The Crusader Newspaper Group

Urban Prep supporters appeal to Governor/Mayor to halt “hostile takeover”

Facing a June 30 deadline and mounting opposition from the Illinois Board of Education, which upheld CPS’ revoking Urban Prep Academies charter, supporters on Tuesday, June 20, appealed to Governor JB Pritzker and Mayor Brandon Johnson to end CPS’ “hostile takeover.”

At a press conference at City Hall, speaking on behalf of the Coalition of Black Leaders (COAL), Attorney Victor Henderson said, “We want Urban Prep to remain open or tentatively we want to hear from Governor Pritzker or Mayor Johnson about why the school is going to be closed. We want transparent answers.”

The COAL group, headed by President Craig Wimberly, and Chairman Clarence Wood, has accused CPS of seeking to take over the Englewood and Bronzeville campuses and absorbing them into the CPS system, “based on false allegations and in defiance of Illinois law.”

They were referring to a law passed by the Illinois General Assembly that bans school closings, consolidations or phase-outs until the Board of Education, which will include a 21-member elected school board, is seated on January 15, 2025.

When a reporter asked if the COAL group had met with the governor or the mayor, Attorney Henderson said the coalition has tried but received no response.

According to Dennis Lacewell, chief academic officer of Urban Prep, their lawyer filed an appeal on Friday, June 16, and is expecting a ruling by the Illinois Appellate Court on Thursday, June 29, a day before CPS is set to seize control of Urban Prep.

“Research shows that when education levels go up, the opportunity to commit crime goes down, and with crime being a significant issue in the city of Chicago, there needs to be more schools like Urban Prep, and not the ones that are being eliminated,” Henderson told reporters.

Standing with Henderson were two Urban Prep graduates, Jessie Mack, who graduated from Denison University and earned an MBA from DePaul, and Juwaun Cooper Muhammad, who graduated from Georgetown University. “If there are issues with Urban Prep, they need to be addressed as opposed to having schools close down,” said Henderson.

Wimberly and Wood, who were also present at the press conference, believe CPS’ intent to take over Urban Prep is a “political move to seize the 400 Black students and Urban Prep’s nearly $8 million budget with no regard for the families and the students who are proud to be enrolled at Urban Prep.”

On behalf of Representative Danny K. Davis (D-7th), Reverend Paul Jakes said, “We support Urban Prep institutions; communities are important and our young men are important. Congressman Davis wants Urban Prep schools to remain open.

“It is so important that we give supportive services and support to institutions that are molding and making our young people and shaping their futures. All of our young people are not behind bars. These who are getting an academic education need to be supported to the fullest. To close these schools is educational genocide, and we demand that these Urban Prep Schools remain open,” said Jakes.

In October 2022, CPS officials accused Urban Prep Academies of alleged fiscal mismanagement, non-compliance with state and federal laws, and debt default.

However, in a letter from CPS dated January 14, 2022, CPS stated: “The enclosed Financial and Operational Scorecard reflects Urban Prep Charter Academy Network’s financial performance from fiscal year 2020-2021 (FY21), [the Office of Innovation and Incubation] is pleased to report the Urban Prep Charter Academy Network currently meets the standards set forth in the Charter School Accountability Plan.”

CPS stated that Urban Prep Charter Academy Network’s financial condition “Exceeds Standards.” In an interview with the Chicago Crusader, Lacewell explained why CPS’ rationale for taking over Urban Prep “doesn’t make no sense.”

After receiving a letter dated January 14, 2022, Lacewell said in February of 2022, CPS sent Urban Prep another letter regarding “what they call past financial issues, allegedly a number of different things which we responded to. That is what is so peculiar because in January we received a letter saying we are in good standing, then they send a letter in February going back to Fiscal Years 14 and 15 when Bruce Rauner was governor.”

Lacewell said CPS had then accused Urban Prep of getting predatory loans and high-end credit cards, which Lacewell said they settled with no penalty or default. “We went through charter renewal during those times that they said we did these things and they approved us each time.

“This is what does not make sense, that the years they’re going back to saying financial mismanagement they approved us each of those years,” Lacewell said.

“Unfortunately, people are not reading the details. They see financial mismanagement and running with that when there has been no allegation of buying cars or lavish trips. It doesn’t make sense.” Urban Prep’s contract ends June 30, 2023.

Some students say it made good sense to attend Urban Prep. Mack, who was among the first class of Urban Prep’s Englewood Academy, said, “I am currently the director of Institutional Advancement at Urban Prep and my duties include raising funds. My mother and I decided that I would attend Urban Prep for several reasons, including the fact that I would receive a free laptop, which I would not have received but for my enrollment at Urban Prep.

“I also decided to go to Urban Prep because of the ability to see and learn from people who looked just like me, meaning Black men,” Mack told reporters. “Those men could and did serve as role models for me much like the men you see gathered here today.”

After earning two degrees, Mack said he made a conscious decision to return to Urban Prep because he wanted to give back to the school “what it gave to me, mainly helping the next generation of young, Black male students. I do not want to see CPS close Urban Prep for at least two reasons.”

Mack gave those reasons as Urban Prep “works,” and he gave himself as an example. “I am living proof of that, and because CPS has no demonstrated history of successfully educating Black male students like me.

“There are literally thousands of other success stories, young men just like me who have graduated from Urban Prep and gone on to college and are now educated, employed and giving back. The threat of shutting down Urban Prep is not only wrong, it’s an assault on people like me who want to get ahead and get an education,” said Mack.

Having graduated from the Bronzeville Urban Prep Academy, Muhammed said when he was a junior he spent a lot of time focusing on girls and making people laugh. His family wanted him to attend a school that focused on academics. “They wanted me at a school that pointed me toward college,” which is why he enrolled at Urban Prep. They told me that they saw good things in me, which I then started to see myself.”

When Muhammed enrolled at Urban Prep, he was surprised at “how focused and locked in I became. I learned that being disciplined is one of my gifts.” He said with the school being all boys it meant girls were not a distraction. “The staff pushed me toward being great,” and playing sports taught him leadership skills, how to be coached and to develop ambition.

“I would not have had these opportunities in a co-ed school because my focus would not have been the same. Urban Prep also gave me the morals and values I needed to get through Georgetown, which exists in a completely different world from where I grew up,” Muhammed said.

“Urban Prep has done their job repairing all of us because I am a living and breathing example of what can happen when a young man from a tough neighborhood goes to the right school. If the city is allowed to tear down Urban Prep, then the city will lose its greatest tools to turn young boys into strong men,” Muhammed stated.

COAL officials say closing Urban Prep will negatively affect young, Black men who are looking forward to the next academic year.

A CPS statement said that both Urban Prep Academy schools were found to be out of compliance with legal requirements and charter contract at the time of the October 2022 vote.

“We believe this decision is in the best interest of students and we are grateful for the State Board’s thorough review on this matter,” a statement from Chicago Public Schools said.

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