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Attack on Urban Prep Charter harms students and teachers

Updated: September 19, 2012 9:42AM

Last week, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun Times titled “School closings open door to charters.” Ms. Lewis criticized Urban Prep Academies, a nonprofit organization operating a network of charter public high schools serving mostly economically disadvantaged African-American boys.

Ms. Lewis wrote:

“And then of course, there is the dismal achievement outcome of the majority of charters. Urban Prep brags about its 100 percent college-bound rate when the average ACT score of its student is only 17.2. Where are those students going to college?”

I take issue with this statement for several reasons.

First off, her facts are wrong. Each of Urban Prep’s graduating classes has achieved a 100 percent college acceptance rate. We’ve never stated that all of our students enroll in college (for the record, 96 percent of our graduates do enroll in college — the highest rate in the city among public schools — and they persist in college at rates twice the national average for black males).

Our network’s average composite ACT score is on par with the CPS average and higher than the average for African-American males in the city. More important in our view, is the growth of our students from year to year (which outpaces CPS and Chicago charter school averages).

Secondly, given her public stance on the use of testing data, it’s a bit shocking that Ms. Lewis would choose to cite these statistics at all. Throughout negotiations, the union has categorically opposed an over-emphasis on testing in schools, and has argued that test scores should not be used as the sole means to determine a teacher’s or school’s success. On this point, Ms. Lewis and I broadly agree, yet she hypocritically cites Urban Prep’s test scores to diminish the work of our teachers, students and schools.

And finally, Ms. Lewis’ sarcastic rhetorical question “Where are those [Urban Prep] students going to college?” is mean-spirited and beneath her stature as the head of the teachers union in the country’s third-largest school district. Our graduates’ test scores and GPAs run the gamut as do the types of schools they attend.

Students from Urban Prep’s three graduating classes have enrolled in a total 121 different colleges and universities across the country. They have gone to Ivy League schools like Cornell; Community Colleges like Grand Rapids; private universities like Georgetown; Liberal Arts colleges like Grinnell; public universities like the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign; and still others to Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) like Morehouse.

Sadly, Ms. Lewis’ petty digs on non-CTU teachers and students in Chicago aren’t just limited to attacks on Urban Prep. Just before the walkout began, Ms. Lewis announced that no “real schools” would be open during the strike. In making this statement, she intentionally overlooked Chicago’s charter, private, and parochial schools that employ thousands of teachers and educate tens of thousands of children.

While charter schools may not employ teachers who are members of the CTU, charter school teachers are public school teachers and are no less dedicated to the mission of educating our city’s children than the most dedicated CTU member. Charter school teachers also often work in less than ideal environments (including facilities without air conditioning) for long hours — sometimes in the exact same buildings as CTU teachers.

Charter school teachers deal with the same issues of student poverty, violence, and academic unpreparedness that plague so many public schools. Charter school teachers want to develop professionally, be evaluated fairly, have a voice in their schools’ operations, and make a lasting contribution to the teaching profession just as much as the next teacher. We, all of us in Chicago’s public schools, educate the same students, perhaps just in different ways.

This is not an either/or situation; and the success of one school is not an indictment of any other. The achievements of charter schools — or any school — shouldn’t be used as weapons against teachers but rather as tools to improve the education all children receive.

Soon after Ms. Lewis’ essay was published, I received an email from a man I’ve never met:

“I read Karen Lewis’ insidious comments about the ACT scores of your students in the Chicago Sun Times. I had a 17 or 18 ACT, was diagnosed with dyslexia, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, and two masters degrees (one of which is from the University of Chicago). Please don’t let her destructive and ignorant comments shatter the dreams of college for your students and parents.”

Don’t worry, sir, we won’t. And I hope by now, everyone knows it.

Tim King is the founder & CEO of Urban Prep Academies and lecturer at Northwestern University.

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