'Urban Preparation'

Author discusses his new book on high school that prepares low-income black students for higher education -- and offers tips to colleges seeking to recruit such students.

June 26, 2017
 

Many colleges struggle to recruit and retain low-income black male students. Urban Preparation: Young Black Men Moving from Chicago's South Side to Success in Higher Education (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press) follows a cohort of students at Chicago's Urban Prep Charter Academy, and considers the lessons of their success. The book's author, Chezare A. Warren, was a teacher in the school. Now he is assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, and president of the Critical Race Studies in Education Association. Via email, he responded to questions about the book.

Q: Can you describe Urban Prep? How is it different from the typical public school experience for high school students in low-income areas?

A: What makes Urban Prep different, in terms of the experience it offers its students, is best understood from the first-person perspectives of its graduates. Hence, my decision to center these young black men’s voices and points of view in the book. I will say, Urban Prep is a charter school. Charter schools are public schools that are run privately. Being run privately means you get to make decisions about the organizational design, philosophy, policy, and practice of your school aside from the pressure of public opinion or the bureaucracy of a large urban school district like Chicago Public Schools. This poses both benefits and threats to expanding education opportunities for youth of color growing up in densely populated, economically disenfranchised communities.

One noteworthy problem is the propensity of celebrity charter school networks like Urban Prep making claims of effectiveness as a public education institution, with few transparent systems for public accountability, such that the content of these claims can be understood for their long-term impact on students’ quality of life. I attempt to critically interrogate how Urban Prep, for example, is "changing the narrative" about young black men and what it means to annually announce that 100 percent of the school’s seniors gain admittance to a four-year college or university. This discussion in the book then unpacks the implications of this public discourse for the way that the school becomes lauded or exceptionalized as a better, high quality schooling option for black boys over and above traditional neighborhood public high schools.

Q: What were the key things Urban Prep did that made its black male students not only ready for college but to encourage them to apply?

A: The young men identify a number of inside and outside-of-school factors they believe positively contributed to their preparation to graduate high school ready to complete college. Aside from graduation requirements that made applying to college compulsory, it was the school’s college-for-all culture and strong messages about college-going that the young men internalized (e.g. daily recitation of the “We Believe” school creed), that also stands out as essential in their preparation to apply to, and attend, college. I do include some critique of college-for-all, no excuse charter schools in the book. I also discuss the politics and whiteness of “good intentions” in urban education, especially with regard to those educators who work in urban schools that emphasize attending a traditional four-year college or university as a superlative postsecondary option.

Q: What were the most popular colleges with Urban Prep students?

A: Urban Preparation focuses solely on the educational trajectories of a small cohort of young men who were members of Urban Prep’s inaugural graduating class, and were on track to complete college within six years at the time they were interviewed for the Urban Prep College Persistence Study. They attended a range of historically black or historically white colleges and universities, including private and public institutions of higher education.

Q: Would you explain the concept of "counterstorytelling" and how you used that technique in the book?

A: Counterstorytelling is a qualitative research methodology intended to make visible the lived realities of individuals in the United States who have been subordinated because of their race or ethnicity. These are persons whose voices and experiences tend to be overlooked or disregarded in public discourse on a problem or issue of broad significance. For example, numerous stories and about, and depictions of, black men and boys (e.g. hypersexual, anti-intellectual, animalistic) -- manufactured by white people and others who hold positions of power and influence -- proliferate with very little opposition by the mainstream. This causes the public to cultivate entrenched deficit perceptions of black men and boys that do nothing but reproduce racial inequity.

The routine killing of unarmed black men by police officers, who are later exonerated for their wrongdoing, underscores a dominant public narrative of (urban-dwelling) black men as deviant, thugs, and criminal. I use counterstorytelling in this book to oppose, resist, and rebut these dominant perceptions. Chapters two through five of Urban Preparation features one long counterstory that combines the actual voices of 17 young black men and critical interpretation of their collective stories. Their counterstory exposes the persistence of racial oppression as they move through high school from Chicago’s south side, to and through college. Finally, the counterstorytelling approach in Urban Preparation ultimately exposes how white supremacy and antiblackness work to erect structures and systems that conserve young black men and boys academic vulnerability.

Q: How essential was it that Urban Prep be a boy's school?

A: Single-sex schools have both drawbacks and benefits. The young men have a lot to say about their experiences attending an all-boys school, which includes frequent references to the “brotherhood” they developed with their classmates. I do examine the concept of brotherhood with respect to the ways that Urban Prep’s school culture may reify patriarchal social relations and homophobia. For instance, chapter three complicates the rendering of “successful black man” in the schooling environment, as well as the ways that when not careful, Black educators may limit students’ understandings and exposure to diverse forms of black manhood and progressive masculinities.

Q: Based on your book, what would be your advice for college admissions officers who want to recruit more black male talent?

A: Demonstrate that their college or university have made institutionalized commitments to young black men’s  college completion. Saying, “we want all students to be successful” does not adequately respond to the fact that predominantly white universities, for example, are inherently racist institutions. This is something that has to be acknowledged up front. This awareness precedes the development of programs and collaborations designed and executed with young black men in mind, singularly.

One specific initiative might be to find ways to financially invest in peer mentorship programs/student organizations that incentivize academically successful black students to retain their black male classmates. Community matters. Induction programs that create social networks among black male undergraduates and other black men university stakeholders, are essential for effectively integrating young black men into the campus environment. Evidence of such programs, and their effectiveness, are likely strong recruiting devices.

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