Dion Steele, principal of Urban Prep Academies’ Englewood campus, says he has “500 sons, and three daughters at home.” Urban Prep is the nation’s first charter network dedicated to serving young African-American men. For the last eight years in a row, Urban Prep has sent 100 percent of its graduates to college. Being the head of his 500-student family demands superpowers, and Steele has made it a habit to study those powers. He says he has an “obsession with comics and superheroes” and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Steele sees parallels between his love of Marvel comics and his study of theology; in fact, he questions whether he would have pursued the latter without the former. Steele not only believes strongly in the value of mythological storytelling to inspire youth to imagine wider possibilities for themselves, but his obsession also plays a larger-than-life role in the hallways of the Urban Prep-Englewood Campus. Meanwhile, at home, Steele’s daughters are shining, too. His oldest just graduated from college and is following in her father’s footsteps as a fourth-grade teacher in Virginia. She hopes someday to open her own charter school. His middle daughter now attends Virginia State. This fall, his youngest will start at Howard University. “I’m proud of all three of my daughters, as well as my 500 sons at Urban Prep,” he says.
You have a lot of superhero posters, action figures, and lightsabers in your office. A lot of them have been given to you by parents, students, and the community over the years. Why do you identify with superheroes and mythological storytelling? Our young men don’t have a lot of superheroes in their lives. I was a big fan of Marvel comics growing up and I loved Darth Vader in "Star Wars
." I heard James Earl Jones’ voice and I thought it was a Black guy in a suit. I identified. I thought, ‘Wow, he can do everything. He’s all-powerful.’ It gave me something to look up to. I don’t think I would have been interested in religion and philosophy and pursued that in my studies had I not been interested in comics as a kid. I think when the fantasy world is removed from the lives of young Black boys (as it often is), it removes the idea of limitless possibilities. That’s why I keep it around me and my students.
You talk about the importance of believing in limitless possibilities. The Urban Prep motto is “We believe.” What does that mean to you? Those of us who came up with the Urban Prep creed, which relates to the motto, were a body of men who reflected the population we were going to serve. We talked really intentionally about the things we believed in, the challenges we had to overcome, and what drives us. If you read the creed, it says things like, “We never fail because we never give up. We are our brothers’ keeper.” It is meant to become a part of you, to become an internalized way of life. The Urban Prep motto means: I can do anything that I want to; I have the power to make it happen.
Urban Prep has been successful getting students to college at incredibly high rates. Why do you think that is? What’s the recipe for success? I look at this from a personal perspective. I went on sabbatical from Urban Prep early on because I struggled with a shadow of doubt about what my students could achieve because of the challenges they faced at home or where they entered Urban Prep academically. Our young men are dealing with gangs and so many other issues. If you were naïve to that, your practices weren’t going to be properly built around the students and their needs, but at the same time, you have to overcome the idea that they can’t do it, because, of course, they can. I came back to Urban Prep refreshed, rejuvenated, and confident that there is no other place as supporting and nurturing for young, Black males as Urban Prep. And now I know that everyone who works at Urban Prep has to come to the work like a parent or an uncle, with that level of belief and innate drive to see every young man succeed. These are my guys. I am going to do what I need to do to make them successful. I have three daughters, but I have 500 sons.
Getting students to college is incredibly important, but seeing them to and through college to graduation is the ultimate goal. How is Urban Prep doing with that and how do you work towards that goal? Urban Prep’s college persistence rate is 74 percent, which outpaces African-American males nationally. Why? A young man came by the office today to tell me he had a 4.0 GPA. I asked if he had met other guys from Urban Prep at his university. He had. Our guys are going to schools with built-in networks; they enter already part of a brotherhood. They have that built-in culture because we cluster Urban Prep students on college campuses. We also have alumni affairs staff who keep in close contact with our students. Social media makes it really easy for all our staff members to do that. It’s a privilege to be able to friend students on Facebook once they graduate and are adults. I keep close tabs on them. We are a family.
What makes you most hopeful? What makes me hopeful is that, at Urban Prep, we expose our students to a lot. When I was in high school, the only careers I knew could be counted on one hand. My mother was a nurse. She wanted me to be a doctor. So, that is what I was going to do. But that was not right for me. It’s important that our young men are exposed to multiple pathways and that their interests are catered to, so they choose and are placed at the right colleges. I never want to set up our young men to fail.
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...