Inner-city school built on discipline, reach-for-the-stars message applauds first college graduates

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this May 5, 2014 photo, tears roll down the face of Krishaun Branch as he meets with family and friends after his graduation ceremony from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Branch, who used to skip school and hang out on the streets of Chicago, made it to college with the help of the Urban Prep charter school.

Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

CHICAGO — Jamil Boldian headed to college four years ago, arriving in small-town Ohio with a one-way Megabus ticket and $17.91 to his name.

He'd been scared to leave Chicago, the only place he'd ever really known. He'd had a rough start in life, bouncing around in seven or eight elementary schools. He wasn't always sure he was college material. Now here he was on a rural campus, where he knew no one.

But that had been part of the grand plan ever since Boldian had enrolled in Urban Prep, a new charter high school for young black men. Most were poor, way behind in school and living with their mothers in gang-ravaged neighborhoods. But founder Tim King had made a pledge: If they stayed disciplined and dreamed big, they'd get into college. And sure enough, every member in the Class of 2010, the school's first, was accepted into four-year colleges and universities.

Once they'd climbed that hill, though, the mountain was next. Each student approached college with his own baggage:

There was Krishaun Branch, the former hell-raiser who'd flirted with gang life, left Urban Prep, then returned after a tragedy. Robert Henderson, the survivor of a lifetime's worth of hard knocks. Marlon Marshall, the soft-spoken runner who'd said he'd never had a real childhood. Rayvaughn Hines, the student council vice president and athlete, who grew up hearing the odds were stacked against young black men. Cameron Barnes, the lanky, shy teen still mourning his mother's death, wondering whether he had what it takes to finish college.

Once in school, these students would wrestle with stress and loneliness. Depression and self-doubt.

They'd come to know the stomach-churning anxiety of getting a D on a big test. The strain of balancing classes with two, even three jobs and still ending up in debt. The uneasiness of living in a nearly all-white community for the first time in their lives. The sting of hearing your professor predict you will fail in school.

They'd have to overcome all that, and more, to make it to graduation.

On a sunny May day, Tim King sat in a Nashville church, savoring success.

He'd just watched Branch accept his diploma from Fisk University, the first Urban Prep alumnus to earn a bachelor's degree.

"There are times in life when you think you're right," a beaming King declared. "And there are other times when you KNOW you are."

When he opened Urban Prep in 2006, the school had two core principles:

One was discipline. Longer school days. Double doses of English classes. No bling, no baggy pants. Black blazers with the school crest and striped ties (a much-dreaded uniform often shed after school to avoid being targeted on the streets).

The other was the reach-for-the-stars message, celebrated every morning by students gathering in a noisy (think rap songs belching from speakers) gym to recite the school's oath:

"We BELIEVE. ... We are exceptional not because we say it, but because we work hard at it ... We BELIEVE in ourselves."

But nobody knew for certain whether that message would successfully carry over to college. Nobody knew whether the young men would survive and thrive, absent the tough love and constant guidance they experienced at Urban Prep.

Krishaun Branch comes from Englewood, the often dangerous South Side neighborhood that's home to the first Urban Prep. As a kid, he hung out with gangbangers. He quit Urban Prep rather than risk expulsion after getting into a fight. When a friend was beaten to death, he begged to be readmitted. He got serious, becoming president of the Student Government Association.

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