Westside Health Authority’s youth volunteers spoke at the Chicago Board of Education meeting last week urging the Chicago Public Schools to support opening a new high school in Austin.

Since the former Austin High School stopped accepting freshmen in 2004 and officially closed this June, the Austin community is now without a major high school.

Austin High School, 231 N. Pine, was closed in ’04 as part of the Renaissance 2010 school reorganization program. Michelle Clark and Douglas schools were soon after converted from middle schools into high schools. The former Austin High building is now home to two charter schools.

Last Wednesday, the youth volunteers, called the Student Freedom Riders, spoke to CPS and board officials about backing a new high school for Austin. The Freedom Riders are middle and high school students, most of whom live in Austin but attend school outside of the community.

The group was formed by the WHA for the youth to learn about civic engagement and community organization. Some of the students said schools such as Michelle Clark, where students are tested before attending, are overcrowded and teachers are overworked.

Students such as Keshawnda Hill, 16, see this as a big problem.

“We want qualified teachers, [but] we’ll have like a science teacher teaching us sports,” Hill said.

Freedom Rider Victor Donn-Aiken, 17, said he finds it difficult to commute across town to attend William H. Wells Academy.

“I was only supposed to be there for a month because I tested into Whitney Young [High School], but I was never called back,” he said. “I was in one of the first classes that was turned down from going to Austin High School.”

The Freedom Riders and officials with the Westside Health Authority have been out in Austin seeking community support.

WHA, 5816 W. Division, is part of Austin Community Education Network, a group of community organizations, parents and educators formed around the new high school effort.

Other organizations include The South Austin Coalition and the Westside Ministers Coalition.

The network has sought to include youth in their campaign, said Anthony Bowman, a coordinator with the Westside Health Authority.

“A lot of these kids are forced to travel outside of the neighborhood, and with Austin being the largest community in Chicago, geographically and population-wise, people are calling it a crime that CPS has abandoned public education in Austin,” Bowman said.

WHA this summer has organized an ongoing community blitz every other Saturday to seek support. The youth volunteers, along with parents and other community organizations, pass out fliers and ask people to sign a petition in support of a new high school.

Parent Beauty Winfrey, a 17-year Austin resident, was at a recent Saturday blitz with her 20-year-old daughter Daisy, both of them advocating for Beauty’s son Malik, who will start first grade at Brunson Elementary School this fall.

“I’m looking way ahead,” Beauty said, “because I want to make sure that when he gets out of grammar school that he has a high school to go to. If we start now, by the time he gets to high school, we’ll have what we want.”

Along with the petitions, WHA is conducting parent surveys of where parents are currently sending their kids and if they would like their kids to go to school in their community.

Austin Education Network has been doing everything it can to convince the Chicago Board of Education that Austin needs a new high school as soon as possible, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority.

“This campaign is being driven and organized by students who attend school in Austin, as well as some who attend school outside of Austin,” he said. “We figured the best way to kick off this campaign was to organize students-The Student Freedom Riders.”

For more information on Austin Community Education Network and a new high school for Austin, call 773/668-0702.

Clarification: In the July 26 issue of AWN on Page 3, the photo was not associated with the article on the same page about a new Catholic school opening in Austin in 2009. Westside Health Authority is not affiliated with the Catholic high school mentioned.

Chris Barnes contributed to this story.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com