Chicago Public Schools recently announced plans for full remote learning for Fall 2020, leaving many teachers and families with mixed feelings of relief and urgency to prepare for the upcoming school year. However, this plan is intended for traditional public CPS schools. Charter schools, such as Urban Prep Academies, are still working to provide the best opportunity for students, families, and teachers.
Tim King, founder, and CEO of Urban Prep Academies, sat down to discuss some of the challenges the organization faced at the height of the pandemic. He also discussed the challenges they currently face and hoping to continue to provide students and families with a world-class education.
Sabrina Catlett (SC): What were some of the challenges Urban Prep faced at the height of COVID-19?
Tim King (TK): There are probably two ways to answer that question. First, pertaining to students, Urban Prep, like many public schools, is a home away from home for students. They get their meals, stability, safety, security at school. They also get a positive interaction with students and adults, and the social, emotional learning, development, and support necessary in addition to the reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic at Urban Prep. They get all the soft skills that, frankly, I feel are more important than some of the academic things. If a student is persistent, relentless, and has grit, he’ll be able to figure out how to do that math problem, but if he doesn’t have those skills, he may never get it. All of that structure was gone all of a sudden for these kids. How to fill that void was a massive challenge for us. Teachers, counselors, and the entire staff understand the fact that community is essential. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to meet those needs. I am proud of the fact that our teachers, administrators, and the team ramped up aggressive contact with the students, for many that meant hosting online live classes and daily phone calls. Some even went to students’ homes to check on them. That was really happening at Urban Prep at a higher rate than what CPS reported at other schools.
Another student-facing problem was trying to figure out how to get technology into our students’ hands. When we opened Urban Prep, we had a 1:1 laptop initiative, so every student who was at Urban Prep had a laptop. That program was defunded, and we weren’t able to continue it. When the stay-at-home order started, we didn’t know how many of our students had internet access and a device at home. We had to be aggressive about getting devices in our students’ hands. We were very successful in doing that. Any student who said they needed a device was able to get a computer or tablet so they would be able to access the content at home and get that support.
Those are student-centered issues that hit us hard, but there are operational challenges, and a big problem was financial. We rely heavily on donations to operate, but everything was thrown into chaos, and funding dried up. We weren’t positive what would happen with the state or CPS as it regards to funding. You hear about the funding schools got through the CARES Act. We never got any of that money from the state or CPS. I was really worried about how we were going to operate, provide all of the things our students need, pay rent in all of our buildings, and other expenses. Still, we were able to be successful in fundraising and get additional federal money to continue to support our schools.
(SC): It’s the story of us, right? Despite the world-renowned reputation of Urban Prep, this predominantly Black school, run by predominantly Black people, the school still struggled in ways unheard of because of a lack of support. It can be disheartening for families as they worry about the upcoming school year and the funding that would be necessary.
(TK): While I am a huge fan of Janice Jackson, and do not envy the position she and the district are in when trying to provide services to all of these kids, the way charter schools are set up, at least in Chicago, is like the bald-headed stepkid. The first thing that CPS is going to take care of is the traditional public schools. That’s the way the system is set up. There is a level of autonomy that we benefit from because it is set up that way with being able to fashion our curriculum in any way we’d like. The trade-off is that we are not first in line to get the support we need. There is some irony behind the fact that the demographic locally and nationally, which is the lowest-performing, are low-income Black males, but here is a school specifically designed and catering to this particular population. There is no proactive engagement by a myriad of people to figure out how to make sure that this place is taken care of. That’s how society treats us. We can sit there and take it, or we can lift ourselves up and move forward, overcoming the obstacles placed before us. It’s lamentable, but we won’t focus on that, because it won’t make anything change. However, I am very impressed by the Black Lives Matter activism that we saw this year, and I’m encouraged by the response to it. We’ll see if that actually follows through. For example, one of our donors called me up and acknowledged the work we do as being right in the middle of what this is all about, and he offered us $100,000. I’m encouraged by the possibilities that exist because of that activism. I’m not positive that people are going to follow through. It’s one thing for Chase Bank to say they’ll give their employees the day off for Juneteenth. It’s another for them to give more mortgages to Black communities.
(SC): What are some strategies Urban Prep plans to employ to bolster e-learning instructional outcomes?
