Daryal Weaver chalks up another win on the Austin High School pool table after beating a couple of competitive but unlucky female opponents.

Having pool tables in high schools may not seem like the smart thing for such an academic environment. But these students are spending their lunch periods goofing off.

The members of Austin’s Tiger Pride Club serve as monitors in the school’s new student recreational center. Along with a pool table, there’s a ping-pong table, air hockey and foosball. If table sports or board games like Monopoly or Connect Four don’t suit them, they can lounge in chairs and watch DVD movies on the center’s big screen TV. The center also has computers with Internet access.

“We’ve got a place to watch TV and we’ve got a place for computers,” said Weaver, a 17-year-old senior. “You can come in here and do your work. It’s a lot of things you can do in here.”

The Tiger’s Den II recreational center opened at the start of their spring semester early January. For many of the club’s 16 members who are seniors, the recreational center will be one of the few fond memories in their last year in high school.

Austin High School is set to close this fall as part of the city’s Renaissance 2010 school restructuring plan. One new small school will open this fall with two more likely to follow in 2007. But those plans mean little to Austin’s current students, many of whom have attended the school their entire academic careers.

“Right now with Renaissance 2010 it’s like no one cares about us,” said Austin senior Jamie Smith, 18.

The recreational center was funded through a grant from the YMCA, which offered money last year to youth-oriented clubs and groups in Chicago. Despite Austin’s bad reputation, there have been no problems in the center since it opened.

“It’s a place where we can go that is ours,” said Smith. “The teachers aren’t in here saying, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ A lot of people were skeptical because Austin had a bad reputation. We have never had any fights. There’s never been a problem with the equipment because it’s ours and we know that it’s ours.”

The club formed just after YMCA’s announcement, said Denise Barron, club sponsor and dean of students at the soon-to-be former Austin High School.

“When I saw that about the YMCA, I came to school and made an announcement asking if kids wanted to be a part of Tiger Pride,” she said. “The students responded and we went from there.”

Clubs members worked on the grant, brainstorming on a proposal and the purpose for applying. Members wanted a “hang out” place for students. The club received a $2,500 grant. They used it to purchase the game tables and TV equipment. Located on the west end of the campus next to the lunchroom, students can come in during their early morning to late afternoon lunch periods.

Because of space and the rooms growing popularity, only 30 students at a time are allowed inside. The room was recently part of the culinary classes before it was shut down because of Renaissance 2010.

“Austin never had any kind of recreational site,” said principal Anthony Scott, who taught school at Austin from 1979 to 1994 before returning in 2004 as principal.

“This is a new setup,” Scott added. “There was nothing laid out for the kids to come and get online with the computers.”

Club member and Austin senior Ashley Pearson, 18, said the center has helped raise school spirit.

“I think it leaves a legacy because we’re the last class that’s going to be graduating from Austin High School,” she said. “We used to have school spirit when I came here my freshman year and now it’s dead. When we come in here, we bring our spirit up.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com