A CONVERSATION WITH TIM KING ~ FOUNDER OF URBAN PREP ACADEMIES
Education is vital to success in the economy. In the Black community education is a vital component of having an edge in competing in today’s workforce. However, a lot of the stories surrounding the Black community are negative and anti-education. Then there is Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, Illinois. They have a 100% college acceptance rate for now five straight years. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Tim King, the founder of Urban Prep to see what is behind his and his young men’s success.
A lot of media coverage/stories coming out of Chicago are about the violence. In the midst of this, Urban Prep continues to thrive. Do you insulate the young men from it, or do you attempt to help them navigate through it?
It’s not a matter of being able to insulate students. Students are living it. These are their real life experiences. They can’t escape it. Early on in an Urban Prep Academy assembly, students were asked how many of them knew someone who graduated from college. Only one or two hands in a full auditorium went up. The next questions we asked were: How many of you know someone who was killed due to violence? How many of you know someone who was a victim of violence or involved with the justice system in some way? Every hand in the auditorium was raised. To help our students, we provide them with tools to deal with and manage trauma. Truthfully, I believe that many students are suffering from PTSD. What they live, see and are faced with on a daily basis has to be dealt with properly. Here at Urban Prep, we invest heavily in personal counselors and mentors. Our curriculum is focused on meeting students where they are. We also have after school activities for them to continue positive interactions. We impress upon our young men our core values, creed and structure. One period of each day they meet with a select cohort of classmates. We call it our “pride” period. They talk about things they’re concerned about and work through their issues with an adult moderator.
There are many documentaries about the failures of education. In the Black community, education is often downplayed or labeled a pipeline for fruitless jobs, or worse prison. What failure within the education system have you contended with? How has that lesson improved your and Urban Prep’s approach to education?
The failure I’ve had to contend with was also my biggest surprise. It happened with the first crop of students we enrolled. We learned they weren’t educated enough to navigate the proposed curriculum. This is a problem that continues to this day. Current 9th graders didn’t score above the 6th grade education level. All of them were reading at 5th grade or below. That type of deficit is very troubling and frankly a failure of education. This should NOT be happening. There shouldn’t be so many African-American students in this situation. We changed our approach by immediately readjusting to a curriculum that focused on where students are instead of assuming where their education level should be when they arrive. We engage specialists and emphasize reading. Reading emphasis isn’t usual at the high school level, but when so many are behind, we have to catch them up as quickly as we can. This is all rooted in the notion of getting students where they need to be. Our impact is manifested in reviews after a student is tested. We don’t want to graduate ill-equipped students. We also recognize that for many of our students this is a marathon. We can only do so much in four years. This is a lifelong effort that they have to embark upon in regards to “catching up”. Our students have to continue to push themselves beyond what they learn here at Urban Prep.
Being born in Chicago and now one of your home’s leaders, has your passion for education grown or stayed consistent since you’ve started?
My passion for education has grown as I’ve grown. The reason I’m in education is because of my upbringing in Chicago. I had the privilege of being in a nuclear family in an affluent neighborhood with positive African-American role models in my family and neighborhood. I went to private schools and I attended Georgetown Law. From the age of 9 and throughout my life I asked myself, why me? Why do I get to have all of these privileges that so many other people don’t? I realized it’s all rooted in the way education system was structured. I started Urban Prep to lift people out of poverty and move people forward economically to cause a generational impact on families. It took a while to open Urban Prep, but we were finally able to in 2005. My passion has never diminished since then. I still get as angry and frustrated about the setbacks and problems as much as in the beginning. The success we have had only furthers the absolute need for more change in this city and country for the education of Black males.
In your Huffington Post article from 2012, you were critical of the violence portrayed and promoted using children. What is the most troubling message you’ve seen in current news? What motivates you to counter that narrative?
I want to be clear, I wasn’t so much as critical of the children in the film as with a missed opportunity. When I read the books and watched the movies, my concern was that there was an opportunity for the author to be able to empower young people by giving them the option of free will. This wasn’t presented in the film. Only Katniss defied and became a heroine, but even she engaged in the slaughter of other children. There wasn’t a character in the story willing to be a martyr. When something is wrong in a society, there is always a choice to say no at any time. When there is something wrong there has to be people who will stand up and say something. What troubles me most in current news is that the large amount of coverage on Black men centers on them being incarcerated, killed or being victims of police brutality. It’s overwhelmingly negative. I want and wish there to be a balance. You know, like hey it’s not all doom & gloom! We have good things going on too! I want to be clear here again, all of these stories are incredibly tragic. However these are also exceptions to the rule. This isn’t the normal situation with Black people. There are a large amount of positive events happening in the African American community that aren’t regularly presented to the masses. Black Star Project for example, is doing great things in Chicago. Phillip Jackson is the founder of this organization and a good man. They do a lot of work around engaging fathers and father figures in being involved in their children’s lives and being a positive role model.
For young Black men in America, the path to success appears an impossible journey. They see success but don’t see the struggle behind it. If you had the definitive, three foolproof methods to success, what would those three steps be?