(TK): While I can’t answer that question, because that is mostly the work of our Chief Academic Officer, Dennis Lacewell, I know there is excellent work being done to serve our students best. I know he has been doing extraordinary work to wrap our heads around what we will implement to make e-learning better. We’re hoping still to have some hybrid interaction with small groups of students. For example, there is an entire building at the Englewood campus that makes it feasible for ten kids to be in one space at a time. Mr. Lacewell is in the process of identifying the best curriculum for virtual learning.
(SC): Virtual learning provides the flexibility to incorporate career readiness into the curriculum. While Urban Prep is primarily a college prep, are there plans to integrate corporate partnerships, specifically for juniors and seniors?
(TK): When Urban Prep was founded, the plan was for students to spend one day a week in some work environment at an externship. They could work for places like law firms downtown or community organizations, and they would get that experience every year, or at least their junior and senior year. We backed off of that because we felt that our students needed instructional time. Our students were coming to us in 9th-grade multiple grade levels behind. While we found it valuable for them to have these corporate externships and experiences, we also needed to make sure that they could read. So we decided to scrap that idea and accelerate them with the little time we have. Student engagement with companies, after school programs, organized field trips, and other partnerships still existed with our students. I don’t know how that will end up looking this year. If we are mostly e-learning for the first semester, we are toying with the idea of having virtual conversations with our partners in group settings. I don’t think that’s robust enough, but we are thinking of more ways. However, our focus is not on the job training. One could argue that college prep is job training. We’re just so focused on getting the e-learning piece right, so adding something new isn’t as urgent.
(SC): As a charter school, Urban Prep doesn’t have to follow the virtual learning Fall learning plan created by CPS. Best case scenario, what does the school year look like?
(TK): It’s a little unclear to us. Yes, charter schools are independent of the district regarding curriculum and planning. However, two of our campuses, Bronzeville and Englewood, are located in CPS buildings. Ultimately, we have to plan around what CPS will do with the buildings, and we don’t know what CPS will do as it relates to building access for this year. Ideally and realistically, given the pandemic, we are prioritizing the freshman and the seniors.
The freshmen have been out of school for six months, and they don’t know what high school is or what Urban Prep is. They don’t understand our culture. Furthermore, even if they were at grade level in January, they are definitely behind now because they haven’t been in school. We want to have real accountability. Our solution is an abbreviated and small group Freshman Academy with students and parents to give them their devices and instructions around how we will operate this year. We hope we will have in-person interaction at least once a week. This still poses a struggle because we still don’t know how many freshmen we will have.
The other challenging group, our seniors, take an intensive class their first semester around the college application process. We want to make sure we’ve got some way for seniors to engage face to face around this process with college counselors. The hope is to have this in-person interaction at least once a week.
Sophomores and juniors are left, and while we want to engage them in person once a week, I’m not sure that will be able to happen given what we need to do for freshmen and seniors. Ultimately, this depends on what CPS says about buildings, and we want to make sure we can do this in a safe way for our teachers. While society may not agree, we think of our teachers as essential workers, so we don’t want to put any teacher at risk.
(SC): In what ways can the community support Urban Prep in this new school year?
(TK): One way Black families can support Urban Prep is by sending their sons to Urban Prep. While we do not have an Afro-centric curriculum, we have a Black male-centered system. It pulls on African traditions, and it is vital in my view that Black families recognize what we’re doing and engage with what we’re doing by having their sons be a part of it. I would never argue that it is the best school for everybody, but I would encourage more Black families to engage with Urban Prep.
Also, while there are limited opportunities to volunteer, there is an opportunity to support Urban Prep in many ways. Folks can donate various forms of technology. And people may think, “You don’t want my donation because all I can give is $25.” Well, $25 can buy us some face masks and hand sanitizer. Now is not the time to think that writing a big check is the only way to support. There are expenses we have to deal with that we’ve never had to before.
Finally, continue to spread the good news about our work that we do and how this is an organization founded by Black folks to serve Black boys. That is not something that is common. In addition to being the first charter high school for boys in the country, Urban Prep is the only charter school serving all African-American males. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. The vast majority of charter schools in this country are run by people who don’t look like the students. There are a few who have a Black leader but were founded by white folks, and many are founded by and led by white people. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but we should recognize the unique nature of Urban Prep and support it. You’re supporting Black boys and Black excellence, Black entrepreneurship, and Black empowerment across the board.