Dovetta McKee helps usher urban youths into college via Office of Special Programs-College Prep

Dovetta McKee believes that every child has the potential to achieve academically, including disadvantaged youths, if given the opportunity and support. As the current director of the University’s Office of Special Programs-College Prep, McKee is back where she got her career start in youth development. 

From 1992 to 1999, McKee worked side by side with the late Larry Hawkins, who founded the office’s landmark program Upward Bound. Hawkins, who was a high school star athlete, turned basketball coach, used sports to hook inner-city students into the academic program. McKee, who managed parent involvement activities, remembers how as many as 700 high school students would fill the programs and visit the University campus.

McKee took on the directorship in 2009 after Hawkins’ death that year and now oversees his legacy, shepherding minority students from low-income South Side communities into college by providing a bridge to possibilities.

Between her UChicago stints, McKee was an associate professor at Aurora University, where she helped adults working in child development complete undergraduate degrees. She later became director of special initiatives at Prevention First, a program that partnered with Chicago Public Schools to tackle social issues that hinder academic success, such as neighborhood violence, teen pregnancy and substance abuse.

McKee brings her past experience to tackle some of those same issues and usher her students into college. “A lot of people do not believe that young African Americans can excel academically, and as a result they have very low standards for them,” said McKee, who earned a law degree from John Marshall Law School. “People believe the hype; they believe what they see in the media, and the emphasis is always on the negative.”

Despite relatively low graduation rates among urban high school students, youths who participate in the OSP-CP programs maintain a 100 percent high school graduation rate, up from 94 percent in 1997. Since 2007, between 85 and 100 percent have enrolled in four-year universities. Before then, the college enrollment rate was nearly 80 percent.

“When the bar is set high, and I have parents who are committed—even sometimes without committed parents—when I have young people who have been encouraged to believe in themselves, they do achieve,” McKee said.

The OSP-CP operates throughout the school year, offering Saturday classes and campus tours at colleges and universities. Summer activities focus on math, science, foreign-language study and entrance exam preparation. The OSP-CP partners with the University’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics to expose students to scientific research and the University Theater to engage students in the arts. McKee’s team also helps students develop soft skills like public speaking and punctuality.

The program’s location on the University of Chicago campus reinforces its ability to give students an excellent pre-collegiate experience. “With any new adventure, you’re always fearful because of the unknown,” McKee explained. “It’s imperative that young people from underserved communities see that people who work and learn on college campuses are just like everybody else. They need to know it’s possible to cross the bridge and not fall in the river.”

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Dovetta McKee worked with the late Larry Hawkins, Upward Bound program founder, for seven years in the 1990s. She has returned to UChicago to direct the Office of Special Programs-College Prep to continue the work of preparing Chicago youth to attend college. McKee visits with a group of girls during lunch in Bartlett Dining Hall.

Photo by Jason Smith

The Office of Special Programs-College Prep and Upward Bound program now serve 100 ninth through 12th-grade students from four South Side high schools, offering them academic skills enrichment in four core subjects; academic guidance and advising; academic enrichment and cultural events; tutorials; career, college and university awareness; college entrance exam preparation; and college entrance and financial aid application assistance.

Photo by Jason Smith

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