First All-Male Charter Sends Entire Class To College

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Chicago's only all-male charter school, Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men - Englewood Campus, is graduating its first class this year. Every member of the class has been accepted to a four-year university. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with the school's president and CEO Tim King and graduating senior Tyler Beck about how they did it.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Now we turn to news from a high school in Chicago that is making history. This year, the country's first all-male public charter high school, Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, is graduating its first class in its Englewood Campus, and they're defying the odds - 100 percent of the graduating seniors have been accepted to four-year universities. In Chicago, only about half of public high school grads go to college. We wanted to know how they did it.

I'm joined by Tim King, the founder and CEO of Urban Prep and also with us is graduating senior Tyler Beck. He's been accepted to Trinity College, a private liberal arts college in Hartford, Connecticut. They're joining us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Welcome gentlemen and congratulations.

Mr. TYLER BECK (Graduating Senior, Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men): Thank you so much.

Mr. TIM KING (Founder, CEO, Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men): Thank you very much.

KEYES: Tim, let me start with you. You founded the Urban Prep Academy four years ago. And from the beginning, you were sure you could get everybody to college. Why'd you think that?

Mr. KING: Yeah, it was for sure our vision from the very beginning to create a college prep school at Urban Prep that was going to not only prepare young men to make it through high school, but also prepare them to get in and through college. And we knew from the very beginning that it was possible regardless of what the data and the statistics say we knew it was possible to do this for these guys and we put together a program that would allow that to happen.

KEYES: Tim, what made you want to do this in the first place?

Mr. KING: There were a couple reasons. One, I was concerned that in Chicago there were very few high quality public education options available to families. And there was absolutely no public school option available to families that had an interest in an all boys school for their sons, so one reason was simply one of equity and social justice, just to give these families and opportunity to have a high quality education for their sons if that's what they wanted in an all boys environment.

The second reason was probably one that's near and dear to my heart and that is the statistics and data facing young black males in Chicago are just horrible.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING: I mean you mentioned one earlier regarding the dropout rate in Chicago. It's about 60 percent of black boys will drop out of high school in Chicago Public Schools and only 1 in 40 or 2.5 percent of African-American boys who start out in Chicago Public Schools will end up with a four-year college degree...

KEYES: Wow.

Mr. KING: ...by the time they're 25. So when you hear data points like that, you realize youve got to do something and I wanted to be all about creating a school that would help address the issue.

KEYES: Tyler, when did you first hear about Urban Prep and what made you say I have got to be at this particular school?

Mr. BECK: So I first heard about Urban Prep during eighth grade and my mom and I were looking for high schools for me to attend. And one day I'm looking through the mail and there's this flyer for Urban Prep and, you know, my first reaction was okay, I dont want to go to an all boys school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BECK: But we decided to go through the orientation and we definitely liked what we hear. I like to dress up in, you know, business - business casual, so the uniform was definitely one thing that attracted it to me, but also the love and the support that, you know, they told us that would be fostered at the school.

KEYES: Tyler, what was the admission process like? Was it hard?

Mr. BECK: It was nerve-racking because we had to put in our applications while we were there at the orientation and we just had to wait a few months later until, you know, they did the lottery process. And it was kind of difficult like waiting to see, did I get in? Did I get in? Where am I going to go to high school? But eventually when I got the phone call saying that I was admitted into Urban Prep I was excited.

Mr. KING: And its important for us to note here that Urban Prep is a non-selective school. And so Tyler referenced the lottery that he had to do and thats what every student has to do. You complete an application that's really just your name and contact information.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING: And then your name goes into a lottery and we randomly select the students. This past year we had about 600 applications for 125 spots in the school so its highly competitive. But its all done via lottery and its open enrollment so, you know, I think that these guys who managed to get in are pretty lucky but it really is kind of the luck of the draw.

KEYES: Tim, you were talking about the issues that black men face in Chicago and frankly, in some of our other cities. Tyler, what was it about this school, once you got there, were you able to use the backup they were giving you to kind of transcend some of that?

Mr. BECK: I've always used the backup and Mr. King can attest to that. I'm always emailing them or instant messaging them on Gchat, you know. And even with the teachers, they're always online or able to help us, you know, support us and not even with just schoolwork. If, you know, problems are going on at home or, you know, problems are going on with, you know, like girlfriend problems or something like that, you know, we were able to go to talk them because theyve been in our situation. Theyve been in our shoes.

KEYES: Youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Chicago's Urban Prep Academy where all 107 graduating seniors from the Englewood Campus have been accepted into four-year colleges. Our guests are graduating senior Tyler Beck and Tim King, the founder and CEO of Urban Prep.

Tim, I just need to ask you about the test scores at Urban Prep. I understand they're a little bit lower than average for black men in Chicago.

