*If Any Charter School Needs a Union, It’s Urban Prep*

A former teacher weighs in on teaching and learning conditions at a Chicago charter school…

Urban_Prep_EnglewoodEditor’s note: A few weeks ago, I ran a post by Urban Prep teacher Dave Woo about why he and his colleagues at a Chicago charter school are organizing a union. Teachers at the school will vote on June 3rd on whether they want to be part of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. In the meantime, Urban Prep administrators are making the case that having a union is antithetical to the charter’s mission—which, according to one former teacher, appears to be *promoting the Urban Prep brand with an eye towards national expansion.* The teacher, whose testimony I’m sharing here, urges all of us to stand with his former Urban Prep colleagues. 

trump towerI am a former Urban Prep teacher and colleague of Dave Woo’s. Every word he says is true. Urban Prep’s slogan is *we believe.* I know for a fact that the teachers I worked with believe in their students and dedicate long, hard hours to providing them with the best possible educational experience, the administrators who operate Urban Prep seem to believe in promoting their brand with an eye toward national expansion; providing themselves with palatial offices across the street from the Trump Tower; maintaining a posse of lobbyists and consultants; and paying themselves six figure salaries.

Meanwhile, primarily young and inexperienced teachers struggle to deliver a rigorous college preparatory curriculum without computers, without projectors, without textbooks and frequently, without the paper required to make copies. Teachers are forced to purchase these items with their own personal funds, or solicit donations on such websites as DonorsChoose.org (until Tim King personally banned educators from utilizing the site, once he learned many of us were doing so).

The working conditions I experienced at Urban Prep were the worst of my career, which has been spent entirely in the inner city.

urban prep 2The working conditions I experienced at Urban Prep were the worst of my career, which has been spent entirely in the inner city. I used my personal resources to make copies because Urban Prep would not purchase sufficient amounts of paper; I brought my personal laptop to school since a computer was not provided; lessons came from the Internet because no textbooks were purchased. Like all Urban Prep teachers, I was frequently forced to give up at least one of my two *prep* periods – time I needed to grade, tutor students in need of extra help, and eat my own lunch – to substitute for my colleagues who were absent. The reason? Urban Prep, with its $70,000 staff retreat and $250,000 downtown office space, claimed it could not afford to hire substitute teachers.

While students attempt to prepare for college without books or computers (let alone a research based curriculum that would truly help to close the gap between themselves and their more affluent peers), and teachers attempt to deliver lessons without paper (while also going without lunch), Mr. Tim King pays himself six figures and enjoys spectacular views from his office across from the Trump Tower. Yet somehow, nobody is supposed to have this information. We’re all supposed to swallow the mythology that Mr. King is the benevolent Pied Piper of Chicago’s African American adolescent male population. If that were true, each of the three Urban Prep campuses would have resources to rival affluent suburban districts. But instead, Mr. King has an awesome downtown office to throw poker parties for his rich friends, and the teachers and students of Urban Prep work and learn in a very typical inner city environment devoid of paper, textbooks, and rigor.

If any charter school in Chicago needs a union it’s Urban Prep. I stand with my former colleagues and encourage all teachers, everywhere, to do the same.


  1. I am also an Urban Prep teacher. Our network of schools is internationally recognized for sending 100% of its graduates – all of them African American males; many hailing from rough inner city areas of Chicago, where jail and death loom over their young lives – to college. I am very proud of my students, and I work very hard to make sure they have everything they need to be successful.

    I can echo what others have said. Because my employer does not provide me with a computer to enter grades and take attendance, I must bring my own from home. We also need to provide our own paper and substitute for each other’s classes, without any extra pay or comp time. Urban Prep claims it cannot afford to provide enough paper for our copies; they also say it costs too much money to hire substitute teachers when one of us takes a sick day.

    It’s also true that Urban Prep provides no textbooks to its students. I spend hours each week seeking out the highest quality Internet lessons I can find. It’s not much better than home-schooling, and it’s far from the research-based, results-driven education that our students deserve, particularly because so many of them enter our doors as 9th graders performing at least two years below their same-age peers in the suburbs.

    It’s funny that Urban Prep schools have so few resources, because there is no shortage of money flowing into our network. The problem is that our boss, Mr. Tim King, decided to spend that money in other ways.

    As Dave Woo wrote earlier, Mr. King decided to pay himself $220,000 annually to oversee the operations of the three schools in our network. By comparison, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, responsible for over 600 buildings, earns $250,000. Other network executives, and principals, earn six figure salaries as well.

    He decided to rent out an expansive office suite directly across the street from the Trump Tower, costing $250,000 annually.

    He decided that Urban Prep should have an annual retreat at a conference center in St. Charles, IL, costing $70,000 annually.

    He decided to spend $100,000 last year on consultants and lobbyists.

