Monday 10 October 2011

News: Urban Prep, and the Ongoing Battle between Education and Poverty in Chicago

by Andi Bawden

Hidden amongst a mass of BBC news stories focusing on the United States, an article by Mark Mardell with a brief video illustrates the success of a school in Chicago.  Although attracting relatively little attention in the UK until now, Urban Prep made American national news at the beginning of this summer after 100% of its graduating seniors were awarded places in American colleges.

What is interesting about this article is how it works against expectations: far from being an elitist school attended by the children of wealthy patrons, Urban Prep is a free public school in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Chicago called Englewood.  Described by Mardell as an area “in need of a success story,” 85% of Urban Prep’s students can be classed as low-income.  Exclusively for local African American boys, the school creed explicitly sets out the goal of preparing its students for college through a combination of hard work, civic responsibility, and self respect.  The promotional material on Urban Prep’s web site claims that the school aims to work against negative stereotyping and low expectations.  Since it first opened in 2006, the school has opened two more campuses in Chicago and it seems more would be welcomed.  Affectionately dubbed “Hogwarts in the Hood” in the local community for its reproduction of English public school values, Urban Prep operates a lottery system to ensure that all applicants are offered a fair chance of being able to attend.

To boast a 100% success rate for its first two graduating classes is pretty impressive for a school that deliberately targets a demographic with the lowest employment rate in 27 years and twice that of white Americans.  To put this in to perspective, even Eton cannot claim that 100% of its students went on to gain a place at university.

The achievements of Urban Prep, and the subsequent media coverage, force us to confront various racial stereotypes and preconceptions surrounding African American men and their education. These attitudes stem from the complex history between African Americans and the United States.  For example, as Mark Mardell highlights in his article, there is an enduring belief that the only route to success for young black men is to become either a rapper or a famous athlete. In the video, Tim King, the founder and president of Urban Prep, argues instead that education is the key to escaping poverty and unemployment.  Describing his work as a constant battle, King reminds the audience of the very real obstacle that poverty can present to education and its rewards.

The article acts as a lesson to us also, in the dangers of assuming the pervasiveness of inner city poverty.  With a 100% success rate in the last two years, it is only fair to suggest that the battle to educate is one that Tim King and Urban Prep as a whole seem to be winning.

As Mardell points out, the area of Englewood is “in need of a success story,” and the various achievements of Urban Prep so far certainly seem to qualify.


neek said...

Andi, great post! This bodes relatively well for the alternative education movement in the US & though I understand the move towards gender-specific students, I'm hoping Urban Prep gets enough press to where they can raise money to open a sister school for girls. Interesting the move towards "English public school values." Maybe a post on the differences between American & English public schools could be an interesting follow up?

Becky Fraser said...

Well done Andi -- you've engaged some great ideas. I am a little frightened however by the evident celebration of "English Public School values"...I assume they mean the likes of Eton and Marlborough....If they do, then perhaps they need to seek an alternative source for inspiration? Interesting that it's gender specfic also -- raises questions about financial priorities and who should be first in terms of accessing great education among the oppressed (of course, it's "black boys" learning to "better" black men). It's a great initiative in theory and definitely food for thought.

Andi Bawden said...

I looked in to sister schools and I could find no information at all so I don't think there is anything in the pipeline - I know there are plans to have 6 schools for boys in the Chicago area altogether and they've managed 3 so far. It's a shame because you would think that even if a similar school for girls was not part of the original plan, it would have been inspired by the prominence of Urban Prep. Apparently the success of the school has sparked debate about single sex teaching (it's not as common as it is here - Urban Prep is one of only 95 public boys schools in the country I think). At least it's a push in the right direction, but I think you're right Becky, there are still gaps that are not addressed.

Jon Ward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Ward said...

As mentioned by Becky, I agree that it is interesting that there seems to be a worrying gender bias in terms of the "betterment" of black youth. I wonder if this could be said to undermine Urban Prep's claim that the school aims to work against negative stereotyping and low expectations; presumably part of the "justification" for the targeting of male students is in order to prevent urban criminality and violence, which are stereotypes firmly associated with black males. It also reiterates the notion that the improvement of black male lives improves life for ALL black people, ignoring gendered racial oppression of which black women are the victims.