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dating back to 1994

Members of Tim King’s family have been going to college for three generations, so it wasn’t unusual for him to attend Georgetown University and earn bachelor’s and law degrees. But what King most wanted to do was show other young African American men the path to, and the rewards of, a college education.

He knew the odds. Before he launched Urban Prep Academy, an all-male charter public high school in Englewood, 60 percent of Chicago’s young black males were dropping out of school and fewer than 3 percent were completing college. Yet King believed that an intense academic regimen, paired with the cultivation of social skills and an injection of self-confidence, could point those same young men toward lifelong success. “We could change generations,” King says. “We could change not only these young men’s lives, but the lives of their descendants—the life of this country.”

King’s idea for an all-male high school was rejected twice by the Chicago Board of Education, even though he had spent five years as president of Hales Franciscan High School in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood. He persisted, and in 2005, with his third application, he got the go-ahead. At Urban Prep, King’s persistence remains a touchstone. “Mr. King never gave up on his idea, so we don’t give up on ours,” says Robert Lee Henderson III, a member of the inaugural freshman class. Ninety percent of those freshmen came from low-income families, about 85 percent from single-mother households, and nearly all of them read below their grade level.

Despite those troubling statistics, the school’s motto—We Believe—prevailed, and it wasn’t just because of the tough curriculum. Each student was addressed as Mister (followed by his surname), and every day started with a morning assembly that was part homeroom, part motivational rally. The young men wore blazers and ties, though in the early days, King recalls, some students would walk to school in street clothes and then surreptitiously change into the uniform once they arrived. Now that Urban Prep has a stellar reputation, he notes, “they wear their blazer and tie everywhere. They want you to notice they’re Urban Prep men.”

All of this is fundamental to counteract unjust generalizations about young black men. “Black boys in particular have real struggles with feeling respected by society,” says King, 43. “We give them respect, and when they start to feel that, they respect their classmates and the people around them.”

Last spring, Urban Prep, which now encompasses three campuses, graduated its first class—and each of its 107 members was admitted to a four-year college or university. (Robert Lee Henderson, who still regards the school as “my mother and my father,” is enrolled at Lake Forest College and has set his sights on becoming a doctor.) The graduation ceremony, held at the UIC Forum, confirmed that one school can overcome the effects of extreme poverty, scattered families, and other inequities. “People can now look at young men like these and know that it can be done,” King says. “So let’s get busy and do it.”

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