Victor Dunn-Aiken, 17, keeps the tears from his eyes, but not his voice as he describes a typical school day.
Every morning, he gets up by 5:30 so he can catch a CTA bus from his home in the Austin neighborhood to Wells Community Academy in West Town. There, he struggles to learn in a packed building where tensions run high between students of different ethnic backgrounds and gang affiliations.
“You don’t even know if you’re going to walk to the bus stop without being jumped by kids,” Aiken said.
He would have preferred to stay closer to home, but Austin Community Academy High School, 231 N. Pine, was in the midst of being phased out in 2004 when he started high school.
A top student in eighth grade, Aiken applied for a coveted spot at one of the city’s selective enrollment high schools and was put on a waiting list.
Now four years later, he still languishes at Wells. Aiken’s experience is not unique for Austin, where the closing of Austin High School after more than 100 years has left a void in education and frustration in the community.
Parents and students acknowledge that the high school had become a “dumping ground” plagued by violence and low achievement. They are not sure, however, whether Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 Plan to close under performing schools and replace them with new ones is the best way to fill the education gap.
Once the lifeblood of the Austin community, the old Austin High School is now divided into two small schools – The Austin Business and Entrepreneurship High School on the first floor, and Austin Polytechnical Academy, scheduled to open upstairs in the fall. A third school is slated for 2008.
Older Austin residents recall when the neighborhood flourished with opportunity and the high school racked up trophies in athletics and academics. In the glory days, Austin High School anchored the large, racially diverse community. But racial strife, white-flight and the loss of industry stripped the area of vital jobs, ushering in unemployment, poverty, drugs and gangs, community members said.
On many blocks, crumpled paper and empty liquor bottles litter untended lawns, and groups of young men flood street corners.
“Years ago, Austin wasn’t like this,” said longtime resident Dorothy Henderson, 63. “People cared about the property [and] the schools weren’t that bad to go to.”
A real ‘high school experience’
Leaders at Austin Polytechnic say their school will train students to reinvest in their neighborhood, ultimately resurrecting Austin’s economic base.
But changing the atmosphere of a school- and the direction of a community- is not easy, and some youth feel more like causalities than beneficiaries of change.
“It takes tremendous effort to turn things around,” said Giacomo Mancuso, former director of school demographics and planning for Chicago Public Schools. “Maybe what CPS is trying to do is to start doing that, even though it will take time and it’s going to be traumatic.
“But the real issue,” he added, “is what happens in the meantime to the kids who are scattered all over the place.”
Some end up like Aiken.
He estimates that he spends $75 a month commuting to and from Wells.
“I been out there with no bus fare at times,” he said. “I have to walk home. It’s hard trying to keep bus fare when you don’t have a job, or you’re working a job, but you don’t get paid enough.”
Aiken is a prime example for advocates who call for new high school to be built in Austin. Led by Virgil Crawford of Westside Health Authority, a group of youth, including Aiken, called the Student Freedom Riders is calling for a state-of-the-art building that can accommodate more than a thousand students.
In July, the Freedom Riders went before the Chicago Board of Education to ask for the new high school. The month before, Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th) and members of the Westside Ministers Coalition came with the same request. Both times, President Rufus Williams said officials were looking at the complex situation in Austin but made no promises.
The neighborhood is home to approximately 6,600 high school-aged youth, according to CPS. The old Austin High School was capable of enrolling 1,500 students. Population, however, had fluctuated for years with many students opting to travel outside their neighborhood for school, said CPS spokesman Malon Edwards.
When the high school closed, officials made room for students at Wells Community Academy, Orr Community Academy, Roberto Clemente Community Academy, Hugh Manley Career Academy High School, John Marshall Metropolitan High School and George W. Collins High School.
Of those six, three -Orr, Clemente and Wells- ranked among the worst in the city at sending graduates to college, according to a 2006 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.
Some students remained in Austin at Michele Clark Academic Preparatory High School and Frederick Douglass Academy, a middle school that was expanded into a high school.
“I don’t feel like I’m getting a real high school experience,” said a boy who attends Douglass. “Sometimes, we don’t get all our books.”
Students also described cramped classrooms and routine violence.
Those problems are bigger than Austin, said Carol Lee, a professor in Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.
“What’s unfortunate is that there are so many bad high schools in the city,” she said. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with geography.”
Staging a revival
Typically, small schools are built from the ground up, even if they are put into an existing building. The Austin schools start with about 150 freshmen and add another grade each year until they hit a maximum of 600 students at each of the three schools, Edwards said.
Austin Business and Entrepreneurship High School, which opened last year, aims to prepare students for college while also teaching them how to write a business plan.
At Austin Polytechnic, the goal is more specific and deliberate. Alongside traditional classes in English and world studies, the school will teach students about complex manufacturing techniques and connect them to future employers.
“We really see the school as training the next generation of leaders in manufacturing,” said Dan Swinney, project manager for Austin Polytechnic and executive director of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council.
Swinney envisions a day when the site of the old Brach’s Candy Factory on Cicero Avenue bustles with investment.
Not everyone is buying in, though.
Ross Stolzenberg, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, said the school’s strategy does not make sense “unless you’re going to somehow chain these people to their neighborhoods for the rest of their lives.”
He pointed out that people and companies tend to move, so there is no guarantee a student will apply their training in their hometown.
Lee questioned any school’s ability to transform a community. And even if Austin Polytechnic succeeds, the small school cannot save everyone, some point out.
“If there is inadequate housing, inadequate access to jobs, inadequate access to health care in the neighborhood, a school’s not going to be able to do anything about that,” she said. “It’s a job of a school to educate kids well despite their neighborhoods.”
Although students won’t have to take an entrance exam, Swinney said the school is selective, in a sense.
“We had a battle with CPS not to be defined as a neighborhood school,” he said. “We want kids to be here who want to be here. We didn’t take on the obligation to solve the problems of CPS.”
He and assistant principal Bernina Brazier said they support the community’s push for a large new high school to take more students, but their focus is on Austin Polytechnic.
In creating something new, they must decide how much of the old to preserve.
Brazier recently walked in to see a cleaning-up crew carelessly throwing away old trophies. She told them, “Wait a minute. This is history; you have to keep this.”
She is considering opening up the courtyard so students can eat outside, and new windows are scheduled for late fall.
But the most significant change will be in the school’s atmosphere. Brazier promises administrators will have an open-door policy and get to know students and their families.
Meanwhile, Aiken is preparing for his last year at Wells. He plans to study architecture and business in college, but his focus is not on himself as he volunteers with the Student Freedom Riders.
“My little sisters, one just graduated (from eighth grade),” he said, “and I’m wondering where she’s going to go to school at, because I certainly do not want her to come to Wells.”