Looking ahead to his senior year of high school, Myles Brown isn’t sure what to expect. He’s conflicted, hopeful, sad.
“I really thought this would be the school I graduate from,” the Urban Prep Academies junior said last week. “But just the turn of events has been very turbulent, to say the least.”
Brown, 17, attends Urban Prep in Bronzeville, one of two Urban Prep schools slated to close June 30 and be replaced with Bronzeville-Englewood High School run by Chicago Public Schools.
In April, the Illinois State Board of Education denied Urban Prep’s repeated appeals to take back control of its Bronzeville and Englewood campuses after the once-esteemed all-boys school had its charter status revoked by CPS in October. The district watchdog substantiated misconduct allegations against the charter network’s former CEO, Tim King, and found multiple violations related to governance. The move allowed CPS to begin the process of taking over.
Students have the option to enroll in the new school at their same campus or another school altogether for the 2023-24 academic year.
Brown said he’s staying put, for better or worse.
“The way I see it, it’s just me being in a new school and just like any student that transfers from one school to another, they have to rebuild what they’re used to and adapt to new circumstances and new situations — a new structure,” he said.
Dennis Lacewell, the chief academic officer for Urban Prep, said the academy was created for young Black and brown male students, warning that a CPS takeover puts an end to something that has been transformational for Chicago.
Lacewell said Urban Prep’s commitment to making sure its seniors had attainable postgraduate plans was a big part of its success and what sets them apart from the typical public school model. And the emphasis on social-emotional support has churned out “thoughtful leaders” who give back to the community that raised them, he said.
Brown, who dreams of attending the historically Black university Morgan State or the Air Force Academy, said he’s most concerned about losing his bond with Urban Prep teachers and support staff during his formative years.
“Just knowing that the relationships I’ve built over the course of the last few years are going to be broken down, if not completely lost, is really sad to me,” he said.
The new Bronzeville-Englewood High School will be one school with two campuses in the facilities where Urban Prep has been located, which are at 6201 S. Stewart Ave. in the Englewood neighborhood and 521 E. 35th St. in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
Despite a few community meetings and correspondence, several parents noted that the details of the transition from Urban Prep to Bronzeville-Englewood High School aren’t clear.
CPS said uniforms would be part of the new school’s dress code, and the new program will have many of the components of Urban Prep — things like college and personal advisory, routines affirming the community, strong college and postsecondary programming, adult role models, and investment in identity development and excellence for students.
“The school may have some elements that feel familiar to current Urban Prep students, but it will also have additional elements that may feel different,” CPS said.
Troy Boyd, Urban Prep’s chief operating officer, who is skeptical of CPS’ promise to support the ongoing success of Urban Prep’s students, said, “A building is not a school.”
“Urban Prep was started in response to CPS not doing its job with young Black men,” Boyd said. “The stakes are incredibly high — it’s going to not only negatively impact our students right now but also prospective students and alumni that we’ve been supporting in various ways.”
Boyd said CPS is not equipped to run the same systems as Urban Prep, which has a 90% high school graduation rate that dwarfs CPS’ 65% high school graduation rate for Black male students.
Not only that, but Lacewell said when Urban Prep was founded in 2002, data was used to identify the pitfalls of college enrollment and the process of applying for federal student aid. When administrators found that students weren’t completing the necessary steps to secure it, they created workshops for students and parents called “FAFSA nights,” as well as an incentivized approach to encourage students to get it done.
“When we created Urban Prep, (there was a rule) no FAFSA, no prom,” Lacewell said of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. “You had to complete it in order to ensure you went to prom.”
Along with academic advisers and emotional support counselors, full-time employees at Urban Prep also include college counselors dedicated solely to helping students apply for college and figure out a plan to help them pay for it.
“This type of intentionality makes sure our students receive the support they need, and I think that’s the big difference between us and CPS,” Lacewell said.
One of Urban Prep’s early missions, Boyd added, was to change the fact that Black men have the lowest college graduation rate at 34%, which sits far below any racial or gender group, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“There are a lot of pretty clear differences that support our belief that this was never going to be about ensuring that it is a viable option for young Black males across the city, specifically in the Bronzeville and Englewood areas,” Boyd said. “It’s more about a beef CPS had with our board and former CEO.”
