We have to do everything we can to stick by these guys. If we do the right thing by them and they are committed to doing the right thing ... they'll earn that college degree and their lives and their kids' lives and their entire trajectory will change. —Tim King, school founder
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.
Four years later, Branch still has the swagger that made him a school leader, the quick smile and "S'' tattoo he says represents both "Shaun," his nickname, and Superman, his favorite comic book hero. He notes both have something in common: Invincibility.
But on graduation day, it was a fiercely proud and deeply grateful Krishaun Curtis Branch who received his degree in psychology from the historically black university. He wanted to wear sunglasses to hide his tears; his mom said no.
"I just feel like God's got my back," he declared, rubbing his eyes, his voice wavering.
Getting through college was no sure thing, especially at first. He had money troubles. He was slow to trust others. He had a short fuse. He was homesick, but he knew he couldn't leave. "I had to calm down," he says. "I knew this was an opportunity I could lose. ... College is a place where you have to want it. If you don't, you'll be spit out quickly."
His Urban Prep family, he says, often came to his rescue. They provided money when he needed it, boosted his confidence when it was sagging, even temporarily moved him out of his neighborhood during one break when trouble was brewing. "I had people who wanted to see me succeed as much as I did," Branch says. "That helped me tremendously."
The school's midwife approach is all-encompassing. An alumni affairs team keeps in touch with the students by phone, text and email.
There's also limited money for tuition, books or everyday expenses. Transportation to college. Arrangements for travel home during holidays. Care packages, winter coats, clothes for internship interviews. Lawyers for legal troubles. Advice on fatherhood. In-person advocacy at school. Visits by staff to take a homesick kid to lunch or dinner.
"You just can't say to a student, 'OK, now here's your chance to go to college. ... See you later,'" King says. "You've got to keep being there to provide support."
Branch hopes to pay back the favor, working as a fellow, mentoring freshmen at Urban Prep, which now has three campuses. He knows where he might have been if not for King and others who believed in him. The day before graduation, a longtime pal had phoned to offer his congratulations. He'd called from Cook County Jail.
Just thinking about it brings tears to Branch's eyes.
"I'm supposed to have been dead — honestly," he says.
Just 40 miles separate Robert Henderson's South Side home and Lake Forest College, but the two places are worlds apart.
Henderson left one of the poorest pockets of America, riddled with gangs and drugs, for one of the wealthiest, a peaceful enclave of Social Register families, old money and corporate power.
He hadn't heard of Lake Forest growing up, but when he saw it, he says, it was like a vacation retreat. "This is my Ha-wa-ii," he says, with a huge grin.
School, though, was anything but relaxing. Chemistry was intimidating, but he wasn't too proud to seek help. His scholarship money fell short, so he sometimes juggled three jobs simultaneously: Security dispatcher. Assistant librarian. Campus mail clerk. Cashier at a local pharmacy. All-around helper at a community church.
Henderson's bills still mounted and when pressured to pay up — which he couldn't do — he made it clear he was staying.
"I refused to give up and leave this college," he recalls. "(I said), 'You're all going to have to call the police to get me off this campus. I'm not going down without a fight. I WANT my education.'"
Henderson, 23, earned a degree in history and American studies. But his diploma came at a steep price: A $56,000 debt.
Unlike many classmates, Henderson couldn't rely on parents for financial support. Along with six brothers and sisters, he was raised by his plain-spoken-but-wise grandmother, Ona, now 85. His mother was run over by a car when he was 17 months old. At times — especially at school's end when parents packed up their kids — Henderson says he found himself yearning for a mother and father to tell him they loved him.
But he's not one for regrets.
"Why should I dwell on the past and play the violin and say, 'Somebody feel sorry for me.' Life doesn't work out that way," he says. "Nobody is going to try to help you unless you help yourself."
Henderson tried to squeeze everything he could into college life: He joined Alpha Phi Omega, a national service fraternity, along with black, Latino and Asian clubs. He used his wrestler's strength — he participated in off-campus charity matches — to become a force on the school's rugby club.
Henderson will soon move to South Carolina to join City Year, a national service group that is part of the AmeriCorps program.
"For the people who invested time, money and love to get me here, it did not go to waste," he says. "It's not where you start. It's how you finish. That's what I like to call resilient."
It's not clear how many Urban Prep alumni will cross that finish line.
Urban Prep won't say how many members of the Class of 2010 graduated from college in four years until the end of 2014 but King says it will exceed the national 15.6 percent rate for young black men. His benchmark for success is a six-year-graduation rate, a common standard. So far, about 70 percent of the Class of 2010 remains in school, he says.
Some have quit because they couldn't afford it, others because college wasn't for them.
It's sometimes the schools themselves, though, that King has found wanting.
"You're always thinking of colleges as these places that are welcoming kids," he says. "Often with low income or first-generation college students, there are things at play that are really pushing the kid away, pushing the kid out, not to mention the things back home."
While money is often a stumbling block, it's not the only one. There's also the fish-out-of-water feeling, as kids move from black neighborhoods to predominantly white campuses.
"They will oftentimes be the only black person in a class and someone will turn to them and say, 'What do black people think?' ... They may be the only black person on the floor in their dorm and they've got to be able to deal with that," King says. "But nothing can really prepare them for it but living it."
Kids can "get lost if they don't have advocates," he adds. It can lead to incomplete assignments, missed deadlines for financial aid and what King calls the "baby-you-can-come-home" syndrome. That's when a single mother accedes to her son's pleas to quit because college isn't going well.
The school's alumni affairs office tries to head off problems but some students are hesitant to come forward. "A lot of times they feel too embarrassed to ask for help or they feel they can handle things on their own," says Troy Boyd, the office director.
