At Chicago's Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, Englewood Campus, 95% of the students enroll in college. Their graduating seniors have been accepted to a broad selection of schools, including Princeton, Georgetown, and Howard University.
"We're changing the narrative of African American males," says Lionel Allen, Urban Prep Academies' chief academic officer. “We're providing a story that counters what is often told: death, destruction, and failure. A lot of people believe that is the only possibility for black males, that they have no chance to make it. We believe differently.”
Most Urban Prep students are the first in their families to go to college. They come in with misconceptions that as a young black man, they can only make it as either a musician or an athlete, and that they can't succeed in college -- or have never even considered going to college. Urban Prep counters these misconceptions and redefines their students' beliefs on what's possible.
How It's Done
Plan College Campus Field Trips
The best way to combat students' misconceptions about college is to have them experience college life and build familiarity with the college experience. Within the first two weeks of starting at Urban Prep, freshman students visit a college campus. This allows them to visualize themselves going to college, and it educates them on what to expect so that they can better navigate college life.
"They need to see what it's like to actually be there, because some of them have never been outside of their communities," explains Jessica Cole, an Urban Prep, Englewood Campus college counselor.
During their college field trip, they tour the campus from the dorms to the libraries, eat at the cafeteria, talk with college admissions officers and administrators, and talk with Urban Prep alumni who attend the school. "You see a different light in the students' eyes once they're at the college," observes Donte Wilkins, an Urban Prep, Englewood Campus college counselor.
One obvious field trip destination has been the Northwestern University campus. They chose Northwestern because it's nearby, and also because Urban Prep alumni were enrolled there and eager to show high school freshmen that college life is possible. Allen, Urban Prep Academies' chief academic officer, says that these are elements to consider when choosing a college campus for a high school tour.
Create a College Culture at Your School
"It's in the atmosphere," explains Desmond, an Urban Prep, Englewood Campus senior. “You can't say Urban Prep without thinking, 'Man, these guys are going to college.’”
Outside every classroom door at Urban Prep, faculty display a college pennant showing the name of their college or graduate school. "When freshman first step in, they see that when you come to Urban Prep, you're going to college," says Wilkins. "We tell them, 'Please ask your teachers, ask the staff, where did you go to college?'"
When teachers and staff share their experiences, it turns the idea of college into a reality for their students. Before entering high school, most Urban Prep students didn't know anybody who went to college, and now they see their mainly black, male teachers and staff as college graduate role models who reflect their image. These role models are open about sharing their experiences and are available to answer their students' questions about college.
Prepare Your Students Socially and Emotionally for College
Urban Prep students are part of Prides, and one aspect of that is a daily class, freshman through senior year, where they work on developing social-emotional skills and discuss college life. During Pride, students talk about issues that they might face in their first year of college, how to advocate for themselves, and how to build relationships with teachers and other students. When discussing those topics, the Pride leaders and their students play out hypothetical situations that they'll likely encounter and explore how to handle them. To help lessen the pressure and intimidation of college talk, and to help familiarize and excite their students about college, Pride leaders talk about the social aspect of college, including various activities and clubs they can join.
"The goal of Pride is to help young men navigate through not only school, but also through being an adolescent male with the obstacles that they're facing, and then trying to lead them through college, add reinforcement outside of the classroom, and give them very clear insight as to what to expect in college," says Dion Steele, Urban Prep, Englewood Campus' principal.
Urban Prep students also learn life and college readiness skills, like:
- Coping with new environments and leaving home
- Time and stress management
"A lot of times we see students go off to college, and although they might be successful by the numbers," they need to learn how to deal with their emotional life. "That's the most important part about this whole class: becoming well-rounded young men," says Gregory Sashington, an Urban Prep, Englewood Campus alumni, Pride leader, and assistant dean.
Prepare Your Students Academically
"Unfortunately, the majority of students entering Urban Prep read at about the fifth- or sixth-grade level, and most of them are not able to perform math above the seventh-grade level," explains Allen. “We've had to design an academic model that allows us to remediate and accelerate almost simultaneously.”
With an extended eight-hour school day, Urban Prep students are required to take:
- A double period of math during freshman and sophomore years
- A double period of English during all four years
This brings their students to grade-level reading and math by 12th grade. Every year, they take an English composition class focused on writing and grammar skills, and also a literature course, like English Survey or AP Literature and Composition. In their freshman year, they take two algebra classes, and in their sophomore year, they have two periods of geometry.
"What we’re finding, and what the research supports," says Allen, "is that it’s not ACT scores that’s the best predictor of college success, it’s actually performance in algebra class. If students are algebra-ready by the time they complete their freshman year, they’re more likely to succeed in college." He adds, "Even though they come to us with this level of academic difficulty, in four years they have to graduate. They have to be ready to attend college and be ready to perform and succeed once they arrive."
Offer a College Preparation Course
In the first semester of senior year, instead of taking an elective course, Urban Prep students take a college prep course. This class is held five days a week for one school period. Students work on and submit their college applications, receive guidance on their essays, speak with college admission representatives, learn about financial aid, and participate in scholarship workshops.
Select the Right Schools to Ensure 100% College Acceptance
Urban Prep takes a strategic approach to guiding their students through the application process. They apply to 15 colleges, and the application fees are waived because they are a free and reduced lunch school.
