Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy – known for 100% college acceptance rates – put reputation ahead of results

When I joined Urban Prep Academies in 2006 as the founding math teacher at what was to become the nation’s first all-boys public charter high school, the school’s faculty and staff had one central goal.

We were on a mission to get black boys from Englewood – a racially segregated and economically distressed neighborhood in Chicago, and a community described in the media as one of the city’s most dangerous – to and through college.

Each spring, Urban Prep Academies boasts that 100% of seniors graduating from each of its three campuses gains admission to a four-year college or university. But if you look beneath the 100% college acceptance claim – which sometimes gets misinterpreted as 100% actually going to college – you may find results that raise serious questions about the quality of education at the school.

College acceptance versus college readiness

For starters, the reality is only 12.8% of Urban Prep students at the West campus met Illinois’ college readiness benchmarks. Further, only about two-thirds of the class of 2017 at Urban Prep’s West campus actually enrolled in college. A little less than 44% of the school’s 2016 graduates were persisting in college based on the latest report.

In a statement to The Conversation, school officials maintained that a major reason its graduates don’t persist in college is due to lack of money.

“The number one reason we are given as why Urban Prep graduates choose not to continue pursuing their degree is a lack of financial resources and proper supports at the colleges they attend,” Dennis Lacewell, chief academic officer at Urban Prep Academies, wrote in an e-mail to The Conversation. “This is consistent with national data related to first-generation and black male students going to college.”

However, in my own and other higher education scholarship, lack of money is sometimes related to students’ lack of academic preparation for college. For instance, at least two young men who participated in my study of Urban Prep’s graduates revealed that they lost an academic scholarship because of low GPAs.

West campus recommended for closure

The future of one of the school’s campuses – Urban Prep West – became imperiled in December 2018 when officials at Chicago Public Schools recommended shutting it down. That decision was later overturned by the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

When the school was in danger of closing, “some students stated” that they “didn’t care” if the school closed down or that it was “good” that it was closing.

One student spoke about how the “teachers put on a show” for parents, but treat students badly “behind closed doors.”

Reflections from Urban Prep graduates

Urban Prep graduates expressed similar sentiments when sociologist Derrick Brooms and I originally set out to conduct the research that led to my book – “Urban Preparation: Young Black Men from Chicago’s South Side to Success in Higher Education.” Our aim was to describe how students at Urban Prep saw the school in terms of helping them complete college.