CHICAGO — For each boy, the new school offered an escape and a chance at a life that seemed beyond reach.
Krishaun Branch was getting D's, smoking reefer a lot, skipping school twice a week. His mother was too busy working to know what he was doing. He liked to hang out in the streets; having relatives in gangs was his armor.
When a young man came to tell his eighth-grade class about a new high school on Chicago's South Side, Krishaun wanted no part of it – until he heard students would have laptops. Suddenly, he was on board.
Marlon Marshall was nonchalant about everything, school included. His mother pressed him to go to college, but it seemed like a pipe dream. Sometimes she'd yell at him and his brothers for his bad grades. Once she just cried when she picked up their report cards.
Marlon had heard, too, about the new school. Students would be accepted by lottery so his mediocre grades wouldn't disqualify him. He thought it was worth a shot.
Marcus Bass figured there just had to be something better for him. Barely a teen, he'd been shot at, robbed a couple of times and had seen terrible things in his housing project. His parents argued constantly; life was chaotic.
He was sold by the recruiter's description of a "different" high school.
Urban Prep would be a charter high school. It would bring together some 150 boys from some of the poorest, gang-ravaged neighborhoods and try to set them on a new track. They'd have strict rules: A longer school day – by two hours. Two classes of English daily. A uniform with jackets and ties.
And Urban Prep had a goal – one that seemed audacious, given that just 4 percent of the Class of 2010 was reading at or above grade level when they arrived at the school in 2006.
In four years, they were told, they'd be heading to college.
From the very start, Tim King had a grand plan.
"I wanted to create a school that was going to put black boys in a different place," says the founder of Urban Prep, "and in my mind, that different place needed to be college."
It had taken four years for King to win permission to open the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, which receives about 75 percent of its funding from the Chicago public schools; the rest is private.
King's plan was both idealistic and grounded in the harsh realities of inner-city life: He'd take boys from tough situations, many way behind in school, and if they followed his road map, they'd get into college.
If the premise seemed simple, implementing it was anything but.
About 85 percent of the Class of 2010 came from low-income families, the overwhelming majority single mother households. The students would face problems far beyond poor academics.
Safety, for example. Some kids had to alter their bus routes so they wouldn't face gangs who might see their blazers and ties as inviting targets.
The uniforms are part of a philosophy that blends discipline with an oath that is the school's guiding principle. Every morning, students repeat the creed:
"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."
Krishaun didn't believe.
When he discovered what he'd signed up for, he wanted out immediately.
No girls? School until 4:30 p.m.? A jacket and tie? You've got to be kidding. But his mother urged him to hang in. So did an aunt who threatened to stop buying him clothes and giving him spending money.
So he stayed, and raised hell.
He fought, he cursed the teachers, he got suspended. He wanted to get kicked out.
"I went to the principal and said, 'I don't want to be here. Just send me home,'" he recalls. "I didn't like the discipline. I didn't like the surroundings. I didn't like the uniform. I didn't like anything.'
Krishaun started sophomore year on probation. He was failing some classes and straddling two worlds: A student at Urban Prep. And a kid clinging to street life who'd tuck a white T-shirt into his bag – part of the uniform of the gangbangers – so he could hang out with them.
After fighting with another student sophomore year, Krishaun transferred to a Chicago public school. But he couldn't stop his downhill slide, earning lots of F's and D's.
Then came a brutal wake-up call. A close friend was beaten to death.
Krishaun started seeing Urban Prep in a new light. He pleaded to return.
"I knew I was going down the wrong path," he says. "I had to graduate or my life was going to be nothing. ... I'd seen the streets were not going to get me anywhere."
He lobbied Evan Lewis, the recruiter who'd visited his elementary school and had become a mentor.
"He didn't take no or maybe for an answer," Lewis says.
Krishaun was readmitted. He buckled down, and during his junior year was honored five times with a "student of the week" designation.
"My personality changed," Krishaun says. "My posture changed. My speech changed. A lot about me has changed."
But Krishaun still has a glint in his eye and an easy charm that helped him become president of the Student Government Association.
"He has made if not a 180-degree turn, maybe a 160-degree turn ... ," says Lewis, vice president of institutional advancement. "He's a very smart kid, a very savvy kid. He sees the big picture. That's the reason he survived on the streets. That's the reason he'll be successful."
At Urban Prep, every student has at least one mentor – maybe a coach or a teacher. About 60 percent of teachers at the Englewood campus (Urban Prep has another school and plans to open a third this fall) are black men. They serve as confidantes and role models to students, many of whom have no fathers in their lives.
All staff members have school-assigned cell phones so students (and parents) can phone day or night. And they do.