    I guess Tim King’s personal agenda is more important to him than the education he provides to his students, not to mention the working conditions he provides to his teachers.

    Recently my colleagues and I decided to unionize. Our administrators are reacting very badly to this decision. They are trying to convince us that it’s the wrong move, that we’re trying to hurt Urban Prep, forcing us to sit through anti-union propaganda sessions in the name of professional development, and in one instance, even comparing us, the teachers who give our blood and guts to our students and to the Urban Prep mission each and every day, to children who need the paternalistic guidance of administration to handle matters we can’t possibly understand. What an infuriating and arrogant statement to make to hard working adults who in some cases are older than the administrators themselves!

    What they don’t understand is that we’re trying to do just one thing – hold Tim King and his inner circle accountable for the decisions they make and the money they spend.

    Perhaps Tim King doesn’t want to give up his lavish office, his annual retreat, and his lobbyists.

    But perhaps my colleagues, our community, our students, and our families deserve more than the substandard education they are receiving today, despite the glowing statistics of success which are accepted at face value with little scrutiny.

    Think of what would be possible if the $420,000 Tim King currently spends on lobbyists, retreats, and posh office space was divided between the three Urban Prep campuses. Think of the educational resources we could offer our students, the opportunities they could enjoy, how quickly they could reach and exceed their proper grade level.

    Our union might help that dream become reality.

  2. Good luck. It might also help if you can explain how 100% of seniors go to college. That seems to be Tim King’s calling card.

    1. Urban Prep employs a team of staff that ensures all seniors apply to dozens of colleges, including colleges whose only entrance requirement is a high school diploma. These would include City Colleges of Chicago and Columbia College. This is how some students who graduate unable to read beyond a grade school level are admitted to college. It is a wonderful thing to support students in their quest for a college education however Urban Prep is more concerned with their 100 percent statistics and public relations than what is truly in the best interest of the students. After all someone with a third grade reading level will have a very hard time in college.

      1. U.P. Educator–Thanks for your comment. I always question when anyone in education uses “100%”–as in, “by 2014…2015…2016..100% of American students will read at grade level.”
        Oops…that was a mistake (U.S.D.O.Ed.)–let’s forget it. I’m also curious as to whether “100%” of those “100%” actually graduate from college (esp. an accredited one).
        It used to be that the highest %ile assigned to a test (for example, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) were 99%. Also–I know many ILL-Annoy teachers remember when that one school in Lake Forest (Cherokee) attained “100%”; the school was investigated, the stats were phony & the principal was fired (the superintendent who was a real &%@# also left–& there was some talk about the two).
        So, I would question a boast about “100%” of any group attaining anything.
        Except for saying that a group of us could–without question–eat 100% of an Uno’s pizza–in one sitting. (Hope you were able to taste some authentic Chicago pizza while you were here, Ed!)

  3. It is extremely important to discuss the fact that in urban charter schools, frequently teachers are asked to give up their prep time (a single hour in a 10 hour day in KIPP schools- teachers expected to be on campus, working with students from 7:15-5:15 every day) to sub another teacher’s class. This results in not only bad feelings from teachers toward admin, bad feelings between teachers, but in many situations it could be an OSHA violation. Why isn’t it reported this way? Admin pressure teachers to sub during their preps, using CMO propaganda like we are a “team and family.”

  4. I knew that the 100% was based on everyone going some where – whether it is a Chicago college or an Ivy league. Great numbers and I love it but I really want to know where those kids end up a year or two or 5 years later. That is where you can really say you were successful in taking the inner city, at risk youth and making them into fine young men who are productive products of your school and our communities! It is such a farce and Mr. King’s spending habits are sickening.

  5. Getting into college these days means nothing. Many students flounder once there. One of the best books I’ve read on education is James Traub’s “City on a Hill”, which explores the consequences of City College of New York’s switch to open enrollment in the 70’s. Dreamers dreamt that underprepared HS graduates could hack it in college with the help of a few remedial courses. What the book shows is the abject failure of remedial education for the vast majority of students. Remedial education programs cannot fix deficits that are 18 years in the making. Getting kids into college is the wrong goal. The real goal is making intellectually fit adults. What does that take? Few really know; many pretend to know.


  6. Many of the most vocal union supporters – who were also experienced and effective educators respected by students and colleagues alike – were fired by Urban Prep’s Englewood and West campus leaders. Meanwhile the NLRB will decide the fate of the would be Urban Prep Union, while many who voted for it are now unemployed……..

    1. Does anyone know what happened at west campus? Suddenly there’s a new administration…..

      1. Principals were moved around at all three campuses. The only one who returned was the principal at Bronzeville. All other principals and assistant principals got new assignments. The former principal at West disappeared to the best of anyone’s knowledge, there is no word of where he may have gone. All the others are still working for Urban Prep either in different buildings or at IHQ.

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