Earlier this week, Bill Gates gave a speech at the National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago. He came out strong on increasing accountability for charter schools, and his remarks have generated headlines in education circles over the past few days.
While Gates was clear that he believes failing charters should be shut down, he was just as clear that charter schools represent the best opportunity to turn around the American education system.
A few miles away from where Gates gave the speech, a charter high school on the South Side just proved his point.
"The majority of children in the country are attending schools that don't work for them," Gates told conference attendees on Tuesday. "So it's imperative that we take the risk to make change, not just small changes at the margin, but dramatic changes that are centered around the student."
Tim King was willing to take that risk.
A graduate of Georgetown Law School, King spent years seeking permission to start an all-boys high school on Chicago's South Side. When Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men opened in 2006, just 4 percent of its freshman class read at grade level. Still, King had an ambitious goal: college...for everyone.
And he had an ambitious plan to get there. Teachers would carry a cell phone with them at all times in case a student needed something. Homeroom would be held three times per day, the school day would be two hours longer than normal, the dress code would bar earrings, sneakers, baggy pants, long hair and bling. And then there was the oath, pledged by the entire school every morning at 8:30 a.m. From the AP:
"We believe... We are college bound. ...
"We are exceptional—not because we say it, but because we work hard at it ....
"We believe in ourselves. ... We believe."
Four years later, that belief—and a tremendous amount of hard work—paid off. In late June, all 107 members of Urban Prep's first senior class graduated, and all of them will be heading to college in the fall. King handled that accomplishment differently, too: once all 107 had been admitted, Urban Prep held a signing ceremony, à la college basketball recruits, where each student announced his destination by donning the school's cap.
But for King, the work hasn't stopped. Again, from the AP:
"it's just a milestone. It's not an endgame. This is not the fulfillment of our mission. [That] comes when we are able to see our students succeed in college and that may not be apparent for four or five years."
The word for King's attitude is "accountability." Bill Gates must be proud.