Monday’s community hearing concerning building a new high school for Austin, hosted by state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8), had plenty of passion and some sparring on just where that school should be built.
The hearing also addressed the high dropout rate in city schools. Educators, community leaders, parents and students were in attendance at the hearing, which took place at Bethel New Life, 1140 N. Lamon.
Ford explained that the purpose of the meeting was to put on record and take back to Springfield the community’s concerns.
“I’m glad everyone came out so we can put it on the record so the entire state can hear what we feel is a need for an Austin high school, and a need to help re-enroll students that have dropped out so that we can reduce the crime on the street,” he said. “A lot of kids have been killed in the public schools this year, but we know if we don’t have quality education a lot of that will continue. If we don’t re-enroll dropouts in school so that they can get a high school diploma or a GED, we know that will continue because they will not be able to get employment.”
The ongoing debate about the viability of the Brach site at 401 N. Cicero as a possible high school location also came up. Rev. Lewis Flowers, CEO of the Westside Ministers Coalition, defended Ald. Ed Smith (28), who’s come under fire from some activists for his support of a TIF deal to a developer planning to build a distribution complex at the site.
Flowers said the city won’t rezone the site for commercial use, but said a high school still needs to be built in Austin. Others, including members of the Austin Community Education Network, disagreed, saying the Brach site is an ideal location for a high school. Some in attendance also had criticism for the Chicago Public Schools.
Pamelyn Massarsky, representing the Chicago’s Teacher’s Union said, “I’ve been involved with the Chicago Public Schools for more than 40 years and I have watched the neglect that CPS has given the Austin community all these years. I watched Austin High School go from a great school-tremendous spirit, great teams-to a school that they abandoned.
“The abandonment now means that unless you want to try this little four-school approach in Austin, your students really don’t have nowhere to go in the community,” she added, referring to the city’s ongoing plan of opening smaller schools inside shuttered school buildings.
The former Austin High School, 231 N. Pine, currently houses three charter schools.
Concerning dropouts, she said CPS has abandoned all its dropout programs.
Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, explained his school system, and he brought students from the Academy for Scholastic Achievement, a charter school in Austin at 4651 W. Madison. The network is an association of small community-run schools.
“We’re enrolling students who have dropped out,” said Wuest. “There are nearly 100,000 young people in Chicago that have dropped out, and our schools are small-80 to 90 students. They can have the kind of personal relationships, along with the skill-building that kids need to keep them engaged,”
Some of his students gave testimony that included concerns such as: wanting to have a high school in their community; wanting the opportunity to graduate so they can get a job; and not becoming a victim of violence.