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Tim King explains why there’s no secret recipe for a successful school

Tim King with Urban Prep seniors | PhoCourtesy Urban Prep/Art Carrillo

Tim King with Urban Prep seniors | Photo Courtesy of Urban Prep/Art Carrillo

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Updated: April 7, 2013 4:32PM

Recently, I was giving a talk at Harvard Law School and was asked how large school districts can best meet the needs of all of their students. I think the answer the group expected me to give was something along the lines of school districts needing to implement a specific set of successful practices in all schools; and, of course, they wanted me to tell them what those best practices were. In short, they wanted me to give them the secret ingredient for success.

I get the “secret sauce” question all the time. The questioning hit a fever pitch when I recently announced that 100 percent of Urban Prep’s graduating seniors — all African-American males and mostly from low-income families — have gained admission to college.

It’s no secret that many school districts across the country are in trouble, especially in urban centers like Chicago. High dropout rates, skyrocketing numbers of suspensions and expulsions, low graduation rates and abysmal levels of college enrollment and completion are far too common. But the prevailing notion that our current education troubles can be solved by a single panacea, a silver bullet or a secret ingredient is wrong.

A secret ingredient calls to mind a corporate ad campaign, recipe for a soft drink or the key to a really good burger. But using the phrase to describe the esprit de corps of a school is misleading. Unlike cans of pop, great schools can’t be made from a single formula. And one component won’t make all schools all things to all kids.

If we can’t zero in on a single factor that makes centers of learning out of some schools and dropout mills of others, it stands to reason that we should embrace an “all of the above” approach to different types of school innovation, so that individual schools or small networks can find the recipe that works best for the students in their buildings. While not all schools in CPS are excellent, the Chicago Board of Education’s effort to improve school quality within the framework of a mosaic of school options is the right approach for kids.

This is why it makes no sense to me when folks come out as being in favor of just one particular style of instruction or type of school to the detriment of all others (like sides of the increasingly vitriolic charter school debate). Urban Prep’s college counseling and alumni programs, language arts focus, uniforms, extended school day, creed, emphasis on school culture, etc., work for Urban Prep, but might not prove the right recipe for other schools. However, just because every student won’t thrive at a single-gender school, a charter school, an arts school, a technology school, a vocational school, a Montessori school, an African-centric school, or a magnet school doesn’t mean our public school system shouldn’t have all those options and more. In fact, it means we should.

The “secret sauce” isn’t in what one school (or type of school) does; it’s in the fact that many different types of schools can exist and parents can choose the best fit for their children.

That is the recipe for success, and it’s not secret.

Tim King is the founder & CEO of Urban Prep Academies, a network of all-boys charter public schools in Chicago and a lecturer at Northwestern University. Email:; Twitter: @timking1;

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