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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 critics also included Jonathan Turley, a public school–educated Chicago native who is now the J. B. and Maurice Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In an opinion column published in the Chicago Tribune shortly after Urban Prep was approved to open, Turley criticized the decision as part of a national trend toward public school segregation.

“The new rationale for segregated schools is that separation based on gender, race, religion and sexual orientation is beneficial for the students and society,” Turley wrote. “These recent experiments appear to be based on a new view that separate is not just equal but superior. For Chicago, which has endured a long and difficult busing program to achieve integration, it is a dangerous conceptual shift.”

“We’re not causing or supporting or promoting that segregation,” King responds. “All we’re doing is opening a school within a system that’s already segregated.”

In 2005, according to statistics from the Chicago Public Schools, overall student enrollment was 49.2 percent black, 38.4 percent Latino, 8.8 percent white, and 3.3 percent Asian. Englewood High School’s student population is 100 percent African American.

“Further racial exclusion is not what the system needs; what the system needs is to bring in greater diversity,” counters Turley, the father of three boys and a girl whose two school-age sons attend a racially integrated public school in Alexandria, Virginia, where he lives. “You don’t yield to the statistic; you try to change it. You try to change the environment, and that’s more expensive.”

Turley also objects to Urban Prep’s single-sex design, as does Colleen Connell, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “For two decades, the prevailing legal view was that single-gender public schools violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution and probably civil rights laws as well,” Connell observes. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the Virginia Military Institute, a public college in Lexington, Virginia, could not exclude women.

She points out that in recent years, private Catholic schools in Chicago such as Gordon Tech High have abandoned single-sex schooling and have become coed. “The best high schools in the city, both public and private, don’t segregate on the basis of gender or race,” says Connell, whose son attends a select enrollment public high school and who has a daughter in a private elementary school. “You don’t have North Side College Prep or Whitney Young saying that in order to maintain our academic competitiveness or improve it, we’re only going to teach boys or girls.”

In 2004, the federal Department of Education issued new guidelines allowing for single-sex education in the public schools. The new policy has yet to be tested in federal courts. Both Turley and the ACLU speculate that Urban Prep probably could avoid legal challenges on grounds of racial discrimination provided the school carefully followed a policy of being open to all applicants.

The objections to Urban Prep increase the stakes for King’s endeavor, which under any circumstances would be a major undertaking. As of the beginning of 2006, he had six months to hire teachers and administrators, recruit and enroll students (the school will have an initial class of 160, and King expects the number of applicants to exceed capacity), and establish the school’s operations, including making arrangements to share space with the juniors and seniors who will still be attending Englewood High School.

Once again, he will have to raise funds. Urban Prep will receive $6,250 per student from the City of Chicago, and King estimates that the school initially will spend about $8,000 per student, with the difference coming from contributions. Even with the economies of scale achieved once Urban Prep reaches full enrollment, he expects the school will need to raise at least $1,000 per student each year.

Despite the enormous challenges he faces, King is confident about Urban Prep’s future. “I don’t worry about failing,” he says. “I think we are already failing this particular segment of our society. If I’m scared of anything, it’s of not moving fast enough to stop our failure in serving these students.”


Photograph: Marc Hauser, Courtesy of Tim King


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