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School on Chicago's violent South Side sends 100 percent of its graduates to college

Under the guidance of Urban Prep Academies, a lottery-based charter school that promotes high expectations, college is within reach.
/ Source: TODAY

Like many other high school seniors this June, Juwaun Cooper-Muhammad recently walked across a stage to accept his diploma, graduating summa cum laude from Chicago's Urban Prep Academies.

But Cooper-Muhammad's story is a little different.

"I witnessed people get robbed. I've been robbed a couple times. I've actually seen a few people get shot," the 18-year-old told TODAY. "If I didn't go to Urban Prep, I probably wouldn't be going to college."

Under the guidance of that lottery-based charter school, he will indeed be going to college, having accepted an offer from Georgetown University — a dream come true for him and his mother. What's more, he's headed there on a full academic scholarship.

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Urban Prep, launched in 2006 by third-generation Chicagoan Tim King, boasts a whopping college acceptance rate of 100 percent. Every single graduate has been accepted to a four-year university.

"I feel a responsibility to affect some positive change," King told TODAY. "Our students come from really tough backgrounds, we have a very high level of poverty among our students, but there's this grit, there's this determination."

Kings said the key is creating an environment "in which they are celebrated, in which they are nurtured, in which they are loved."

That love is intended to counter society's stereotypical narratives about black men. "[It's] shrouded in negativity," continued King. "Young black men go to prison, drop out, engage in violence.

"While there may be young black men who fit that category, the majority of young black men don't."

And these aren't just things King tells reporters. He's saying them out loud and often, in an attempt to remind his students of all they've overcome.

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"Mr. Cooper-Muhammad, you were born to a teen mother. The world said you wouldn't make it," he told the entire audience of families, loved ones and students during his powerful address at Urban Prep's graduation ceremony. "Today, you stand as proof that data isn't destiny."

Juwaun said the best part of graduation was "seeing how proud my mother was of me."

Thinking ahead to September, he added, "I'm not sure what I want to major in right now. I'm thinking about economics. I'm just looking forward to taking on the challenges that Georgetown has."

Chicago, though, will remain in his heart.

Asked if he plans to return one day to his hometown, he was quick to respond. "Most definitely."