Urban Prep students begin the college application process with a one-day boot camp. This involves skipping their first four periods of class and applying to four colleges that their Urban Prep college counselor picks for them. "We look at the different ACT scores and GPAs, and we partner them with schools that are within their ranges," says Cole.
The boot camp helps students become familiar with the process and the type of questions to expect, and getting accepted to those first schools builds their confidence and gets them excited about applying to the other 11 schools.
After the application boot camp, students have one-on-one meetings with their college counselor, where they discuss their interests, consider potential majors, and create their Senior College List (PDF). This group of 11 colleges consists of:
- One dream school
- One reach school
- Two probable schools
- Two safety schools
- Two historically black schools
- Three state schools
Counselors consider their students' interests, the type of environment they're looking for, their grades, their strengths (for example, some students are better at taking tests and others at writing), and the academic and social support resources that various colleges offer. They match these elements with colleges that will likely accept the students and at which they'll succeed. Counselors also select schools based on where their previous students have been accepted and where great financial aid is offered.
Bring in College Admission Representatives
"The power of bringing the college representative into our classroom is getting the students to be able to hear about the college from someone outside of myself and our other college counselor," says Cole.
College representatives come for 45 minutes during the college prep class. They give a presentation and allow time for questions, both as a class and one-on-one. Students can ask questions of the people who will be reading their applications, and that's a powerful resource. What can they do now to increase their likelihood of getting accepted to that school? What can they do to find scholarships and grants? What kind of student support services does the school offer? What are the strong majors?
If you start bringing in college representatives during freshman and sophomore years, your students can introduce themselves one-on-one, explain that they may have lower tests scores or GPA, and the college representatives can give them advice on ways to increase their scores and grades, what they can write about in their essays, and "what they can actually get in the habit of doing in hopes of getting accepted into their college," says Cole.
Guide Your Students in the College Essay Process
To help students write their college essays, counselors workshop essays and personal statements that previous students have written. They show both an exemplar text and one that needs work. They ask their students to compare and contrast the two:
- What else should be included?
- What shouldn't be included?
After their students understand the structure of a college application essay and personal statement, and have workshopped what does and doesn't work, they have one-on-one meetings with their college counselor about their life experiences and how they can write about them. "We ask our students, 'What was your biggest obstacle? What defines you? What have you gone through that makes you who are you are today?'" explains Wilkins.
Students with a lower GPA are encouraged to address that in their personal statements. "That helps them out a lot with getting the representatives to understand that they're more than their ACT and GPA," says Cole. “Many of our young men are very involved in community service, service learning, clubs, and sports.”
When students write their essays, they'll give their drafts to their college counselors to edit before they submit their applications. "We'll just do grammatical corrections. Overall, they do well on their first edits as long as we give them the proper tools to prepare them for that essay process," explains Wilkins.
Help Your Students Choose Schools They Can Afford
Lack of financial aid is one of the biggest obstacles of enrolling in college. "We have a no FASFA, no prom policy," says Wilkins. "Every week in January, we have a FASFA night for every parent to come out and get their FASFA done with their student."
Urban Prep also emphasizes the importance of applying for scholarships. "We speak with the college representatives, and they inform us of the different merit- or need-based opportunities for grants and scholarships," says Cole. With that information, they have their students apply for 10 scholarships.
When it's time for students to select a college, Cole describes how "we look at their financial aid award letters, the income of the family's home, the expected family contribution, the actual tuition, and scholarships and grants." Counselors have conversations with their students' parents, letting them know which schools have accepted their student and the financial aid packages that each one is offering, and they make their recommendations based on those schools offering the most financial aid.
Sign Your Students Up for Summer College Programs
Urban Prep has created partnerships with different schools, from Cornell and Georgetown University to Cambridge College in England, so that students can experience taking college classes and campus life. They give their freshmen, sophomore, and junior students the opportunity to take part in their summer programs, ranging from "Experiment in International Living: A Program of World Learning" -- where students engage in another culture and learn critical thinking and advocacy skills -- to the University of Chicago's four-year Collegiate Scholars Program.
To make these summer programs financially feasible, Urban Prep partners with no-fee programs -- like College Connect at DePaul University and Telluride Association Sophomore Seminar at Indiana University -- and assists students in applying for financial aid and scholarships for fee-based programs.
When seeking partner schools for summer programs, it is important that they offer "curriculum to enhance leadership, college readiness, and academic and social skills," says Allen. “It is also important that they offer scholarships or financial aid opportunities, being that many of our young men are of low-income families.”
"Before Urban Prep, college was more, 'If I go, I go, if I don't, I don't,' but once getting here, they've helped me do things I never thought I'd do," reflects DaShawn, a 12th-grade Urban Prep, Englewood Campus student. “I think about college every day. I'm so amped up for it right now.”
Celebrate Your Students’ College Acceptance
When students at Urban Prep are accepted by their first college, they are celebrated in front of their entire school in a ritual known as On to the Next One. The school honors them with the gift of a red-and-gold-striped tie. "It gets the entire school in this mindset of, 'I can't wait to go to college. I can't wait to get this red and gold tie,'" explains Wilkins. "The students really cherish that moment."
"I had trouble sleeping last night because of the excitement," shares Ke'Avery, an Urban Prep, Englewood Campus 12th-grade student, recalling his tie ceremony. "I'm on to the next level. I'm ready for it. I'm going to college."