Amid pleas and opposition, the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday, October 26, cleared the way for Chicago Public Schools to take over the storied Urban Prep Academy schools in Bronzeville and Englewood. The takeover came 20 years after Urban Prep was founded to educate, groom and mentor young Black males to give them a bright future.
At its monthly meeting on October 26, the Chicago Board of Education unanimously voted to revoke Urban Prep’s charter license after it was accused of gross financial mismanagement and having a staff where only a third of its teachers are certified.
Urban Prep was founded in 2002 by Georgetown Law School graduate Tim King. As its founder, King was once named “hero of the year” by People Magazine. King stepped down after reports alleged that he engaged in sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old student at the school.
For three years, Board members say, Urban Prep gave him a salary and benefits, even after he left the school.
Board members were also told that Urban Prep repeatedly violated its charter over the years and engaged in “irresponsible” behavior by putting its school leaders over the concern of its students. Board members said the school continued a relationship with King after he left the school, allowing him to interact with students and attend graduation ceremonies while giving him a “position of honor.”
Additionally, Board members were told that Urban Prep failed to meet 22 conditions it was given in order to renew its charter.
Urban Prep was given many chances to bring the institution into compliance to meet certain standards, but school officials failed to do so, Board members were advised.
Despite the problems, the schools maintain good academic standing.
CPS Chief Pedro Martinez said they are looking at combining the two schools or having the schools absorbed into CPS’ system where they would become programs at their existing locations.
The other option is to keep the schools as CPS independent entities. But CPS officials said they don’t want that to happen. School officials also said Urban Prep students will have the opportunity to transfer to CPS schools as allowed under state law.
Board Member Michael Scott said, “This is a difficult decision to make. We can see the love and care that the parents and faculty, the love they have shared with young men.”
Scott said he can see the camaraderie in that school but noted that, “It is a flat out shame that the interests of adults preceded the interests of the students.”
The Crusader emailed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office for comment on the Board’s decision, but she did not respond by press time for the newspaper’s print edition.
Urban Prep officials called CPS’ takeover attempt as an “attack” on young Black men. They noted that Urban Prep’s campuses were recognized as “commendable” by the state this year, the second highest rating.
CPS promised to keep the two Urban Prep campuses open as programs of existing district schools. The resolution promises to keep open Urban Prep’s two campuses at least until next school year. Urban Prep has a total of 380 students, and CPS budgeted $8 million for Urban Prep this year.
Urban Prep school officials, parents and students spoke at the Board meeting in a last-ditch effort to keep the school’s independent charter status. They spoke of the school’s high graduation rate of over 86 percent and the academy’s success in getting all its seniors into college.
CPS’ 2021 graduation rate is nearly 84 percent. Supporters also voiced concern that Urban Prep will lose its racial identity and uniqueness when it joins CPS’ 635 schools after the takeover.
“Instead of celebrating all the wonderful things we’ve accomplished at the Bronzeville campus over my 10-year leadership, we’re instead fighting off a CPS takeover,” said Assistant Principal Jamen Williams.
“I would like to stand before you today to speak about the intangible accomplishments we’ve enjoyed, but instead I will defend an institution that we as a community love.”
Elijah Cooper, a junior at Urban Prep who said he has a 5.1 weighted GPA and is at the top of his class, said, “At Urban Prep there is a family atmosphere, and I would like it to stay that way. Can you imagine having your family stripped away from you?”
Jonathan Barnes, whose son Avery Barnes spoke as a student at the Bronzeville campus, said what he likes about Urban Prep is the “core values, accountability, exceptionality, faith, integrity, relentlessness, resilience, selflessness and solidarity. Those core values you just don’t get at a typical school.”
With students attired in preppy Blue blazers, striped red ties, and khaki pants, Urban Prep Academy gained national attention for high graduation rates and ability to get every graduate into college every year.
But CPS officials say that Urban Prep Academy was struggling with allegations of gross financial mismanagement that included ghost payroll practices.
Documents from the Chicago Board of Education say that the school came to rely increasingly on cash advances from the school district and high-interest loans to keep going financially.
There are also allegations that the school repeatedly defaulted on paying staff salaries, leases, and vendors who provided services to its students with disabilities. A probe by CPS’ inspector general said Urban Prep’s alleged financial problems date back to 2015.
Like many charter schools, Urban Prep got a $3.1 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which aimed to help employers avoid laying off employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
A memo alleged Urban Prep overstated the number of staff members on its payroll in applying for the PPP loan. That incident was a key issue that Board members learned of that sparked CPS’ takeover bid.
The day before Wednesday’s decision, Urban Prep officials held a press conference at the Englewood location, where they denied the allegations and said the schools are in good financial condition, while many of its teachers are certified and are among the best instructors in Chicago.