The Austin Community Education Network is in talks with Chicago Public Schools to bring a new general enrollment high school to Austin.
The network is working in a capacity similar to the Austin Transition Advisory Council in that it will find a site, discuss the type of school the community needs, and present their recommendation to CPS.
The Austin TAC served a similar role under the Renaissance 2010 restructuring process for the Austin High School campus three years ago.
CPS, as it did three years ago, will have the final say on any new school.
“We want to assure that all of our children have a seat to attend a school in Austin,” said Virgil Crawford, community organizer for the WHA. “They should have the option to stay in their community and attend school without having to bus to another side of town.”
The network has long recommended the Brach’s site at 401 N. Cicero Ave. as a possible location. Crawford maintained that it’s the only location that has the size, accessibility and ability to seat 3,000 students in Austin. That enrollment figure, he insists, is non-negotiable.
“Austin is a large community. So to build a school with a maximum capacity of less than 3,000 would be a huge disservice,” he said.
One snag in the group’s plan is that the Brach’s site, which includes large and small warehouses, was purchased by an Illinois developer in January that plans to convert it into a manufacturing product distribution center. Another issue is that the site is zoned for industrial use, and would have to be rezoned for commercial or residential use.
The network, nevertheless, has begun collecting signatures in support of the site’s conversion into a “full-scale educational center.”
“There is a chance that the deal will not go through,” Crawford admits. “CPS has the right of refusal if the developer backs out, so the site could be made available as a result.”
Misty Brown, a member of the network and of the Fredrick Douglas Local School Council (LSC), added that the group wants to sit down with Ald. Ed Smith (28th), a supporter of Brach’s sale in January, to discuss the advantages of using the 500,000 square-foot site for “a more practical purpose.”
“We want to propose having a college preparatory curriculum at the school, job training, internship services and an international and business economics program with foreign languages, like Spanish and French offered,” she said, adding that Brach’s site is a perfect location. “This would be much more beneficial and galvanizing to the community than a goods distributor that may employ 300 Austin residents but do nothing to develop the community intellectually or financially.”
When pressed about alternative sites, assuming that ML Realty-who purchased the Brach’s site for an undisclosed sum-doesn’t back out, both Brown and Crawford agreed that this site is their sole focus.
In February, CPS recommended a location at Jackson and Kilpatrick for a high school. That site would provide approximately 200,000 square-feet of land. However, the network rejected it.
“The problem with this site is that it is not centralized,” said Crawford. “The district of community accessibility would only extend from Chicago to Roosevelt north to south and Kenton to Austin east to west. That does not cover enough children. We want a facility that will allow all West Side students to attend.”
The network, which will be a part of a selection committee, is comprised of parents, retired teachers and affiliates of several West Side organizations, such as Westside Health Authority LSCs, and the South Austin Coalition.
Formed in 2006 to prevent Austin High School from closing, the organization refocused its attention to securing a replacement high school. CPS later agreed to a plan to open a new school, either by reopening a closed building or constructing a new facility.
Terry Dean contributed to this article