by David Safier
The Star ran an AP story in its Sunday edition, Inner-city charter school applauds its first batch of college graduates. It's about a Chicago charter school, Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, where 100% of the graduates are admitted to college. Since these are young black men from the inner city, that's a significant accomplishment.
Before I go into some background that puts the school's success in perspective, let me say that I'm all for programs like this if they increase the likelihood of student success. Whenever a student from a minority group which is underrepresented in higher education succeeds in college, especially when that student likely wouldn't make it that far, it's a terrific success for that individual, and it will probably have a positive multiplier effect on the next generation. I don't have any stats to back this up, but my guess is that every one of these unlikely students who succeeds educationally will result in three to ten others succeeding in the next generation who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks.
Having said that, I want to take a look at why Urban Prep Charter can't be compared directly with district-run schools in Chicago, especially if the purpose of the comparison is to make a pitch for greater privatization. Toward the end of the post, I also want to take a look at what other schools can learn from Urban Prep's success.
Let's start with money. Urban Prep spends about 50% more per student than Chicago's school district: $12,000 per student at Urban Prep compared to $8,000 in the Chicago school system. The difference comes from private donations. People who say money doesn't matter need to understand how many charter schools that rack up successes, especially with poor and minority students, spend significantly more than neighboring district schools.
The AP article isn't completely clear about the details of one example of extra help the school gave a student, whether it came from school funds or from an affluent friend of the school, but this is something school districts can't do on a regular basis. One student was struggling in school, and he had a tendency to hang out with gang members.
His Urban Prep family, he says, helped with money, encouragement and even temporarily relocated him one school break when trouble was brewing in his neighborhood. “I had people who wanted to see me succeed as much as I did,” Branch says. “That helped me tremendously.”
A traditional urban school has neither the money nor the human resources to deal with situations like that for its students. And the support continues even after they graduate.
The school’s midwife approach is all-encompassing. An alumni affairs team stays in touch with the students by phone, text and email.
There’s also limited money for tuition, books or everyday expenses. Transportation to college. Clothes for internship interviews. Lawyers for legal troubles. Visits by staff to take a homesick kid to lunch or dinner.
“You just can’t say to a student, ‘OK, now here’s your chance to go to college. ... See you later,’” King says. “You’ve got to keep being there to provide support.”
A school that offers wraparound services like this is going to have a far better chance of saving kids when they're in high school than most districts high schools in Chicago where teachers and administrators are working their hearts out but simply can't deal with all the student problems they see on a daily basis. And when college rolls around, students with reasonably good high school educations and the best intentions in the world often drop out because they lack the kind of personal, emotional and financial support they need to succeed in this strange new world. Urban Prep has the resources to offer that support.
The school has enough money to hire Urban Prep Fellows. The Fellows are recent college grads who "serve in a unique role as mentors, tutors, and advocates for the freshman students of Urban Prep Academies." Each Fellow gets housing, $800 a month and health insurance. Each Fellow's job is to keep track of 25 students, getting to know them personally, helping them with their transition to high school and keeping their teachers up to date on the various trials and tribulations the students are facing. It sounds like a terrific program which, I'm sure, helps keep many freshmen on track and succeeding. It would be wonderful if freshmen everywhere, especially at schools with a lot of students who are struggling academically, had a paid mentor at school whose job is to get to know them and care about them as people during that difficult first year of high school.
And let's remember a few other things which lend to the school's success rate. First, by definition, there's a self selection process. Only parents who have the time and emotional energy to be deeply involved with their children's lives are likely to make the effort to apply to the school. Most likely, many of those children will already have shown some educational initiative and experienced some success in school. They're not going to be a random assortment of Chicago students.
Then there's an ongoing selection process. Only half of the freshman class make it to their senior years. Why so many students leave, I can only guess. A student in the AP article, for instance, left Urban Prep on his own because he got into a fight. The school has a strict behavior policy, which is typical of charters, and charters can expel students with far less cause than district schools. Later that student begged to be allowed to return, meaning he had a deep desire to succeed educationally, something that wouldn't be true of many of his neighborhood friends. Some of the students who left probably moved, but others most likely left because the school was too demanding. Though it's not clear from the article and other information I read online, it's typical of schools like this that they don't replace the students who leave. If that's the case here, most of the seniors made it through four years of the school's special kind of training and education, increasing their chances of success. District high schools, of course, take all students who walk in the door at any stage of their high school careers, no matter what attitudes or academic achievement they carry in with them.
That being said, it looks like Urban Prep's students genuinely succeed, and probably at higher rates than the same students would have succeeded at their district schools. So what can districts learn from that? They should offer all students the opportunity to enter tough, demanding, academically rigorous programs no matter what schools they attend. Students who elect to enter those programs should be given every opportunity to succeed, all the assistance the school can offer, but if they aren't willing or able to keep up, they should return to a less demanding program.
Every school should have tough college prep coursework in every academic area — Advanced Placement or other courses similar to what is offered at the top high schools. If only 10 students sign up, teach those 10 students and encourage 12 to sign up next year, then 15 the next year, then 25 the year after that. Schools with predominantly low income students should have state of the art science labs and up-to-date computers.
In other words, every student should have the opportunities affluent suburban parents demand for their children.
Small classes, science labs, state-of-the-art computers. Those things cost money. But so do ignorance, poverty, unemployment insurance, welfare and incarceration. If a charter school in Chicago which gets national attention for educational excellence spends 50% more per student than the "failing government schools" which surround it, we should take its lead and increase the amount of money available for other schools to spend on educational excellence.