The Wall Street Journal
By: Stephanie Banchero
December 6, 2010
CHICAGO--Nathan Draper squeezed into a classroom scrum at Urban Prep Charter Academy here, elbowing a huskier classmate aside.
As 16 fellow high-school students vigorously debated rapper Lil Wayne's influence, Nathan stammered in a faint voice, "Barack Obama should be our role model."
The brief statement was a small victory for the 15-year-old, whose stutter has made him reluctant to speak up in public, and for the man in the middle of the huddle, 23-year-old Yale graduate Jeremy Harp.
Mr. Harp is one of six recent college graduates hired this year to mentor the young men at the South Shore campus of Urban Prep, an unusual all-male, all African-American charter high school, a public school run by a private entity.
The mentors in the Urban Prep Fellows program receive $800 a month plus rent and health insurance. They work closely with teachers to keep their charges on track, spending their days tutoring students in academics and their nights and weekends mentoring them on life skills. On call 24-7, they serve as confidants, counselors and parental figures to the boys, many of whom come from broken homes in gang-ravaged neighborhoods.
"He's the first person in my life to ever help me," Nathan said of Mr. Harp. "He told me I was smart and I should calm down when I talk."
The Fellows program is part of Urban Prep's larger mission to change the grim trajectory of inner-city African-American boys. A report released last month by the Council of the Great City Schools, a group that represents the nation's largest urban districts, found that black males made up 5% of college enrollment in 2008, but 36% of the nation's prison population.
In Chicago, 60% of African-American boys drop out of district high schools, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.
Urban Prep hopes to turn these statistics around.
The young men here follow a strict discipline code, attend school from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., and wear a black blazer and red tie. Every morning they line up ramrod straight and recite the school creed, promising to "live honestly, nonviolently and honorably."
"We create a school culture that provides a counter-narrative to the negative images of African-American manhood," said Tim King, who founded the first Urban Prep in 2006 and has since opened two more campuses in Chicago's most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Jeremy Harp, one of six recent college graduates hired to mentor young men at Urban Prep Charter Academy in Chicago, leads students in a debate about role models in pop culture.
.At the group's first campus in gang-infested Englewood, 80% of the 150 incoming freshman read at a sixth-grade level or below. Four years later in 2010, 107 graduated from the school and all were accepted to four-year colleges. Three of the other students were expelled and the rest transferred out of Urban Prep, school officials said.
Like all charters, Urban Prep receives government funding, but also raises money for extras like a longer school day and the mentoring program.
Mr. King started the Fellows program to expose Urban Prep teenagers to young men and women who have overcome their own challenges to graduate from elite colleges. One of the mentors had a best friend who was murdered; another suffers from a rare voice disorder.
Mr. Harp, whose mother is a teacher and father a janitor, attended a low-performing school in an Atlanta suburb. There, he fought against a stereotype that pegged his studious and respectful nature as "too white," he said.
At Urban Prep, Mr. Harp prods his young men--through words, actions and his very presence--to envision themselves at top-notch colleges. "They can't dream it if they've never seen it or never been exposed to it," he said. He hopes to one day start a nonprofit that teaches kids the steps they must take to get into college.
The Urban Prep mentors, who live in six cramped apartments across the street from the school during their year in the program, are each in charge of about 20 students organized into "prides." They are responsible for their students' academics and behavior, and teach a life-skills class that focuses on preparing students for college.
Students also come to them to talk about girls or feelings of abandonment when their fathers left, and the powerful pull of neighborhood gangs. They call, text and email their mentors late into the night and on the weekends seeking a friendly voice.
"Sometimes, all you can do is listen and tell them how proud you are of how far they've come," said Neel Lalchandani, an Urban Prep mentor and University of Pennsylvania graduate who takes his students bowling and out to dinner on weekends.
The Fellows know Urban Prep students are climbing a steep hill. Some students have trouble adjusting to the discipline code or academic rigor of the school. Others hide their personal problems and can sit sullen in school.
Fellow Andre Bobb, a graduate of DePaul University, saw one of his students expelled and took it as a defeat. "You can't help but take it personal because I am responsible for these young men," he said. Mr. Bobb still keeps in touch with the boy, who has enrolled in another high school.
But the Fellows' influence can be seen all over the school. Charles Davis, a self-assured 14-year old, said Mr. Harp nagged him every day to focus on his classes and complete his homework. Mr. Harp called him at home, ran after him in the hallways and, eventually, helped bring his grade-point average from 2.1 to 3.0.
"He's like a big brother and I didn't want to disappoint him," Charles said.