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.