Urban Prep loses charter agreement for last Chicago campus

Students in uniform stand in an auditorium at a charter school in Englewood.
State Board of Education members said enrollment at the Urban Prep campus it oversees is too low to be financially stable. The school’s 51 students will have to enroll elsewhere next fall.  (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

After months of controversy surrounding Urban Prep Academy, the Illinois board of education ended the charter school’s agreement for its downtown campus Thursday, citing enrollment declines.

The move marks the latest blow to the nationally recognized charter network that specializes in serving Black boys on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

Last month, Chicago Public School moved to revoke its charter agreement and take over Urban Prep’s Bronzeville and Englewood campuses following a report from the district’s inspector general that substantiated misconduct allegations against the charter school’s founder.

Illinois board members voted to revoke the Urban Prep charter agreement after the charter school failed to maintain enrollment numbers at a certain level for its West/Downtown campus. Since originally opening in West Garfield Park, the campus has moved various times. Most recently, it relocated to Roosevelt University two years ago.  

Board member Jaime Guzman, who voted to revoke the agreement, said the most important constituency were the 51 students who would require support from ISBE in the transition. 

“This is a sad decision,” Guzman said.

Board member Donna Leaks, who abstained from casting a vote, said she could not support revocation of a charter for a school that’s provided a “unique opportunity for African American young men” in Chicago. Still, she said she understood the issues around sustainability.

“My hope is that there will be an effort to maintain this model that empowers our young African American men to feel pride, high expectations, and know their value,” Leaks said, fighting back tears.

Urban Prep’s downtown campus will be required to surrender its charter and close at the end of the 2022-23 school year. The charter school leaders will still be able to appeal the decision in court.

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. 

As part of the charter agreement with the state, Urban Prep was required to maintain enrollment at 155 students. The charter’s West/Downtown campus, located at Roosevelt University in South Loop, currently has 51 students enrolled. The charter school has failed to meet enrollment requirements for three consecutive years and the numbers have fallen precipitously, state officials said. 

During the meeting, Dennis Lacewell, chief academic officer for Urban Prep, lobbied board members to keep the school open, arguing enrollment declines are not unique to Urban Prep, but something local schools serving Black students are grappling with in Chicago.

“We do not dispute the fact that our current enrollment numbers are not ideal,” Lacewell said. “However, we will like to highlight how this is a challenge that is not unique to Urban Prep and other schools serving Black students, particularly post-pandemic.”

Concerns over enrollment numbers were first raised in a letter sent to the school last month, leaving the school with only a few weeks to increase enrollment by over 40 students, Lacewell said.

“We simply ask that Urban Prep Downtown campus is allowed to continue to grow and move forward in an upward trajectory,” Lacewell said. 

At Thursday’s meeting, several students spoke fondly of their experiences at the charter school, expressing interest in wanting to finish out their high school career at Urban Prep. 

Michael Woodard said he had witnessed “nothing but Black excellence” in his three years as an Urban Prep student.  He described support from teachers, staff, and peers — and cited the charter school’s record of seeing all graduating students receive offers to attend college:

“I believe that I speak for all of my brothers in every graduating class when I say: ‘We want to finish what we started by graduating as Urban Prep young men.’”

Still, state board members remained unmoved and voted to revoke the agreement of the once-lauded charter school.

Jackie Matthews, executive director of communications for ISBE, said the board will work with the charter school’s families and CPS “to ensure that students have adequate supports before and during their transition into other CPS schools and programs that meets their unique needs.”

Chicago Public Schools plans to continue the Bronzeville and Englewood programs with teachers and staff for the 2023-24 school year, Matthews added in an email.

The district has assured the state board that Urban Prep students at the West/Downtown campus will be prioritized for the programs should students want to continue under the Urban Prep model absorbed by the district, Matthews said.

The state action also came early enough to allow Urban Prep students to participate in Chicago Public Schools’ high school application process for the 2023-24 school year, Matthews added.

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

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