the simple yet powerful: We Believe. 

During a time of charter sector expansion, Urban Prep positioned itself as a direct path to college.

At Urban Prep, I learned how to mix high expectations, structure, and warmth. I learned about the power of giving students myriad opportunities for self-correction. And while not every student, or staff member, had a positive experience — we all quaked in anticipation of winter break, for example, because the network was fond of issuing layoff notices just before the holidays — I will always be grateful for my time there.

More recently, multiple factors converged to depress Urban Prep’s and King’s standing even before these most serious allegations. King presided over the organization as its reputation suffered amid accusations of financial mismanagement and public battles over teacher unionization efforts. Critics, meanwhile, have questioned whether the school’s perceived success is more public relations than substance. They’ve pointed out that although 100% of its students get accepted to college, not all of them end up enrolling, and even fewer persist. 

The current allegations against King are very serious and should be thoroughly investigated. If proven, these allegations will forever stain his name; even if he is ultimately exonerated, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Urban Prep survives in its current incarnation. And it’s equally hard to imagine how the network’s current students will process this devastating news once school resumes in a few short days; even unproven allegations, as these are thus far, can damage a school’s reputation and a student’s sense of safety in the building.

Common sense would seem to demand transparency from the administration: an official statement that inappropriate interactions with students are unacceptable, say, and clear guidance on how to report concerning behavior. Right now, Urban Prep needs to protect the well-being of its students, not to mention its legacy and quite possibly its future, by unequivocally standing with its students in light of the recent allegations. 

Ultimately, it hurts to see a concept with such passion, purpose, and noble intentions unravel. Because while Urban Prep was never perfect, I can tell you from experience that it was real. There’s no taking that away.

Lori Coughran is a writer in the Chicago area.