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Juwaun Cooper Muhammad, an Urban Prep graduate who went on to Georgetown University, is among a group of African American leaders who want Urban Prep to continue running the city’s only all-boys high school focused on Black teens. Chicago Public Schools revoked Urban Prep’s operating charter and plans to run the school starting this fall.

Sarah Karp

A last-ditch effort is underway to prevent CPS takeover of all-boys Chicago charter school

A group of African American leaders in Chicago called on the mayor Tuesday to halt the takeover of Urban Prep Academy —the once-lauded, but recently troubled charter high school that serves Black male students — as Chicago Public Schools prepares to start running the school this fall.

“If the empirical evidence shows the leading issue here in the city of Chicago is crime, and education is the way forward to reduce crime, then why is it that they’re going to close a school like Urban Prep as opposed to duplicate Urban Prep?” said attorney Victor Henderson, at a press conference on behalf of the Coalition of African American Leaders or COAL. “We don’t need to see fewer Urban Preps. We need to see more of that.”

The Chicago Board of Education voted in October to revoke the charter authorizing Urban Prep to operate two campuses in Chicago for violations related to a case of sexual misconduct substantiated by the CPS inspector general, financial troubles and the refusal of Urban Prep’s board to comply with conditions set by the district. Then in November, the state, which oversaw Urban Prep’s third campus, followed suit and voted to shut it down. The state this spring also denied an appeal of CPS’s decision. The three campuses enrolled about 420 students in the 2022-23 school year.

School district leaders and board members said they value Urban Prep’s program, which focused on providing students with confidence and pride. They plan to continue operations as a new school, tentatively called the Bronzeville/Englewood High School, in the same two buildings Urban Prep currently uses. Few details have been released about that school’s program, but school district leaders have said it will carry forward the same values and mission.

“We are committed to operating a high-quality CPS-run high school at the current Bronzeville and Englewood campus locations, with programs that continue to center cultural identity, social-emotional supports, and strong post-secondary pathways for students,” CPS said in a statement released Tuesday.

Urban Prep filed a lawsuit claiming that revoking its operating charter violates the state’s moratorium on school closings, which is in place until 2025. A judge last week decided not to issue a temporary restraining order that would have prevented CPS from moving forward, but the case is still pending.

Henderson said COAL wants the district to abandon its plans to take over the school and allow Urban Prep to remain open. If the decision to let CPS run the school stands, they said they want a clear explanation why from Gov. JB Pritzker and Mayor Brandon Johnson. Former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris attended the press conference along with the chairman of COAL, Clarence Wood, who headed the Chicago Commission on Human Rights for 18 years.

Henderson implied that CPS pulled the plug on Urban Prep’s leadership for a variety of reasons outside those cited by the school district.

“So if the school is being closed down because of politics, if a school is being closed down, because we’ve heard they want the money … if the school is being closed down, because we’ve heard they’re indifferent to educating young Black boys and young brown boys. Whatever the reason is, we want to know,” Henderson said. “That’s why we’re here today.”

Pritzker’s office declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit. Mayor Johnson also had no immediate comment.

The revocation of Urban Prep’s charter came after a CPS inquiry revealed the school’s management had been mired in financial turmoil, an investigation by WBEZ showed. Among other issues, CPS officials said the management took high-interest “predatory” loans to make payroll and didn’t pay a company to provide special education services, leaving students without needed support for months.

Then, last summer, it was revealed that Tim King, who founded the charter school network and was once celebrated as Time magazine’s Man of the Year, had a substantiated case of sexual misconduct. CPS especially took issue with the charter schools minimizing the sexual misconduct in correspondence with parents, against the direction of the school district.

Urban Prep’s management has argued it has resolved its financial issues, which it blamed on the state’s failure to make timely payments between 2016 and 2018. The school also has seen its enrollment decline steeply over the years. King denies the sexual misconduct allegations against him and his attorney has said they were made by a troubled young man.

Dennis Lacewell, founding principal at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus who went on to become the organization’s chief academic officer, said he doesn’t know of any Urban Prep students who plan to attend the new school run by CPS.

“Our families have been standing with us and, certainly in our communication with them, said they chose Urban Prep because they knew CPS couldn’t do the job with their young man that Urban Prep does,” he said. “So they do not trust or believe in CPS.”

CPS officials said 300 students are projected to attend the new school and the district is budgeting about $6.4 million, which is $1.7 million less than for the two Urban Prep schools last year. That suggests they are expecting the enrollment to decline. The school district says the new school will serve young men, but will be open to all students. They note that technically this was always the case. Federal law dictated it be open to both boys and girls.

In a letter sent to parents earlier this month, the principal of the new school to be run by CPS starting this fall, Chris Shelton Jr., said he was inspired by Black men who taught him while he was a CPS student.

“One of the most powerful aspects of my CPS education was that I had many Black males as teachers,” wrote Shelton, who is Black. “These men gave me a sense of identity and purpose back then, and I still look to many of them for mentorship and advice even today.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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