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.
Tim King’s father, Paul King Jr., is the chairman and chief executive officer of UBM, the state’s largest black-owned construction company, and has a long history of advocacy and organizing on behalf of African Americans in the construction industry. His mother, Loann King (an Englewood native), taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 17 years and later worked as a dean and vice president, respectively, at Olive-Harvey and Kennedy-King colleges.
|The family: King’s parents (seated) and (standing, from left) his brother, Paul; Keith Robbins; and Tim|
Tim grew up in the house where his parents still live today in the African American upper-middle-class community on the South Side known as Pill Hill. “The people on my block were doctors and lawyers and business owners,” he says. “The guy next door owned a chain of gas stations. As a child, I got to see many successful black men and women, and everybody was married. I can’t think of anybody on my block who was divorced.”
As a child, King moved in the circles of the city’s black elite-a phrase he accompanies with finger quotes-including membership in Jack and Jill, an upscale African American children’s organization. He spent summer weekends with his family in a rented three-bedroom cottage in Union Pier, Michigan, that rests on a bluff overlooking the lake, and winter vacations at the family’s second home in the Bahamas, a three-story house with panoramic views on Cable Beach in Nassau.
Despite his family’s affluence, King started earning his own spending money at an early age, rising at five on Saturdays as a child to record orders left on an answering machine at his grandfather’s produce business. “I didn’t like it,” he admits. “It was very cold; it was early; I was sleepy.”
His earnings went toward movie tickets and “the ridiculous clothes your parents would never buy for you,” he recalls. King is a lifelong movie fanatic with a devotion to the Star Wars series-he saw each of the six movies on opening day, and his buddies clock how long it takes him to make a reference to the films during their weekly Thursday-night poker games.
He attended St. Ignatius College Prep, a private Catholic high school, and Georgetown University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign service and then a law degree. (He also studied at universities in Italy and Kenya.)
At a former professor’s invitation, King began teaching a history class at a private Catholic school in Washington, D.C., while attending law school. He eventually went to work there full-time as a teacher, college counselor, and fundraiser while finishing his degree. Returning to Chicago in 1994, he was hired as a vice president in charge of development and administration at Hales Franciscan-one of only three all-male African American Catholic high schools in the country-and became the president and chief executive officer the following year.
In his five years as president, King increased class requirements, lengthened the school day, upped recruitment by elite colleges, had the gymnasium rebuilt (with his father’s help), and raised more than $6 million for the school.
“He brought a lot of energy; he raised the visibility of the institution,” says Mike Miller, a partner in the Chicago office of Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm, who was the chairman of Hales’s board of trustees for most of the time that King was president. “It was a better place for his having been there.”
During those years, King also became the unofficial guardian for Keith Robbins, a homeless orphaned Hales student who lived with King during his junior and senior years. “Tim is my family,” says Robbins, 26, who graduated from Hales in 1998 and earned a philosophy degree from Georgetown. Robbins has since worked as an account manager for two local radio stations and currently runs an entertainment promotions company. “He adopted me, brought me into the [King] family, gave me a family environment,” Robbins says. He is included alongside King and his parents and older brother in the family portrait that sits on King’s desk in his River North office.
But King’s tenure at Hales was not without its problems. When he stepped down as president, Hales owed the IRS $300,000 in back payroll taxes. “Finance and administration were not his forte,” says Miller, who maintains that the debt came as a surprise to the school’s board of trustees. “There were hard issues that he could have been more forthright in addressing with the board.”
King says all the information regarding Hales’s finances was provided to the school’s finance committee on a monthly basis, and he attributes the debt to the ongoing funding difficulties that Hales faces. The school receives no money from the Catholic Church, and tuition-which many students cannot entirely afford-covers less than half the cost per pupil. The school relies on donations for the rest of its operating budget.
“It’s a Herculean task raising money for that school,” acknowledges Miller, who confirms that King left his position voluntarily. “Nobody was trying to get him out of there,” he says.
King admits that he ultimately was overwhelmed by the professional and personal demands of his work at Hales. “I was burned out,” he says of his reasons for leaving. “I was responsible for all the fundraising; I was responsible for the overall operations. It was exhausting.”
