There is one public, all-male, all–African American high school in the city of Chicago called "The Urban Prep Academy for Young Men," located in Englewood. The school recently got the attention of Mayor Richard Daley and Chicago Public Schools Chief Ron Huberman, when they were able to get all of their 107 seniors accepted in to 72 different colleges across the country.
Huberman had this to say:
"All of you in the senior class have shown that what matters is perseverance, what matters is focus, what matters is having a dream and following that dream."
I spoke with Evan Lewis, the school's Vice President for Institutional Advancement. He argues that getting the students in to college is not the only goal, but that getting them through college is what matters.
"We are not just committed to getting our students through high school, we are committed to getting them through college. We are going to be a constant presence in their lives and give them the support that a lot of folks don't have when they go to college."
The school has a very strict dress code, consisting of black blazers, khaki pants and a red tie. The red tie is swapped out for a gold one once the student is accepted in to college. When one student, Rayvaughn Hines, was asked which college he was accepted to, he said, "Do you want me to name them all?"
Hines, a student who once thought college wasn't made for him, has chosen to become a Morehouse man. He cherished the moment when he switched out his red tie for a gold one.
"I wanted to take my time, because I was just so proud of myself," he said. "I wanted everyone to see me put it on."
Urban Prep has a unique set of hurdles. It is in a troubled part of the city, and only 4 percent of the incoming freshmen could read at grade level. With hard work and persistence, the students who could not read at grade level four years ago are now on their way to college.
"I never had a doubt that we would achieve this goal," said Tim King, the school's founder and CEO. "Every single person we hired knew from the day one that this is what we do: We get our kids in to college."
From the day the students enter high school, they are prepared for the next step. They have a college counselor from day one, and their first field trip is a visit to Northwestern University. Their school day is longer than that of students who attend other schools. The school's voice mail has a student saying, "I am college bound," before the caller is able to dial an extension.
"These are the same guys who would have gone to traditional high schools and not enrolled in college had they not gone to Urban prep," said Vice President Lewis. "It's not rocket science. We work really hard and work really long hours. When you do that, you start to see results. We've instilled in them a belief in themselves and their ability and the willingness to do what it takes in order to be successful."
It was hard to write about Urban Prep without my eyes filling with tears. When I think back to my days as a high school student, when I truly believed that I wasn't smart enough to go to college, I become petrified. The memories frighten me, because I almost missed out on the chance to become Dr. Boyce Watkins. When someone kills your spirit and willingness to try, they have given a death sentence to your destiny.
What is also interesting is that Urban Prep is proving a critical truth that I've been screaming to my students for the past 17 years: When black males put the same intensity into academic achievement that we put into dribbling basketballs and throwing footballs, we are truly phenomenal. The young men at Urban Prep will have longer, more financially-rewarding careers than they would have had by pursuing their hoop dreams at the expense of everything else. They will also be well-positioned to be effective and relevant leaders in the 21st century. Being a great athlete can make you powerful, but being a great thinker makes you EMPOWERED. Power without empowerment is a recipe for social impotence (when's the last time you saw an athlete stand up for any kind of progressive social cause?)
Urban Prep certainly scores one point for charter schools. At the same time, President Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to learn lessons from Urban Prep and apply those lessons to every single school in the country. Urban Prep Academy should be given a massive budget to replicate its activities, since it has clearly shown a recipe for success. Additionally, the model of Urban Prep should be applied across the nation, because they are reminding us that when adults create an environment conducive for success, the children in that environment will always rise to the occasion.
You can watch the Urban Prep's 2009 Convocation below and get a whiff of the spirit and dedication they are bestowing on their students. I'm sure it will touch you and remind you that we are all capable of greatness. Show this to your children, show this to your neighborhood kids. Urban Prep Academy is breaking mental barriers and prescribed capabilities with each graduate they usher in to this big, bold world.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College." To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.