Saturday, March 31, 2012

Urban Prep charter hype redux

Lots of extra resources for Urban Prep
The media usually go nuts every year when  Chicago's Urban Prep Academy announces it has enrolled 100% of it's graduates in college. In Arne Duncan's Race To The Top, Urban Prep is definitely considered a winner.

I always applaud founder Tim King and the Urban Prep teachers and counselors for meeting their yearly goal. I mean, this is a school that only accepts students who are committed to going to college. Those more interested or financially compelled to go directly into the world of work, need not apply. College enrollment is its reason for being and students are, from the start, dressed up in preppy outfits, blazers and striped ties, to get them into the Ivy League frame of mind. I wonder how many are actually headed to the Ivy League or to schools (or jobs) where people actually dress like this? I also wonder how many of those enrolled will be able to afford skyrocketing college tuition or make it all the way through to graduation.

Urban Prep is located in the south-side, racially-isolated Englewood community and is the only all-African-American, all-male charter high school in Chicago. It's been touted by some reformers as a "Chicago miracle," and "no excuses" school and proof of the superiority of charters over the city's "failing" public schools. It is also a school that has been successful in attracting large donations from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and one that is able to spend $12,000 per student -- certainly not on par with wealthy suburban schools, but high by CPS standards.

But once you cut through all the hype, Urban Prep is anything but a miracle. For one thing, only about half of its students even make it to their senior year. This high attrition rate is typical of charter schools and neighborhood schools alike. For another, despite its strong emphasis on test scores, UP's reading and math scores are among the lowest in the district and usually fall below the CPS average for African-American male students.

Last year the school had its charter renewed even though it failed to meet most of its own accountability targets. Only 17 percent of Urban Prep juniors passed their state exams a year ago, far lower than the district average of 29 percent. On the positive side, that beats the 8.4 percent passing rate in many neighboring high schools. But nevertheless, nothing to write home about. 

As I pointed out last year, the school's entire graduating class has been accepted to four-year universities even though only 12% of them met the college readiness benchmark in reading and only 36% met the benchmark in English on the ACT exam. And while UP's composite ACT score is a few (3) points higher than nearby high schools, it's important to remember that Urban Prep ISN'T a neighborhood school. It draws its students from 31 different zip-codes in the city.

So yes, congratulations to the teachers and students who made it through 4 years at Urban Prep. But let's put an end to all the hype and the playing off of UP against other public schools, all of which could do a hell of a lot better with Urban Prep's resources.


  1. They also changed their wikipedia entry to mask their numbers.

    I wrote this two years ago:

    At the time, their wikipedia was this:

    And it spoke of starting with 150 freshmen.

    Within hours of the publication of my entry, it was changed to this:

    And it no longer mentioned starting with 150 freshmen.

    Sadly, I meant what I wrote in the original piece -- what they do, even with the real attrition numbers, is worthy of praise.

    But when there is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and make your numbers look better than they are, that a) disrespects the mission of education, b) disrespects the kids who didn't make it through, c) makes it harder for us to have a real conversation about the challenges of education in this country, and none of that is o.k.

    1. The problem is that this is not an apples to apples comparison to neighborhood schools, but it is held up as one. I called it apples to oranges and Matt Farmer corrected me... it's more like apples to Cheetos.



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