Some would argue that there are not enough classrooms, teachers and desks available on the West Side. A feasibility study conducted in 2006 for Christ the King High School, which opened this fall, found that only 7000 seats are available for the 14,000 high school-age youth on the West Side, including in Austin. That report confirmed what many already knew.
These figures, however, are part of a larger, ongoing debate in the Austin community: what kind of high school should fill that void-one single comprehensive high school or several smaller, specially-focused schools? Currently, four high schools in Austin are of the small school model-Austin Business Entrepreneurship Academy; Austin Polytechnical School, VOISE Charter School, and Christ the King. The business academy, Polytech and VOISE are small schools on the Austin High School campus, 231 N. Pine.
Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison, in contrast, has more than 1,000 students while Frederick Douglas Academy, 543 N. Waller, though not as large, wants to grow in size. Along with this mix of small and larger high schools, some in the community also want one, full-service high school for all of Austin, but are no closer to their goal since Austin High School closed two years ago.
The case for ‘small-by-design’ schools
The Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago makes the case for small schools, which has more to do with size, the group says. Using the term “small-by-design,” these schools have certain characteristics. Those include having a maximum student population of 250-300 students representing the local school community; having a non-exclusive admissions policy; and adhering to a coherent focus and philosophy of education.
The workshop touts the benefits of small schools in the areas of higher student achievement, reduced violence, and improved attendance and graduation rates. Bill Gerstein, principal of Austin Polytech, now in its second year, stressed that small schools are more effective because they are more personalized.
“Students and teachers get to know each other,” he said, “so if children are having trouble in school, academically or socially, their group of teachers are better prepared to work with the students because they know them.”
Small schools, he added, allow teachers to work together collaboratively. A history teacher, for example, can know what the students’ English teacher is covering and incorporate that into the history class. Gerstein insisted this greatly improves students’ grades. He also argues if Austin had a comprehensive high school, many students would choose to go somewhere else.
“The proponents of a large comprehensive high school in Austin are living in the past. We’re never going back to neighborhood high schools. It’s just how the world has changed.”
To Gerstein, there are three kinds of small schools that make sense: college prep, with either a selective or open enrollment; career technical education, which prepares students to enter the job market after graduation; and alternative schools for kids who are smart but troubled and unable to fit into a regular school.
Other small schools, like Austin Polytech, are located in former large neighborhood high school buildings. Most have up to three small schools, an arrangement, Gerstein points out, allowing each to be self-contained with their own principal, faculty and curriculum. At the same time, the schools combine their student populations for sports or performing arts programs.
“When people write about there not being a high school that serves Austin children, I take a different look at that,” Gerstein said. “We serve Austin children. We’re very non-selective. If a child wants to come here, a child can come here. You don’t have to test to get in. We’re not a charter school. We’re a regular Chicago Public School.”
Advocating for a comprehensive high school
Others supporting a single, full-service school model offer a different argument.
Some community advocates envisioned such a school at the sprawling Brach site, 401 N. Cicero, but those plans were dashed after the property was sold to a developer looking to build a distribution center there. The Westside Health Authority-which is among several community group members of the Austin Community Education Network (ACEN), supported building a school at the 27-acre Brach site.
The network envisioned a multi-building campus that included athletic fields and a technology center.
“We need a comprehensive high school in Austin so that the children of Austin will have all the options, academic and extracurriculars,” says network member Grady Jordan, a former principal of Collins High School and a former superintendent of high schools for the Chicago Public Schools.
George Schmidt, former CPS teacher and director of school safety at the Chicago Teachers Union, strongly supports a comprehensive high school for Austin. Schmidt, editor of Substancenews.com, an online education publication, argues that Austin High School was not closed because the principal, teachers or most of the students failed.
“Arne Duncan (CPS CEO), and Michael Scott (former Chicago Board of Education president) sabotaged the school,” he said. “There was widespread staff cooperation in trying to eliminate the massive gang problem at Austin High School. Arne and that Daley crew shut the place down and scattered the kids amid promises about what would happen next.”
Further arguing that CPS neglected the school, Schmidt questioned why CPS is now spending $17 million on exterior work for the Austin High School building but while is was open spent “no money” there for 25 years. “While telling half the city there is no money for fixing up schools that really need it, as soon as Austin was shut down, Duncan found the dollars to do the work for two small schools,” Schmidt said.
He also railed against the small-by-design school model saying, “The boutique small schools are a racist imposition on black communities across the USA, and are the latest iteration of ‘separate but equal.’ While large high schools are the norm in America’s wealthier suburbs and are often now integrated, cities like Chicago and New York are imposing ‘small schools’ on minority communities.”
Schmidt added, “The people from the Austin community who want to know what successful general high school looks like should walk two miles west and spend a couple of days visiting and reviewing the data on Oak Park River Forest High School. Nobody promoting the racist small schools model for Austin would think of suggesting the same for Oak Park and River Forest.”