Just ask Corey Stewart, a 24-year-old history teacher.
Students will call and say, "'I'm stranded and I don't have a way from downtown to get home,'" Stewart says. "'Can you come pick me up?' Absolutely, I'm on my way. Or 'Mr. Stewart, I'm afraid that I might get jumped on after school today. Is it possible you can take me home?' Of course."
Stewart says he doesn't worry about becoming too friendly with his students and won't hesitate to fail someone who's not measuring up.
Stewart leads a "pride" (more lion imagery) – another name for home room that meets three times a day.
It's one of the unorthodox steps taken for a student population that requires extra attention. That's the reason for longer school hours, the double dose of English and mandatory 20 minutes of reading daily, the assessments every six weeks, Saturday classes and summer school for those who need it.
Of the 150 teens who started in 2006, 95 lasted four years. (Another dozen were transfers.) They've become a tight-knit group.
So when Cameron Barnes' mother died last year, he returned to school the next day. "It was like being with family," he says.
And when it came time for his mother's funeral, the members of his "pride" stood with him.
Marlon Marshall was in a bind.
His mother announced she was moving to Michigan. She was tired of the violence engulfing her neighborhood; her brother was shot on their front porch.
Marlon wanted to attend Urban Prep his senior year. But he had no home.
Urban Prep staff huddled, and with his mother's permission, he was taken in by assistant principal Richard Glass, a Don Cheadle lookalike with an unflappable manner and a buttery voice made for radio.
After nine months under the same roof, Marlon calls Glass "godfather" or "Pops."
Glass calls Marlon "a great young man" who falls in love easily – a declaration that prompts the 18-year-old to rub his hand over his face in embarrassment.
Marlon had moved around a lot, frequently living in neighborhoods so dangerous his mother kept him indoors.
"Living here has given me so much freedom just to be a kid," he says, sitting in Glass' spotless kitchen. "I really haven't had a childhood. I couldn't go outside."
Just having a curfew (11 p.m.) was thrilling. "I can't even the explain the feeling I had when we were going over the rules," Marlon says. "I need structure. I sometimes get sidetracked or a little bit lazy."
And when Marlon's grades began slipping, Glass pushed him to turn things around – and he earned a 3.0 average his senior year, his best ever.
The acceptance letters began arriving this spring.
Trinity College. The University of Illinois. Howard University. The University of Virginia. Morehouse College. Indiana State University. Tuskegee University. And on and on.
When all 107 seniors had received letters, there was a celebration.
Marcus Bass wanted to cry – but he refrained. It had been a rocky four years, riddled with doubts, struggles in biology and an attitude adjustment.
"At first, I thought everybody was out to get me," Marcus says in a barely audible voice. "I wasn't used to taking orders from anyone. I was used to just doing my own thing."
There were warnings, he says, from teachers and administrators. There were outside pressures, too.
Guys he grew up with, would say "'you ain't even with us no more ... ,'" Marcus says. "I try to tell them there's something better than that. They just ... blow me off."
He's convinced Urban Prep has kept him out of trouble. "It's hard to say how they've saved my life," he says, "but they have."
But the Urban Prep graduation is an unfolding story and King knows it.
"It's just a milestone," he says. "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."
On a muggy June night, the graduates are gathered in cap and gown, reflecting on their journey.
Krishaun Branch, the kid who stopped himself from going over the edge, is heading to Fisk University in Tennessee.
He rattles of his emotions: "Happiness. Sadness. Proud. Proud of myself. Thankful. Successful."
Marcus Bass, the kid who wondered if he'd make it, grins with relief as he ponders a future at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
"It feels like I don't have anything to prove to anyone but now I have to prove something to myself – and that's making it through college," he says.
And Marlon Marshall, the kid who found a new anchor in life, will attend Earlham College in Indiana. "Everybody said we wasn't going to make it," he says, "but we're here and about to do bigger and better things."
Marlon's father – he left the family when his son was 3 months old – is in from Mississippi, his mother from Michigan.
Marlon doesn't remember when he last saw his dad, but on this night, they share a tearful embrace. "You're a much better man than I ever was," Marlon Sr. says, burrowing his face in his son's chest.
"Don't blame yourself 'cause I never stopped loving you ... ," his teary-eyed son consoles him. "I never gave up on you, man. I always knew that you was trying."
There would be another embrace before graduation night was over when Marlon Sr. thanked Richard Glass – the man who guided his son to the finish line.
Tim King asks the graduates to take the stage and recite their creed one final time.
They repeat the lines, rapidly and forcefully. The last words are joyous, and emphatic.
A few raise their arms in triumph.
Then they toss their mortarboards in the air, red-and-gold tassels flying as the crowd cheers.