Lauded all-boys charter school faces Chicago Public Schools takeover

CPS wants to take over Urban Prep Academies in an unprecedented move to wrest control from its troubled leaders while trying not to displace students.

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Urban Prep is the city’s only all-male charter school operator, once celebrated nationally for getting all its seniors, who are almost all Black, into college year after year.

Urban Prep is the city’s only all-male charter school operator, once celebrated nationally for getting all its seniors, who are almost all Black, into college year after year

Pat Nabong /Sun-Times file photo

In an unprecedented move, Chicago Public Schools plans to take over a once-lauded charter school, with the goal of wresting control from its troubled management while trying to avoid hurting students in the process.

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution to “wind down” Urban Prep’s current management. It wants to keep two of its campuses open as programs of existing district schools. The resolution promises the campuses would remain open through at least next school year.

Urban Prep is the city’s only all-male charter school operator, once celebrated nationally for getting all its seniors, who are almost all Black, into college year after year. It currently has two CPS campuses, one in Englewood and one in Bronzeville, with about 380 students. CPS budgeted $8 million for Urban Prep this year. 

A third Urban Prep campus is run by the state. Earlier this month, the state board of education issued Urban Prep a “notice of revocation.” The state said Urban Prep must provide a corrective action plan, and the state board will vote at its Nov. 17 meeting whether to allow the campus to continue operating. 

District officials lay out an extensive case against Urban Prep in a board report released Monday. Among the many failures cited: Only one-third of teachers are certified; a failure to provide special education services for disabled students; financial turmoil and mismanagement. Officials also lambasted the charter operator for refusing to sever ties with its founder and executive director after allegations of sexual misconduct involving a student were substantiated against him.

“In the judgment of [Chicago Board of Education] representatives, [Urban Prep Academies] has prioritized personal considerations of executives and administrators over student health and safety, responsible fiscal management, compliance with laws, and compliance with their Charter obligations,” an attachment explaining the resolution read.

Tim King, the founder and executive director, denied sexually abusing a student. Through his attorney, he called them “wild accusations.” King filed court documents asking a judge to reverse disciplinary actions against him by CPS.

School district officials said they’ve been trying to work with Urban Prep’s board and executives to resolve the issues but felt they weren’t negotiating in good faith, according to the attachment. 

Urban Prep officials called CPS’ takeover attempt an “attack” and said the school district is “more interested in dragging down our leadership and school than in the successful education of young Black men.” They note that Urban Prep’s campuses were recognized as “commendable” by the state this year, the second-highest rating. 

At a press conference Tuesday, Dennis Lacewell, Urban Prep’s chief academic officer, said the charter school was started because of the school district’s dismal record of educating Black male students, and the school still does a much better job graduating students and getting them into college.

“Yet CPS ... [has] the audacity to think that they can be successful taking over Urban Prep,” he said. “It is both ludicrous and infuriating.”

In response to previous WBEZ reporting that exposed problems at the nearly 20-year-old school, Urban Prep officials have previously said they have struggled financially in the past because they sought to keep providing extra support for students while facing budget cuts. They also said they faced discrimination as a charter school run solely by Black men. 

WBEZ reported this summer that the district’s inspector general substantiated sexual misconduct accusations against King. According to the inspector general, King groomed and had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student for years. 

King hired the victim to work at Urban Prep, according to the board report. Then, he kept him on the payroll for three years after the young man stopped working for the taxpayer-funded charter school, CPS said.

In the board attachment, CPS officials said the response by Urban Prep’s board to the inspector general’s report has been “extremely disappointing and, in some respects, astonishing.”

King resigned, but was appointed to two boards connected to Urban Prep. Then, Urban Prep refused to inform parents about the substantiated case. Instead, CPS had to do it, according to CPS.

The charter school also has pursued a campaign to disparage the victim rather than support him, CPS charged in the attachment to the board resolution. 

Even before the inspector general’s report, the school district had serious concerns about Urban Prep’s financial condition, according to an internal memo obtained by WBEZ. For years, the school district gave the charter network cash advances to make payroll, and still the charter school took out high-interest loans. 

Urban Prep officials earlier this year said they are in a much better financial position. 

Like many charter schools, Urban Prep got a $3.1 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, meant to help organizations avoid layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the memo. CPS officials said Urban Prep overstated the number of staff members on its payroll in applying for the PPP loan.

Also, there are questions about whether charter schools, which continued to be paid by CPS, even when schools were locked down, should have gotten PPP loans at all. 

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

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