Jamil Boldian was one of those kids.
College, he figured, was all about independence. So when his grades dropped and he lost his academic scholarship at Heidelberg University in Ohio, he tried to turn things around. "I didn't know what people would think or how I would be judged," he says, explaining his reticence.
Boldian was about to give up early in his junior year and go home to reassess when he sent Tim King a Facebook message.
The next day, Urban Prep called. Staff helped Boldian get into summer school and put his academic career back on track.
He also became the business manager of a black student union, the founder of a dance troupe (he performed in campus productions, too) and the first black president of a school fraternity. "I didn't focus on what I didn't have," he says, "but on the opportunities in front of me."
This spring, Boldian, who played football and ran track at school, graduated with a degree in sports management and business.
His pal, Marlon Marshall, had a much steeper fall. He'd chosen Earlham College, thrilled at first to be in quiet, rural Indiana, a dramatic contrast to his old neighborhood where a short walk home could be deadly.
But in his sophomore year, everything unraveled: One friend at home was murdered. Another was killed in a motorcycle accident. His grandmother died. He wasn't getting along with his girlfriend. He had trouble focusing on his studies.
Depression took hold but Marshall didn't want to burden anyone. He'd always concealed his emotions and wasn't even sure how to explain his turmoil.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself, even walking into high school," he says. "So many people wanted to see me succeed. I knew that my success wasn't just my success. It was for my siblings. It was for my family. I wasn't doing anything for me. Here I am, the kid, the oldest of 11 brothers and sisters, the kid that has taken care of his mother since he was 15, the kid ... who'd come in with very high expectations. I felt like I was under this magnifying glass that started to burn."
In his sophomore spring, Marshall tried to commit suicide.
He left college and returned to Chicago. He moved in with an Urban Prep principal with whom he'd stayed after his mother moved to Michigan during his senior year.
Back in Chicago, Urban Prep paid for Marshall's mental health treatment. High school buddies rallied to his side.
Marshall now lives in Michigan, near his large family. He's enrolled at Western Michigan University and hopes to be part of that six-year graduation group from Urban Prep's first class.
"I'm definitely healthy — mentally, physically. I really think I'm going to be fine," he says. "I'm going to move on and do great things because I want to."
Even though Rayvaughn Hines always had big plans, there were naysayers.
Being young, black and poor, he says, he'd hear others making dire predictions: "I'm going to be dead or in jail by the time I'm 18 or 21."
Last month, at 22, Hines — a Gates Millennium Scholar — earned his psychology degree from the University of Virginia. "Just knowing that I beat those odds is a big deal to me," he says.
Hines begins graduate studies at Virginia this fall. He plans to become a school counselor.
He credits his own determination — "If I have a goal, no one is going to stop me" — and family support. His neighbors, who nicknamed him "college boy," cheered him on, too. Even local drug dealers, who've known Hines since he was a baby, would ask if he needed anything. "They've always known that I want to be a success," he says.
But the road was rocky. His beloved grandmother, who'd raised him much of his childhood, died. His family's money problems were so severe that he sometimes sent home part of his scholarship stipend, leaving him temporarily broke. He attended summer school to keep pace.
Hines remembers, too, the humiliation of being dismissed by an engineering teacher he'd asked for help.
"My professor told me, 'You're not going to do well at this university and you're not going to do well in my class.' That hurt my heart," he says. "I immediately thought of Urban Prep and the creed, 'We BELIEVE. ... We never fail because we never give up.'"
At first, Hines says, he missed Chicago, sometimes feeling isolated among classmates with more comfortable upbringings. During freshman year, he was the only black student on his dorm hall.
"I'd never been around white people before," he says. "When I got here, it was cultural shock, basically. ... Eventually, I started making friends of different races. I recommend people get out of their comfort zone and stop trying to have negative stereotypes about every race."
Hines, who met his fiancee, Brittany, at school — she's an engineering doctoral student — will spend this summer at Virginia, working as an equipment manager for the university's football team.
"You leave your neighborhood but you never want to forget where you came from," he says. "I have the best of best worlds. I'm street smart and book smart. You put that together in an African-American male and that's dangerous."
The same week that Tim King celebrated two graduations, he made two hospital visits — reminders that as much as he would like to think that Urban Prep can protect and advance its students, the world can be treacherous.
One current student was shot in the back while playing basketball with friends. Another was hit in the chest and abdomen while in a crowd outside a skating rink. He had a lower leg amputated. Neither was the target of the attacks.
"We have to do everything we can to stick by these guys," King says. "If we do the right thing by them and they are committed to doing the right thing ... they'll earn that college degree and their lives and their kids' lives and their entire trajectory will change."
That's what Cameron Barnes' mother, Felicia, wanted when she insisted he attend Urban Prep. With no father around, she wanted him to have positive male role models.
Felicia died of liver disease during his junior year; she was just 45. His Urban Prep classmates comforted him.
Back then, Barnes was quiet, cautious, easily cowed. Starting college, he wasn't sure he'd have the wherewithal to finish. Four years later with a journalism degree from the University of Illinois-Champaign, he's changed dramatically.
"I'm not really a timid person anymore," he says. "I take risks. I take challenges. Back then I would always tell myself, 'Cameron, that person is smarter than you. I'll never be as smart.'... I don't say that anymore."
As graduation neared in May, Barnes thought about his mother constantly. "I prayed to her every day," he says. "I hope that I did what she wanted me to do."
On the big day, he felt her presence.
"I knew she was looking down on me," he says. "I knew she was proud."
As he crossed the stage, Cameron Barnes pressed two fingers to his lips, kissed them, then raised an arm triumphantly toward the skies.
AP National Writer Martha Irvine contributed to this story. Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.