Charter school cooks the books

July 15, 2010

A Chicago charter school sent 100 percent of its graduating seniors to college--by not counting the 43 percent who didn't go to college, explains Rachel Cohen.

URBAN COLLEGE Prep Charter Academy--the nation's first all-boys charter school--has found an ingenious new way to boost its stats: cheating.

A Chicago Sun-Times article last week heralded the success of the school's 100 percent college-bound rate for its first class of graduating seniors. If it were true, the achievement would have been a very impressive feat.

The school was established in 2006 in the notoriously neglected neighborhood of Englewood on Chicago's South Side. The first year's inbound freshman class of 166 students, drawn from the 98 percent African American neighborhood, was required to wear uniforms of suits and ties and pushed to raise test scores fast.

The school reported in its very first year that it had broken its fundraising goals, attracting plenty of corporate funding support in addition to its allotment from the Chicago Public Schools system.

Yet according to the Interactive Illinois Report Card, the school failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2009, with only 15 percent of students meeting or exceeding grade level proficiency in all areas of standardized testing, well below the Chicago district's 62 percent.

Urban College Prep students during testing
Urban College Prep students during testing

Starting in May, news outlets from People magazine to Good Morning America began humming with celebrations of Urban College Prep's 107-student graduating class all moving on to college. Then came the still-jubilant announcement that all 95 graduating seniors were college-bound.

The question, of course, is what's become of the other 71 students who began in the 2010 class? And why did reporters not pick up on the shrinking pattern in Urban's good news?

While the Sun-Times published a glowing piece in the print edition of their paper on July 9, the story did not appear on the newspaper's Web site, perhaps indicating an editor realized after the print paper went to press that 95 students out of 166 in fact gives the graduating class a graduation rate of 57 percent, substantially lower than the 69.8 percent average rate of other Chicago public high schools, according to the Chicago K-12 Examiner.

This deception cuts a hole right in the middle of the school's self-proclaimed project of interceding in the lives of young men with otherwise scant resources, revealing a deeply cynical willingness to "disappear" the students who weren't able to make it to graduation.

Of course, young men in Englewood ought to be given every opportunity and encouragement to succeed in school, but the same year that Urban Prep opened its doors, three other public high schools on Chicago's south side were closed.

The project of shutting down long-neglected schools and instead funding charter schools to be run by private hands not only does nothing to address entrenched systemic problems among poor, criminalized communities, but in fact drives a wedge among students, families and faculty who could unite to fight for a public school system that works.

CHICAGO HAS been the testing ground for a wave of school "reform" policies that are doing serious damage to public education. Begun by former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, the regime of school closings, layoffs and charter school development known as Renaissance 2010 has set a model now being pushed nationwide.

Now Obama's Secretary of Education, Duncan's fellow charter enthusiasts--Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and billionaire charter-school funder Bill Gates--are even taking the message to the silver screen this fall in a film called Waiting for Superman.

Trailers for the big screen infomercial, which follows several students desperate to have their numbers drawn in a lottery for what the films suggests are all-too scarce slots in a charter school, is accompanied with information about how to pledge to see the film, as though just taking this dose of charter advertainment is a form of social justice activism.

But Chicago also seems poised to become the starting point for a fight back against charter fever. The reform caucus recently elected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union is already taking steps to build a broader opposition, as's Lee Sustar reported from last week's American Federation of Teachers convention.

While proponents pose charter schools as a civil rights issue for our generation, success stories like that of Urban College Prep show why we can't afford to opt out of the fight to defend and improve public schools.

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