Men In America
4:00 pm
Fri July 4, 2014

Chicago Students Enroll As Boys, And Graduate As College-Bound Men

Originally published on Sun July 6, 2014 6:27 pm

This story is part of All Things Considered's "Men in America" series.

In America, nearly 40 percent of black boys live in poverty, and barely half will graduate from high school.

But it's quite a different story for young black men at a public charter high school in Chicago. For five years running, 100 percent of the graduating seniors at Urban Prep Academies have won admission to four-year colleges, and they've collectively earned millions of dollars in scholarships and grants.

Urban Prep's first campus opened in 2006, in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, an area plagued by gang crime, shootings and vacant homes. Two more campuses have since opened elsewhere in Chicago. Founder Tim King says he wanted to locate schools in challenged neighborhoods.

"Oftentimes with our students, the images they see are black males hanging out on the streets, being absentee fathers, being unemployed," King says. "So we do think that part of our job has to be to provide positive images."

King says students at Urban Prep see black men working together: The principals at the school's three campuses and 40 percent of the staff are all black men.

Urban Prep faculty teach students to be good people, King says, and by extension, strong black men. They learn facts, he says, that provide a fuller picture of black masculinity than the pervasive negative images around them.

"There's a black man who is the CEO of McDonald's," King says. "We know there's a black man who is president of the United States."

Another key factor, says King, are the rituals that help create the school's culture. Every day students recite the school's We Believe creed. And when seniors get admitted to college, their uniforms — khakis, white shirts, dark jackets and ties — get an update: The solid red ties are switched to striped red and gold ones.

One of those striped ties was worn by Steven Clark, the Englewood campus' 17-year-old valedictorian, who will be attending Denison University in the fall. Clark was the president of the senior class and captain of the bowling team. His eyes light up when he talks about majoring in psychology and later going on to graduate school and starting his own business.

On one of the last days of school, Clark says he believes men should be strong and still able to show their feelings. And he says there are more positive images of black men in real life than you see on television:

"We get [the] spotlight for 100 percent of us graduating and going off to college, but that's only a small step. I feel the negativity outweighs the positive for us," Clark says. "It's sad, because I'm a black man and I just don't want people to think of me as negative."

Clark says when he came to Urban Prep, he began to learn much more about African-Americans and Africa.

"That's when I became more aware of who I was as a man," Clark says, "but not only that, as a black man."

Even so, Clark says, there's an even bigger influence in his life.

"My dad has been the biggest teacher I've had. He's supportive not 8 hours a day, he's supportive 24 hours a day," Clark says. "Even if [at] times I may come to school angry because we battled about something in the car or something, my dad is still my biggest role model that I look up to."

Clark is the youngest child in a large family. His parents are divorced, and he is among the last of his siblings to live at home with his father on a street full of tidy bungalows and neat lawns

Inside the house, his father, Allen Clark, points to pictures of his children — including a baby Steven. Allen Clark had already retired from one job and was working another when he decided to quit so he could drive his son to the Urban Prep campus in Englewood.

"He was [my] last kid, you know. The other ones are ... 15 or 16 years older than him, so they really never had situations as bad as it is in today's society, with the shooting and killing and getting jumped on," Allen Clark says. "So I said, 'To eliminate any mishaps here, I'll just pick you up [and] take you to school.' "

He says he has faith that when his son goes off to college, he will succeed.

"He went through four years at Urban Prep. I didn't have to get on him about studying or nothing," Allen Clark says. "He came home. He did his work. And I just hope he continues that habit and just pushes for getting ahead."

On graduation day, 250 seniors from Urban Prep Academies enter an auditorium, greeted by cheers and applause. Steven Clark takes his place on the stage to deliver Englewood's valedictorian speech.

"Growing up in Chicago we often hear these questions: 'Who was shot last night?' 'Who dropped out of school?' 'Who is the member of a gang?' But hold on — I want to show the world something real quick," he says.

Clark whips out his cell phone and takes a selfie in his cap and gown. He tells the crowd he'll post the photo on Instagram with the hashtag #collegebound.

"I have to show the world that the real black males of Chicago are sitting right here in this room, because we are graduates, not gangsters," Clark says. "We are dedicated, not delinquent. We are collegian, not convicts — and let the world know that. "

As a young black man, Clark says, he knows there may be some bumps ahead. But he says he'll be resilient — and the brotherhood he's been a part of in high school will be there to help.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. We've been hearing about men this summer - how their roles have changed, what their lives, their experiences are like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING))

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: I thought, you know, becoming a man was growing a beard and having kids. But now I know that it's being accountable for everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: The pressure. I think there's a stereotype of being a man - that you have to provide for other people. That's probably the worst part.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: What the hell does it mean to be a man? It's kind of - I think it's a responsibility that we really don't understand.

SIEGEL: The statistics about black boys are startling. Nearly 40 percent live in property, and 48 percent will not graduate from high school. Today, however, we hear about young black men who are succeeding. For five years running at Urban Prep Academy - that's a public high school in Chicago - 100 percent of the graduating seniors have won admission to four-year colleges, as well as millions of dollars in scholarships and grants. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report on the school and one of its most promising students.

