CHICAGO -- Jamil Boldian headed to college four years ago, arriving in small-town Ohio with a one-way Megabus ticket and $17.91 to his name.
Krishaun Branch moved to Nashville to start his college career, far from the gangs that had surrounded him much of his life.
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Rayvaughn Hines settled on school in Virginia, determined to defy the fate of many young black men in his community who end up behind bars -- or worse.
The three were graduates from Urban Prep, a charter high school for young black men that opened in 2006. Most students were poor, way behind in school and living with their mothers in gang-ravaged neighborhoods. But founder Tim King had made a pledge: If they stayed disciplined and dreamed big, they'd get into college. And sure enough, every member in the Class of 2010, the school's first, was accepted into four-year schools.
Four years later, the three -- Boldian, Branch and Hines -- are among the first group of Urban Prep grads to earn their bachelor's degrees. They overcame financial pressures, academic struggles, loneliness, self-doubt and more. But they made it.
It's too early to know how many Urban Prep grads will ultimately cross the finish line. The school won't release the number of four-year graduates until the end of 2014 but Tim King says it will exceed the 15.6 percent national average for young black men. The true test of success, he says, will come in six years -- a common standard for judging graduation rates.
But what he's seen so far, King says, is enough to know Urban Prep's approach is working.
"There are times in life when you think you're right," he said after Branch's graduation. "And there are other times when you KNOW you are."
Standing on the stage at Fisk University, a tear rolled down Krishaun Branch's cheek.
"I just feel like God's got my back," he declared in a wavering voice, after accepting his degree in psychology.
Branch comes from Englewood, the often dangerous South Side neighborhood that's home to the first Urban Prep (there are now three campuses). As a kid, he hung out with gangbangers. He quit Urban Prep rather than risk expulsion after getting into a fight. When a friend was killed, he begged to be readmitted and became a serious student.
Getting through Fisk was no sure thing, especially at first. He had money troubles. He was slow to trust others. He had a short fuse. He was homesick, but he knew he couldn't leave. "I had to calm down," he says. "I knew this was an opportunity I could lose. ... College is a place where you have to want it. If you don't, you'll be spit out quickly."
His Urban Prep family, he says, helped with money, encouragement and even temporarily relocated him one school break when trouble was brewing in his neighborhood. "I had people who wanted to see me succeed as much as I did," Branch says. "That helped me tremendously."
The school's midwife approach is all-encompassing. An alumni affairs team stays in touch with the students by phone, text and email.
There's also limited money for tuition, books or everyday expenses. Transportation to college. Clothes for internship interviews. Lawyers for legal troubles. Visits by staff to take a homesick kid to lunch or dinner.
"You just can't say to a student, 'OK, now here's your chance to go to college. ... See you later,"' King says. "You've got to keep being there to provide support."
Jamil Boldian was slow to seek help.
College, he figured, was all about independence. So when his grades dropped and he lost his academic scholarship at Heidelberg University in Ohio, he tried to turn things around. "I didn't know what people would think or how I would be judged," he says, explaining his reluctance.
Boldian was about to give up early in his junior year and go home to reassess when he sent Tim King a Facebook message.
Urban Prep staff quickly responded, getting Boldian's academic career back on track.
He also became the business manager of a black student union, the founder of a dance troupe (he performed in campus productions, too) and the first black president of a school fraternity.
Last month, Boldian, who played football and ran track at school, graduated with a degree in sports management and business.
"I didn't focus on what I didn't have," he says, "but on the opportunities in front of me."
Rayvaughn Hines says he's never let obstacles get in his way. "If I have a goal, no one is going to stop me," he says.
Last month, Hines -- a Gates Millennium Scholar -- earned his psychology degree from the University of Virginia. He begins graduate studies at Virginia this fall and plans to become a school counselor.
Hines credits his own tenacity and family support. His neighbors, who nicknamed him "college boy," cheered him on, too. Even local drug dealers, who've known Hines since he was a baby, would ask if he needed anything. "They've always known that I want to be a success," he says.
But the road was rocky. His beloved grandmother, who'd helped raise him, died. His family's money problems were so severe that he sometimes sent home part of his scholarship stipend, leaving him temporarily broke. He attended summer school to keep pace.
Hines remembers, too, the humiliation of being dismissed by an engineering teacher he'd asked for help.
"My professor told me, 'You're not going to do well at this university and you're not going to do well in my class.' That hurt my heart," he says. "I immediately thought of Urban Prep and the creed, 'We BELIEVE. .... We never fail because we never give up."' He passed.
Hines also had to adjust to a more diverse world than the one he left behind.
"I'd never been around white people before," he says. "When I got here, it was cultural shock, basically. ... Eventually, I started making friends of different races. I recommend people get out of their comfort zone and stop trying to have negative stereotypes about every race."
"I have the best of both worlds. I'm street smart and book smart," he adds. "You put that together in an African-American male and that's dangerous."