Is Separate Better?

The heir of a high-profile Chicago family, Tim King has devoted most of his professional life to educating less fortunate young black men. Now he’s betting on the promise of a new all-male high school.

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The future is now: King on site at the new Urban Prep Charter Academy

“My upbringing and experiences have been extraordinarily privileged,” says Tim King, the scion of one of Chicago’s most successful African American families. “I have an obligation to ensure that other people have the opportunity to have these experiences.”

King grew up in a world of exclusive clubs, vacation homes, and private schools, but he has devoted most of his professional life to educating young black men from far less fortunate circumstances. The former head of Hales Franciscan High School, a private Catholic school for African American boys, King is now the president of the Urban Prep Charter Academy, an all-boys’ charter high school intended primarily for black students that will open this August.

The stacks of documents relating to the school that are piled on his desk and that line his window ledge are the primary decoration in King’s office in River North. Sitting at his conference table, King is both neat and stylish in appearance. Tall and slender, he prefers colorful sweaters and designer jeans, and his shaved head and wire-rim glasses give him the look of a studious monk. He punctuates his comments by chopping the table with the side of his hand or gesturing with long, outstretched fingers.

In November, the Chicago Board of Education approved the proposal for Urban Prep, which will be located in what is now Englewood High School at 6201 South Stewart Avenue. (The school is being closed for poor performance and was one of four sites available for use as a charter high school.) Urban Prep, which will receive close to $1 million in funding from the Chicago Public Schools in its first year alone, has been controversial, with critics on both the political left and right contending that the school is practicing racial and gender segregation.

According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, there are 44 single-sex public schools nationwide and another 167 public schools that offer single-sex classrooms. They include the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago, an all-girls’ school at 2641 South Calumet Avenue that opened in 2000 to focus on science and technology.

While Urban Prep will be open to students from throughout Chicago, and admissions will be determined by lottery, the school will draw students mainly from the predominantly African American Englewood neighborhood. “It is our expectation because of where Urban Prep is located that all our students will be black,” King acknowledges. “But we do not and will not have any type of race-based admissions preference,” he adds.

King, who is 38 and single, lives in the South Side’s Chatham neighborhood in a two-story brick house where he frequently holds fundraising parties for educational causes-including Hales-and Democratic political campaigns (among them, Lisa Madigan’s race for Illinois attorney general and Barack Obama’s unsuccessful 2000 congressional candidacy; he also hosted a fundraiser for Obama’s Senate campaign at a downtown art gallery).

“I don’t know how you became a Republican,” he says, teasing a former student during a phone conversation as he welcomes a visitor to his office. “I must not have done my job well. Or I did it too well.”

King sees his involvement in politics and education as continuing a family legacy of contributing to community service and fighting discrimination. His late paternal grandfather, Paul King Sr., was the founder of P. K. Produce, Chicago’s first African American–owned produce firm. He built up his business by selling collard greens, okra, yams, and other Southern soul food to national chain grocery stores in the city.