Nicholas Powell has worked security at Austin High School for the last three years. He’s also an alum. Powell started around the same time it was announced that Austin High School would close because it was “under-performing academically”.
Powell was there at the school last week as the remaining group of teachers and seniors prepared to close out not only the year, but Austin High School itself. The 167 seniors graduated on Saturday. The Austin school campus at 231 N. Pine is now a Renaissance 2010 school with one small school already on campus and another set to open there in the fall.
“I’m quite frankly heartbroken at the close,” said Powell. “This is my alma mater. When I was attending the school 16 years ago, I could not read. ROTC Sergeant Joe Ellis took me under his wing not only teaching me how to read but shaping a stronger sense of discipline that I would not have received at another school.”
Powell himself grew up with very little involvement from his natural parents. He spent most of his formative years bouncing around amongst relatives. However, he credits Austin High School with giving him the opportunity to receive the mentoring and leadership training that would redirect his life’s path.
In the days prior to the final graduating class, Powell was reflective of his own graduation from the academy in 1993.
“Robert Townsend, who was an Austin High School alum was the guest speaker,” Powell recalled. “We were still riding high off the prom from a week earlier where the DJ was spinning hits from artists of the era like Mint Condition and Jodeci.”
The current crop of students last week were still high from their prom the week before. School morale was mixed, however. Students were disappointed in this being their’s and the school’s last year, but were ready to graduate. The few remaining teachers were more disappointed.
Many reflected on the school’s past and recent history.
Salutatorian Brad Johnson attended Austin Community Academy all four years of his high school education. He felt that there were issues with discipline at the school, but that closing it is not the solution.
“I think it’s just an example of CPS using easy solutions to solve serious problems,” said Johnson. “I like this school and made a lot of great friends while I’ve been here. Those on the outside who only hear the negative aspects of the area and the school want to force their opinions on us.”
Johnson attended the prom the week prior at the downtown Hilton Hotel. It was the school’s last dance. He had overturned his original decision not to attend through the insistence of his friends.
“They just encouraged me to come since it would be the school’s last prom, and said I should go ahead and attend,” Johnson said. “I had a good time anyway but left right after the DJ began spinning [Keith Sweat’s] “Make It Last Forever.”
The 17-year-old is a political science major and is planning to attend Loyola in the fall.
Some of the school’s students and staff disagree with the small school format for Austin High School, which was the only stand-alone, single-building high school in the Austin community.
Senior Georgio Webb disagrees with the new small school opening next semester. His school pride is probably as strong as few students in the graduating class. Webb was the running back on the Austin Tigers division championship football team last year. It was all the more stunning because of the fact that only four of the team’s players had played football before. The rest were recruited by the coaching staff before the season began.
“It’s definitely my fondest memory of the school,” said the 18-year-old Webb. “I don’t agree with the decision to change the school. I feel that they could have worked toward improving the school without closing it. There are so many people that called this school home.”
18-year-old senior Jalisa Akines, was in her sophomore year when it was announced that Austin High School would close.
Still, she decided to remain their until she graduated.
Morale at the time took an immediate hit because teachers began leaving the school and programs began to be cut as a result. Many students felt the teachers had bailed on them and the school.
“The thing that made me mad was the way the teachers began just walking away without a second thought once it was announced that the school would be closed,” said Akines, who is planning to attend East-West University to study Business Marketing. “I mean, I understand that they need to find new places to teach once the last semester ends, but there should have been more loyalty to these students that had really dedicated themselves to working hard despite the pressure of going to a school that will close [in three years].
“A lot of teachers should have stuck by students more,” Akines added. “They should have at least come back and made sure that their former students were on the path to graduating. They were only looking out for themselves.”
The discontinuing of several programs such as ROTC in 2005 also was loss for students. When the announcement came that Austin Community Academy would in fact turn into a Renaissance 2010 school, funding for programs stopped. Akines was on the team that won the school’s ROTC championship in 2004. Akines said that was her fondest memory of Austin High School.
Outside the saffron brick building are construction crews repairing windows, sanding walls and unfolding the latest Renaissance 2010 sign. The current renovation is the first phase of a $20 million project approved by the Chicago Public Schools.
The 2010 sign encouraging students to apply to either of the small schools is located less than 10 feet from the original Austin High School sign. Just above the front double doors on the Pine Avenue entrance is “Austin High School”, engraved above the door and written in old-style font. It reads like a stamp marking the school’s legitimacy and history.
“I thought it was stupid” said Capt. James Wimes, the school’s former ROTC instructor in not mincing words about his views on the school’s closing.
“[Principal Anthony Scott] asked me to come over and serve as his assistant when he was first hired by CPS and our goal was the same: do what was necessary to improve Austin Community Academy. In the time we have been here, we have improved the security, fights have dropped to a very occasional occurrence and scores has steadily improved. But because of politics and money, they want to destroy what we worked so hard to accomplish.”