(DRUM BEAT)

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Before classes get started at this Urban Prep high school, the Djembe Drummer's Club beats out rhythms during community, the morning assembly. The students, wearing khakis, white shirts, dark jackets and red ties, have already lined up in groups.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: Good morning, Urban Prep.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Good Morning.

MAN 4: I said, good morning, Urban Prep.

STUDENTS: Good morning.

CORLEY: This school opened in 2006 in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, an area plagued by gang crime, shootings and vacant homes. Founder Tim King says he wanted to locate schools in challenged neighborhoods.

TIM KING: Oftentimes with our students, the images they see are black males, hanging out on the streets, being absentee fathers, being unemployed. So we do think that part of our job has to be to provide positive images.

CORLEY: King says what students see at Urban Prep are black men working together. The principals at the school's three campuses and 40 percent of the staff are all black men.

MAN 4: It's now time to show your brother some love.

CORLEY: During the assembly, students break from their lines and stroll around, shaking hands and catching up with friends. King says Urban Prep faculty teach students to be good people and, by extension, strong, black men. They learn facts, he says, that provide a fuller picture.

KING: Those facts include that there's a black man who's the CEO of McDonald's. You know, we know there's a black man who's the President of the United States.

CORLEY: Another key factor, says King, are the rituals that help create the school's culture.

MAN 4: We believe.

STUDENTS: (Unintelligible).

CORLEY: Every day, students recite the school's we believe creed. And when seniors get admitted to college, their solid, red ties are switched to striped red and gold ones.

STEVEN CLARK: My name is Steven Clark. I'm 17 years old.

CORLEY: Steven is about 5' 11", with close-cropped hair. He was the president of the senior class and captain of the bowling team. His brown eyes light up when he talks about majoring in psychology and later going on to graduate school and starting his own business. We talk on one of the last days of school. He says he believes men should be strong and still able to show their feelings. And he says there are more positive black men than you see on television.

S. CLARK: You know, we get spotlight for a hundred percent of us graduating, going off to college. But that's only a small step. I feel like the negativity outweighs the positive for us. It's sad because I'm a black man, and I just don't want people to think of me as negative.

CORLEY: Steven says when he came to Urban Prep he began to learn much more about African-Americans and Africa.

S. CLARK: And that's when I became more aware of who I was as a man, but not only that, as a black man.

CORLEY: Even so, Steven says there is an even bigger influence in his life.

S. CLARK: My dad's been, like, the biggest teacher I've had. He's supportive, not eight hours a day - he's supportive 24 hours a day. Even if times, you know, I may come to school angry because we batted about something in the car or something, my dad is still my biggest role model that I look up to.

CORLEY: The youngest child in a large family, Steven's parents are divorced. And he's among the last of his siblings to live at home with his father, on a street full of tiny bungalows and neat lawns.

ALLEN CLARK: OK. These are basically Steven's older brothers.

CORLEY: Inside the house, Steven's father, Allen Clark, points to pictures of his children. In one, he cradles a baby Steven. Allen Clark had already retired from one job and was working another one when he decided to quit so he could drive his son to the Urban Prep campus in Englewood.

CLARK: He was the last kid. The other ones are more - 15 and 16 years older than him. So they really never had the situations as bad as it is in today's society with this shooting and killing and getting jumped on. So I said, to eliminate any mishaps, here, I'll just pick you up, take you to school.

CORLEY: And he says when his son goes off to college, he has faith he will succeed.

CLARK: You know, he went through four years at Urban Prep. I didn't have to get on him about studying or nothing. He came home; he did his work. And I just hope he continues that habit and just pushes for getting ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE")

CORLEY: On graduation day, 250 Urban Prep seniors entered an auditorium, greeted by cheers and applause.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Please welcome Urban Prep's Englewood campus class of 2014 valedictorian, Mr. Steven Clark, who will be attending Denison University in the fall.

(APPLAUSE)

CORLEY: Steven took his place on the stage.

S. CLARK: Growing up in Chicago, we often hear these questions - who was shot last night? Who dropped out of school? Who was the member of a gang? But hold on - I want to show the world something real quick. Let me - let me do this real quick, hold on.

CORLEY: Steven whips out his cell phone and takes a selfie in his cap and gown. He told the crowd he would post the photo on Instagram with hashtag #collegebound.

S. CLARK: I had to show the world that the real black males of Chicago are sitting right here in this room because we are graduates, not gangsters. We are dedicated, not delinquent. And we are collegiate, not convicts. And let the world know that.

(APPLAUSE)

CORLEY: Steven Clark says as a young black man, he knows there may be some bumps ahead. But he says he'll be resilient, and the brotherhood he's been a part of in high school will help. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: Charles Cargo (ph), cum laude. Steven Clark, summa cum laude. Clarence Clapton, III (ph)... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.