Fate of Urban Prep’s third campus in the hands of Illinois Board of Education

A group of high school students stand at left. Adults are seated nearby in an auditorium.

A third Urban Prep campus is facing an uncertain future amid allegations of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct at the charter school.

The Illinois Board of Education is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether or not to revoke the charter agreement for Urban Prep’s West campus. If approved, Urban Prep will not be able to operate as a public charter school effective at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

The move comes after the Chicago Board of Education voted in October to end its charter agreement with Urban Prep to operate two other campuses in Bronzeville and Englewood after the district watchdog substantiated misconduct allegations against the charter network’s founder.

The state has had oversight of Urban Prep’s West campus since 2019 after the Chicago Board of Education voted to revoke the organization’s charter for the West campus citing concerns over financial mismanagement and dwindling enrollment. 

The school board allowed two other Urban Prep schools in Bronzeville and Englewood to continue operating under its oversight until last month. That’s when the board revoked Urban Prep’s charter and set in motion a plan to take over the schools.  

Once considered a darling of the charter school movement for its success graduating Black boys, Urban Prep’s stunning fall comes after an investigation issued this summer by the district’s watchdog substantiated allegations that Urban Prep’s founder, Tim King, had an inappropriate relationship with a student during his time at the school and in the years that followed when the student was employed by the charter network. King resigned in June, but strongly denies the allegations. 

Current Urban Prep leadership sent a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Nov. 4, asking him to intervene and stop the Chicago school board’s actions. 

Dennis Lacewell, chief academic officer, and Troy Boyd, Jr., chief operating officer, wrote that Chicago Public Schools’ actions are “an attempt to substitute our success operating the district’s only charter schools founded and led by Black men focused on the educational outcomes of Black males with a quasi-district school program that does not serve our community.” 

“If equity is a priority in Chicago and Illinois where we want positive outcomes for our young, intelligent, Black and beautiful men then the future existence and independence of Urban Prep Academies must be preserved,” they wrote. 

Both Lacewell and Boyd were interviewed during the watchdog investigation. The report states that Boyd confirmed he went on a trip to Las Vegas with King and the student after the student had graduated. Lacewell is mentioned as being the principal of one of Urban Prep’s campuses during some of the alleged interactions. The report states that Lacewell said it was “not unusual for King to provide financial assistance to former students, even if they were not employed by Urban Prep.”

How a successful charter school stumbled

Urban Prep opened its first campus in 2006, before expanding to two more campuses. The charter school received national recognition for ensuring each of its graduates were admitted to college.  

Urban Prep founder King was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in 2009, named a “Chicagoan of the Year” by Chicago Magazine in 2010, and spoke about changing the narrative about Black boys at SXSW in 2016.  

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted the schools’ success during his time as mayor between 2011 and 2019 and local media frequently covered Urban Prep’s college signing day

But in 2018, the network’s West campus was placed on an “academic watch” list and subsequently recommended for closure. The school board revoked the charter for Urban Prep’s West campus, also citing concerns with financial mismanagement and low enrollment.

Urban Prep appealed to the Illinois State Charter School Commission, which overturned Chicago Public Schools decision to shutter the West campus in March 2019. 

At the time, Commissioner Bill Farmer said the school was “not set up to be successful.

“We are potentially just delaying a school closure because they’re not going to be able to do the turnaround that needs to happen,” Farmer said.

The Illinois State Charter School Commission was dissolved by the state legislature in August 2019 and the responsibility of hearing charter school appeals returned to the Illinois State Board of Education.

With two campuses under the oversight of the Chicago school board and one authorized by the state, Urban Prep continued educating nearly 400 Chicago teens, most of them Black boys. In 2021, teachers at the two CPS-authorized campuses went on strike for two days in early June as the school year was ending.

Then this summer, WBEZ reported King’s resignation after an investigation by Chicago Public Schools’ Inspector General substantiated the sexual misconduct allegations and financial mismanagement issues.

The report alleged King groomed and sexually touched an underage student while he was enrolled. The report states the relationship continued after the student graduated, with the two taking trips to Vegas, Ibiza, London, and Los Angeles, and King paying the student’s rent and co-signing for leases on multiple Chicago apartments. The student also went on to work at Urban Prep and continued to receive paychecks and benefits even after he stopped working there in 2018, the report said. 

At the Chicago school board meeting in October, Urban Prep school leaders, students, and staff lobbied the board not to revoke the charter’s license, but members were unmoved.

“It’s an egregious report, and it should make everybody upset,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland in October, referring to the investigation’s findings about King. “It’s shameful to me that the Urban Prep board had this information and did not act swiftly.”  

During the meeting, district leaders acknowledged Urban Prep’s strong academic record for Black boys. But they also noted the schools failed to provide federally mandated services to students with disabilities and did not have enough licensed educators staffed at the school, according to documents.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said the district believes in keeping the two campuses open. Urban Prep Bronzeville enrolled 222 students this fall and the Englewood location has 161 students enrolled.  Martinez said the district also expects to keep current school staff.

“We want to make sure high-quality programs continue for children in Bronzeville and Englewood — it’s essential,” Martinez said. But, he added, “We cannot compromise. We need ethical behavior, and we need to make sure we are protecting our children.”

According to state data, the West campus enrolled 91 students last year.  The state board is expected to make a decision on what happens there on Thursday. 

Correction: Nov. 17, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect that 91 students were enrolled at Urban Prep’s West campus last year, not this fall.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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