After leaving Hales, King founded the Philanthropy Group, a consulting firm that advised individuals and foundations in making grants and donations. By 2003, he had turned his attention back to education and had begun laying the groundwork for Urban Prep with the help of a team of veteran African American educators and business leaders, including the Chicago Bear turned lawyer Chris Zorich, a friend. (Business at the Philanthropy Group subsequently slowed, and the firm is no longer in operation.)
“This is something he has cared about deeply for years; this isn’t a new thing for him,” says Marcia Lipetz, a former senior vice president at the Philanthropy Group who now is the president and chief executive officer of the Executive Service Corps of Chicago, which assists the operations of nonprofit charitable organizations. “He understands and believes deeply that education is the key to lots of things.”
King conceived of Urban Prep as a response to the crisis of poor academic performance among African American boys, who have the highest school dropout rates and lowest graduation levels of any demographic group in the United States. “There is a huge need to figure out how to provide these young men with the opportunities they need to succeed in life,” King says, “and not to have them end up in jail, not end up in the criminal justice system, not end up killing each other, not end up dropping out.”
Urban Prep’s goal is to make certain that all of its students graduate and go on to earn college degrees. It is a formidable challenge. A 2004 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that only 39 percent of African American boys who entered the Chicago Public Schools at age 13 graduated by age 19; virtually all the rest dropped out of school. Making matters worse, according to the study, more than half of the African American boys who did graduate had grade point averages of less than 2.0 (on a 4.0 scale), and more than 78 percent had averages of less than 2.5.
“This basically cuts off access to college,” says Melissa Roderick, a codirector of the consortium and a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “Seventy-eight percent have access only to nonselective and two-year colleges [with open enrollments]” and will struggle while they are there, due to poor preparation.
Although the statistics for black males are particularly dire, they are also part of an overall pattern of poor school performance among boys of all racial and economic backgrounds that recently prompted a flurry of media attention, including a Newsweek cover story announcing “The Boy Crisis.”
“High schools have got to take responsibility for how they’re engaging boys in their school environments,” says Roderick, who has no professional affiliation with Urban Prep. “I don’t know if this particular school will figure it out, but I can’t think of a better group of people to do it.”
King believes that Urban Prep can change these dismal outcomes by stressing college preparation from the minute students walk in the door and by tailoring the school’s curriculum and teaching methods specifically to the needs of boys. For example, he points to studies that have found that boys’ hearing develops more slowly than girls and that boys learn better under stress. Accordingly, the school’s teachers will talk louder and challenge the students aggressively.
Of course, one of the basic rationales of all-boys’ schools has been that they remove the distraction of the opposite sex-and the behaviors boys engage in to attract the attention of girls. King also expects that the all-male environment will ease pressure on boys to conform to typically masculine gender roles, making it easier to participate in activities such as choir and other “feminine” endeavors.
Urban Prep will emphasize the language arts, in which boys underperform, requiring twice as many English classes-including literature, writing, and public speaking-as public schools. To build skills and character and make students more competitive as college applicants, the school will also require pupils to engage in extracurricular activities and community service and to work one day a week in a professional setting during their junior and senior years.
Urban Prep’s all-male enrollment is attractive to Debra and Clifton Gill, who live in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood and are exploring the possibility of sending their 13-year-old son, Ajamu, to the school in the fall. “It may be a better environment for a young male,” Debra says, “due to the fact that it allows them to be in an environment where they can focus on their educational studies and not so much on the social issues they face at this age.”
Elsewhere, though, news of Urban Prep prompted an outcry. A few weeks prior to the school’s approval, during the lead-in to his MSNBC program The Situation, the talk show host and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson called it “a return to state-sponsored racial segregation.” (Later in the program, he also said, “I still hope the school works, because I hope the kids succeed.”)
At least half a dozen bloggers reacted negatively, many of them seeing a double standard at work and speculating on the outrage that would accompany a similar plan for a predominantly white school. “This is outright discrimination against all other students, including female. . . . Didn’t civil rights teach anyone about equality?” read one of more than 100 comments that an article about the school elicited on the Web site Freerepublic.com.
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