Editor’s note: With Austin High School becoming a Renaissance 2010 school this fall, the Austin Weekly News decided to chronicle the last official senior prom through the eyes of two of its 236 graduating seniors.
Jaime Smith was surprisingly relaxed last Friday night as she greeted family members and friends arriving at her home to see her off to prom. The 18-year-old Austin High School senior made it back home just in time to get ready. Smith, not only is a graduating senior, class valedictorian and honors student”she’s also the prom coordinator.
“Everything is almost finished. The DJ has the track listing, [and] he has been instructed to play slow jazz and R&B during the dinner and the Isley Brothers’ ‘Drifting on a Memory’ to close it,” she said. “Everything seems to be in place.”
Smith had just come back from helping decorate a ballroom at the downtown Embassy Suites Hotel for Austin’s prom. She is one of approximately 236 seniors who make up the last official graduating class before Austin High School, 231 N. Pine, is converted into a small school campus under Renaissance 2010.
Though Austin’s current junior class will graduate after the 2006-2007 school year, this fall, the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy will open as one of three small schools slated for the Austin campus.
Despite the floating balloons and ballroom glitter, Austin’s final prom is undoubtedly poignant for Smith and her classmates. But the show”and Austin’s prom”must go on.
“Grandma, you have to leave before I do because the chaperones need to arrive at the hotel before the kids do,” Smith said to her maternal grandmother, Jainee Sanders, whom Smith asked personally to be a chaperone.
It’s generally uncommon to have “grandmomma” with you on your prom night; however, Smith prepared her grandmother by watching music videos to see what dances were in store for the night.
While keeping her shoulder-length spiral curls in place and making sure the DJ receives a copy of the play list, Smith admitted she hadn’t planned on attending the prom at all.
“I wasn’t going to go at first, and then mom sort of convinced me,” said Smith. “After that, I decided to join the prom planning committee at the start of the semester.”
Smith, an international business major, has been involved with several aspects of school life at Austin, since she first entered four years ago. From her freshman semester, Smith was encouraged by her teachers to take advantage of the school’s litany of clubs and activities, including the academic decathlon, the girl’s basketball team”which she’s the manager of”and the drama club. She was also stage manager for a school performance of “Raison in The Sun.”
Smith is preparing to attend the University of Minnesota in the fall. But after this year, Austin for her will never be the same, she said.
“I won’t feel it was my school anymore after the change,” said Smith. “I have no connections to the new school. I don’t like the idea of segregating the students in such a way inside the same building. I think students can only excel if they are allowed the opportunity to interact and develop friendships with the entire student body.”
Her mom, Donnashay Smith, thinks Austin High School and the students are being treated unfairly.
“I think Austin High School was simply the victim of its negative reputation,” she said. “People don’t realize all the good things the school had to offer, and how much school spirit existed there.”
Getting ready, looking back
Austin senior Lorenzi Walker, 19, spent part of Friday morning at an Austin barbershop, making sure he has the proper cut for tonight’s prom. He wants to get back home by 4 o’clock to get ready. Meanwhile, the varsity basketball team captain and track and volleyball player is waiting for replies from colleges. Chicago State University on the South Side is tops on his list.
Walker, like most of the 236 graduating Austin seniors, spent all four years at the high school. Walker said his grades this year have been mostly As and Bs. He didn’t work last summer, but plans to this year. He said he wants to live on campus, to see what it’s like.
“Every penny I work for this summer I’m saving. I can’t afford to spend anything,” said Walker, who’s also the senior class vice president.
Walker said he hadn’t really thought about Austin’s closing until the week of the prom.
“I thought about it when they first made the announcement,” he said, “but after awhile, school work started getting harder and projects started piling up. I had forgotten about it, really, until yesterday when it came up at the athletic banquet.
“It feels good to graduate, but it’s sad because I always wanted to go back to Austin,” he added. “I’m going to miss the school.”
He said the hard stuff is out of the way now, and he’s just looking forward to graduating.
Those connected to Austin High, from teachers to students, aren’t sure what the Ren 2010 proposed schools for Austin will provide for students.
Ren 2010 and Chicago Public School officials, including CEO Arne Duncan, for instance, have talked about having sports teams at the small schools. The details, though, haven’t been completely worked out. Nothing so far in Ren 2010 guidelines outline what sports students can play or how those teams will compete in city and state athletic competitions.
Austin’s varsity football team this year finished under .500. The varsity basketball team went to the city playoffs with a 13-15 record before falling short.
“We played as a team,” said Walker, a shooting guard. “We fought hard, but it’s kind of hard when you got Crane and Marshall in the same division.”
Walker said his coaches offered him a chance to become a coach next year”that is, if it works out with his college career. Walker plans to make it work.
“Even though it won’t be Austin, I still want to give back.”
The last dance
Austin’s prom kicked off at about 6 o’clock Friday. But the seniors started filing in a little later. Long, chauffeured, stretch limos and sparkling whips arrived throughout the evening at the Embassy Suites downtown at Columbus and Illinois. The males and their dates, decked out in the best tailor-made suites and flowing gowns, danced the night away to current chart-toppers and a few “old-school” jams.
Principal Anthony Scott was happy to see his senior class end their Austin careers on a happy note.
“The good thing is to see the kids enjoying themselves and each other,” said Scott. “Next year we’ll be mixed with charter school [students] and [Austin] seniors. So this is the last pure graduating class of Austin Career Academy High School.”