- Work hard – I know it sounds trite, but it’s the reality. Success will not find you; you have to find it, especially if you’re a Black male.
- Identify an advocate (Mentor/Role model)–It doesn’t guarantee it, but will increase the likelihood of your success. You have to have someone who will push, redirect and emotionally support you. You need their counsel and advice. Parents usually fill this role. For those who don’t have their parents in their lives, their advocates could be teachers/coaches/reverends and other relatives.
- My third step is nebulous and concrete. The nebulous answer is to have a dream. If people are looking for something more concrete, have a plan. There has to be a goal. Without one, you’re just floating around. A concrete plan holds you accountable to something.
Financial literacy goes hand in hand with education. There are no investment courses. There are no home and car buying courses. What would some of your keys be to financial literacy? To extend the metaphor, being financial well-read takes what?
A lot of people criticize students about taking out loans to pay for education. I don’t necessarily agree with this pattern of thought. There is an opportunity to teach about financial literacy here, but it isn’t being used. See, students won’t blink at using a credit card to buy a $50 shirt, but balk at student loans. Ultimately the shirt won’t be of use to you. Even worse, paying with a credit card, the shirt has interest attached to it. Education has deferred interest, but you’re benefiting from it your entire life once you get the degree. Student loans should be treated with great respect. Students need to know what is needed to handle this responsibility. Don’t waste the investment. As a student, you need to attend class and make good grades. Otherwise you’ve spent time and money for nothing. Students should make the connection with the student loan being an investment in yourself. The numbers show that people with degrees make more money on average than those who don’t. We need to learn how to delay gratification. If people want to go out to eat, they go to a restaurant and the food is given to them quickly. If we don’t know the answer to something, we Google it and have the answer instantly. We all want instant feedback and gratification. People should learn that delayed gratification pays off much more than instant gratification. It’s the same as money in a bank account accruing interest. Long term is the way to go. Remember, just because you want it now, doesn’t mean you’re being financially responsible. Save the money you would spend on one shirt, so one day you can buy two.
It seems other groups have louder voices and greater ability to sway public policy in their favor. The Black community is depicted poorly in many instances. How do you think our voice and group power can grow to the point where we can be the influence on public policy as it relates to us and end the negative narrative?
I don’t think our voice is low or not powerful. I believe that collectively our voice is strong and loud. It just needs to be used in a much better way. We need to come together and develop a plan. The narrative about young Black men in America is important, but when we come together it may not be one of the first things mentioned due to so many issues happening. We used to have leaders but now there aren’t those people available that could be the spokesperson for the community. This has diminished even more over the last decade. Reason being, we’re victims of our own success. We need to grow the Black voice and be attentive to what’s happening in our community. We need to “own” our community as in taking responsibility for what happens. We see negative things in other neighborhoods happening to our people and we don’t feel connected to them. We can’t say that happened to “them”. We’re all the same, even if we live elsewhere and are more affluent than the disadvantaged sects of our community. The historically Black college support seems to have tapered off also. It used to be a Black doctor serving all Black customers, now that is not the case. We need to reunite and do all we can to empower one another, as opposed to being crabs in a barrel.
The death of Deonte Hoard was and will always be a tragedy. What was your and Urban Prep’s message to the students in the immediate aftermath? How did that loss make you more determined to succeed?
That was very sad. Mr. Hoard was killed before a testing day so it wasn’t a regular school day for our young men. We offered support in regards to being able to talk about the concerns and feelings they had. Seniors weren’t in attendance so the underclassmen that were there didn’t know him. The following day all of our students were here. We made an announcement about his death and had our students in separate sessions all day. We had grief counselors in Urban Prep for several weeks after Mr. Hoard’s death. We have three campuses and just because Mr. Hoard was at another campus than some students doesn’t mean they weren’t affected. For that reason, we had conversations and support available on all campuses at once. We had many tributes to memorialize him. It’s about moving these young men to a point of closure. When our students complete their studies here we have a college signing day. Here, we give our students a red and gold tie to congratulate them on their hard work. Mr. Hoard was given an honorary tie as he passed before he could receive it. His mother accepted it on his behalf. All of these actions aided in the mourning process. We are having a final tribute to him at this year’s graduation on June 6th, 2015.
What plans do you have in place to continue the success of Urban Prep and make it so every single year, 100% of the graduates enter college?
I want to clear up a common misconception about our graduation rate. All of our young men are accepted into colleges, but not all of them decide to go to college. Some decide to work or enter the military. The next step for us would be opening a school outside of Chicago. We’re currently working with people in Washington DC to open another campus. It should be open in the fall of 2016. I love Chicago and will continue the great work we’ve done here, but we’re more focused on expanding nationally. The need in the education system is great. We will also expand Black achievement. Currently we have educators that come literally from all over the world to visit Urban Prep to see what is behind our success. They then take the knowledge imparted back to their schools to advance education as a whole. Our ultimate goal is creating a world where you are not at an academic and social disadvantage being an African-American.