In early June, Tim King sat down at his computer and began to write a letter he didn’t want to write. King is the founder of Urban Prep Academies, which operates three all-boys charter schools in Chicago. Two days earlier, one of Urban Prep’s promising students, Christopher Fields, had been shot and killed.
Fields was a 17-year-old who liked watching “Family Guy” and playing Halo, according to his Facebook page. A boxer, he earned the nickname “Sandman” at competitions. At the conclusion of his sophomore year, he joined his classmates at the end-of-year assembly. “Hey, be safe, we want you to come back to us,” King remembers telling the young men. “It’s crazy out here in Chicago, we need you to take care of yourselves.” Three nights later, Fields and his cousin were walking down a street near his house when a gunman opened fire, striking Fields in the back. The local news reported that he was hit while shielding his cousin. He died at the hospital less than an hour later.
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King says he wanted the letter, which in various iterations would go to the Urban Prep families, staff, and supporters, to strike a balance between informative and sensitive. He needed to be direct without compromising the police investigation, or intensifying the grief some recipients would surely be feeling. “Telling the facts, telling when it happened, telling how great the kid is — that’s the easy part,” King tells The Trace. “The difficult part is telling people to continue to believe, to continue to hope.”
The right words can be difficult to summon. “I feel, when these things happen, hopeless,” he says. “I’ve got to get over that.”
On that day in June, King began to type.
It is with a heavy heart that I’m writing to inform you that Urban Prep Englewood Campus sophomore Christopher Fields was shot and killed near his home in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the evening of Saturday, June 11th. Mr. Fields was not the intended target, but rather was the victim of a senseless act of violence.
In the coming weeks, teenagers across the country will return to classrooms, bearing fresh tales of vacations, of days at the beach, of pool parties and barbecues. But not every kid survived the summer. Some, especially those who live in violent neighborhoods in Chicago and other large cities, were shot and killed while celebrating with friends or simply sitting on their front porch.
The same week Fields died in Chicago, an East Los Angeles College student named Saieed Ivey was discovered dead from a bullet wound in a locked Mercedes sedan. He had been celebrating his 20th birthday with friends at an apartment complex in a suburb of Los Angeles. Later, in July, a mass shooting at a swim-themed party in Fort Myers, Florida, left two teenagers dead: Ste’fan Strawder, 18, and Sean Archilles, 14. Strawder was a rising high school senior and basketball player, while Archilles was slated to start eighth grade. A week after that, 15-year-old Gregory Hill was fatally shot in the head at a house party in Rockford, Illinois. According to local news reports, Hill’s family had moved to Rockford from Chicago in 2003 in an effort to escape the gun violence in the city, and so Hill, an honors student, “could safely pursue his dreams of playing college basketball.”
For some of these schools, handling the loss of a student to gun violence is new terrain. For Urban Prep in Chicago, it’s become a kind of routine. So far this year, more than 2,700 people have been shot in the city. The summer has been especially bloody: Sixty-five people were killed last month, marking the deadliest July in a decade. Three months after Christopher Fields died, the school lost an alumnus. In mid-August, Arshell Dennis III, a 2014 graduate of Urban Prep Bronzeville who was enrolled at St. John’s University in New York, was killed while visiting his family for the weekend. Another Urban Prep alumnus, whose name has not been made public, was also injured in the same shooting. In the past six years, 17 Urban Prep students or alums have been shot, five of them fatally, according to King.
As the chief executive of Urban Prep, King has also become the school’s mourner-in-chief. Each death, he says, disrupts the entire school community. Until a few years ago, he had never considered that his job would also include managing the many challenges, beyond delivering the news, that crop up in the aftermath of a fatal shooting.
From figuring out how to handle a dead teen’s usual seat in the cafeteria, or how to honor him at graduation, to calling in extra grief counselors, “there are just myriad things that you have to think about, from the mundane to the incredibly, incredibly complex,” says King. “And everyone who has to figure that out is mourning the loss. It’s not like there’s this external guidebook that says, ‘This is what you do.’”
In 2015, a senior named Deonte Hoard was on his way to play pickup basketball with a friend when he was shot and killed. It was a Monday evening in February, in the middle of the school year. What to do with Hoard’s locker presented a painful dilemma. “Do we give it to someone else, do we make it a shrine?” King recalls wondering. He put the decision to Hoard’s closest friends, who requested that the locker be kept empty.
King says he fell into education by accident. The Chicago native grew up in Pill Hill, a prosperous black neighborhood, and attended private school. When he was a law student at Georgetown University, he was invited to teach a high school class, and he got hooked on education. That experience, along with becoming the guardian of an orphaned student, made him want to open more avenues for young black men. “I thought it unfair that only people with money can choose what schools they send their children to,” King told People magazine six years ago. King’s response was to open the first Urban Prep academy in 2006 in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood with high rates of poverty and violent crime. Since then, two new academies have opened in Bronzeville and the University Village area. Most of the students come from low-income, single-parent families, according to King. For many of them, Urban Prep symbolizes “their ticket to a brighter future,” says King — which makes the murders of students like Fields or Hoard particularly paradoxical. “We started an organization to save these kids,” he says. “And now you’ve got these external forces that are destroying them.”
His students fall into an at-risk demographic for gun violence, and are far more likely to get shot than the average high schooler. But the majority, of course, are not — and most graduate from the school.
Urban Prep claims 100 percent of its seniors are accepted to college. (Some news outlets and education bloggers have challenged this assertion.) For graduates who attend a university, the question of how well Urban Prep has prepared them remains open, according to a Chicago Tribune profile of several students from the school’s first graduating class. One graduate who did seem to be well his way was Arshell Dennis III. Dennis, who went by Trey, was a journalism major and rising junior at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. When his roommate interviewed him last year, Dennis seemed grateful to have left Chicago, where “it’s kinda bad being a youth,” he said. “I do appreciate the fact that I am where I am. A lot of people where I’m from don’t make it out.”
Earlier this month, Dennis flew back to Chicago. The plan was to surprise his mother for her birthday, stay for the weekend, and fly back to New York on Sunday. On his last night at home, he was talking on the porch with another Urban Prep alumnus. A man approached on foot and started firing shots, hitting both young men. Dennis, 19, was killed. The other victim, a 20-year-old, was hit in the arm and chest and was last listed in serious condition. Police are investigating the attack as a case of mistaken identity or possible gang initiation.
Next Tuesday morning, on September 6, the students at Urban Prep will button crisp white collared shirts and knot red neckties. They will pull on black blazers, lapels flashing their school’s crest: two black lions with paws raised and tails entwined. They will begin to learn their new class schedules, memorize their new locker combinations, and meet their new teachers. That morning, and every morning for the rest of the school year, they will gather in the gymnasium to recite the school creed: “We are the young men of Urban Prep … We choose to live honestly, nonviolently, and honorably,” they will say in unison. “We believe.”
It was King who devised the creed. He hoped that if the students imagined their success every day, they would eventually embody it. Each murders tests that conviction.
After Fields died, he fortified his note to parents and students with as much hope as he could muster.
Despite this violence, which relentlessly robs us of lives that are all so full of promise and potential, Urban Prep remains steadfast in our mission, but we cannot do it alone. It is up to all of us to make sure that our children are safe this summer and every day of the year.
He signed it: “We Believe.”
[Photo: Urban Prep]