At a board meeting in October, when CPS unveiled an 11-page explanation of its recommendation for the charters’ nonrenewal, it detailed King’s alleged sexual misconduct.
King has gone to court seeking to reverse disciplinary measures CPS took against him, which he said in legal documents were the result of a “fundamentally flawed investigation” that led to his forced resignation.
The state board previously voted to revoke a charter for Urban Prep’s downtown campus — which the state took over in 2019 after the charter appealed a decision by Chicago’s school board to close. That campus also will close at the end of this school year, leaving no more Urban Prep locations.
Tressenna Hill, mom of Urban Prep student James Hill, said students are being uprooted because of alleged scandals and mistakes committed by adults who are “not even around anymore.”
“The school was a safe haven for these boys,” she said, adding that the environment cultivated at Urban Prep prevented kids from participating in activities like the large groups of young adults and juveniles who swarmed downtown in mid-April. “There are a lot of boys here that were not involved with what was going on down there. Those boys are at school at 7 o’clock in the morning for tutoring — they’re working out. My son doesn’t even get home from practice from school until 7:30 p.m.”
Hill said a lot has to do with who the students are looking up to.
“It takes a village to raise these men, and James has a very active father in his life, but it can’t just be me and his father,” she said. “He has to see role models, and in most schools, they don’t even have male teachers, let alone Black male teachers.”
Boyd said Urban Prep’s all-boys system — with young Black students in their trademark navy blue jackets and red ties — brought a sense of hope and dignity to a neighborhood burdened by violence and disinvestment.
“This matter is urgent. The leading cause of death for Black boys and young men is homicide — we have read all the stories and lived through the tragedies of young Black lives ended due to gun violence,” he said. “High-quality education, social-emotional support and institutions intentionally created for Black boys is what can change the tide.”
Bridgette Adams said her son used to be timid and kept to himself before attending Urban Prep in Bronzeville. By the end of his freshman year, Kamari Payne, now a senior, had joined the school’s debate team and won his first competition.
“That’s what they have done for my son,” Adams said. “They have made him feel that he has a voice as a young African American man.”
Adams said she decided to enroll her son at the school because of its smaller class sizes, which would help with his learning disability.
“They’re always trying to actively do something to help the young men understand that education is your ticket in this world,” she said.
Adams’ other two children attend Chicago Public Schools and so far it’s been a good fit, she said. But the new high school won’t be able to pour into her son the same ethics and values as Urban Prep without holding onto the current staff, she said.
While ISBE said CPS will retain as many current Urban Prep staff as possible, Boyd pointed out that one of the reasons cited in CPS and ISBE’s decision to not renew the school’s charter was the number of unlicensed teachers. Charter schools have more flexibility around teacher licensure whereas district-run schools require all teachers to be licensed.
CPS said it is exploring licensure flexibility for non-ISBE licensed Urban Prep teachers and options to expedite the process. ISBE also offers short-term approvals and alternative preparation programs that allow qualified candidates to work while completing their licensure requirements, a spokesperson for the state said.
Boyd said he and Lacewell have yet to be involved in conversations held within the district about the new school. And in their appeals to ISBE, they expressed a willingness to find a contract with specific conditions that address concerns posed by the state and CPS.
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Urban Prep has a pending lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County asserting that CPS violated a state law that there be a moratorium on school closings, consolidations or phaseouts until 2025. “Urban Prep is done with ISBE, it’s now strictly a courts issue,” Lacewell said.
In the meantime, Adams’ son will graduate before the schools close, but she said she feels sad that he won’t be able to return to his alma mater and tell his teachers what he’s been doing after graduation. She said her son cried when he heard the school lost its appeal.
With graduation on June 17, Urban Prep is moving forward with its traditions like prom, yearly awards and a college signing day that was held April 27 at Daley Plaza. Graduating seniors announced where they’re attending college in the fall.
“I can say that (the students) are Lion proud. No matter that this happened,” Adams said. “They’re still standing. They’re still carrying on strong, and they’re still doing everything that they’re supposed to do per the Urban Prep way.”
CPS is hosting spring town hall meetings to discuss the new school. The next one is at 5:30 p.m. May 15 at 4640 S. State St.