Mr. KING: Well, actually our test scores are higher than the average African-American male student in Chicago. They are lower than the overall district averages, but we are higher than the black males and higher than our neighborhood school. So we for sure are concerned about that and we're working really hard to bring those test scores up for our students. But it is important to point out, you know, obviously Tyler Beck notwithstanding, he's brilliant and came to us brilliant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: But only four percent of this class came to us reading at grade level. So as far as we're concerned the progress is what's most important and the fact that these guys have moved from, you know, being at a place where they were four percent reading at grade level to a point where they can score well enough on the ACT and succeed in other activities in order to gain admission to four-year colleges and universities, I think is telling and important.

KEYES: Tim, youve got a rather pretty tight ship there. Talk to me about the uniforms and the culture there.

Mr. KING: Well, you hit on a very important point. People ask all the time, how do we do it? And I always go back to the point of creating a positive school culture that is laser-focused on preparing our students to go to college. And a piece of creating that positive school culture - obviously, we want to create a supportive environment where the students feel like they are supported and they are being nurtured. We want to create a rigorous curriculum and a rigorous program.

But in addition to that, we need to create an environment in which students feel safe and they feel respected. And part of the way we do that is through our code of conduct and that embodies or includes our dress code policy, so all of our students wear a black Urban Prep blazer, khaki pants, white buttoned-down collar shirt and an Urban Prep school-issued tie. And you know, one of the great things about this time of year is for our seniors, once they're admitted to a four-year college, they get to trade in their standard issue red tie for a red and gold striped tie.

So it was great over the course of the last several months seeing all the seniors get their admission letters. We put the admission letters up on the wall and then we give the students, in front of all of their classmates and the whole school in fact, we give them their red and gold ties that they put on. And so its just awesome to see the guys running around the school with their red and gold ties on now.

KEYES: Tim, I'm glad you brought up the safety issue actually, because it's on the South Side. I grew up on the South Side, and let's be frank, South Side does not get great press. What else did you have to do to keep your students feel safe and focused besides the uniforms?

Mr. KING: Well, it is a challenge and frankly, an ongoing challenge and struggle for us. The community in which our first campus is located is in the Englewood community. It is a very tough community. There are many community organizations and families in that community that care deeply about the community and the families. But they're also some negative influences in that community. So we have a great deal of security that we actually employ both inside and outside the school in order to provide safe passage to our students.

We're real clear to our students about what they need to do in order to get to and from school safely, all the way down to you have to take this specific route to go from point A to point B.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KING: Just to help support that level of safety and security for our students.

KEYES: Tyler, youve been accepted at Trinity. I want to ask if you have a major in mind yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BECK: So, my major for Trinity College will be media broadcasting.

KEYES: Yay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: Right. We knew that you were going to be in trouble when you asked that question.

KEYES: Right.

Mr. KING: Pretty soon he's going to ask you for a job.

Mr. BECK: Pretty much.

KEYES: Oh look out. Look out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BECK: Pretty much. Pretty much. I've got the radio voice.

KEYES: But seriously, you know what? I want to backtrack half a second because Tim was talking about the safety and I'm a little tight on time. But Tyler, was there ever a time at school that you worried you weren't able to be able to succeed and come out to be a media star when you get out of college?

Mr. BECK: You know, there never was a time for me to ever even believe in that because like I said, there's always the love and support of our teachers and staff and administrators there, always, you know, giving us a pat on the back, or always, you know, seeing if there is something wrong. They're always checking our, you know, grades, making sure that we're still on top of our game, making sure that we're doing all that we need to do in order to be successful.

KEYES: Tim, actually I have one more question for both of you.

Mr. KING: Yeah.

KEYES: You did this - all of this in the Obama era. How much did the president's election affect the vibe of what you were trying to do? First Tim then Tyler.

Mr. KING: At the end of the day, what President Obama I think did, both when he was a United States senator as well as when he became president, was really give our students a roadmap or give young people around the country a roadmap. You had this role model, something that you could aspire to. But also, he taught them how to do.

Youre going to face obstacles along the way and roadblocks, but youve got to be resilient and youve got to figure out a way to get around them. And, in fact, Urban Prep students were dubbed the little Obamas. And so these guys have really, I think, embraced that. But Tyler can probably talk because I think he runs around with his little Obama hat on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Okay wait. And Tyler, I got to tell you, I've got 20 seconds so keep it short for me.

Mr. BECK: Okay. So most definitely, the whole experience, it was amazing. You know, they took us out to go see the inauguration and I felt that that was very powerful. So most definitely, that played a huge role in not the creation of Urban Prep, but definitely the cultivation of it.

KEYES: Tyler Beck is a graduating senior from Urban Prep Charter Academy in Chicago. We're also joined by Tim King, who is founder and CEO at the school. They joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Thank you both.

Mr. BECK: Thank you for having us.

Mr. KING: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: That's our program for today. Im Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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