In the face of dwindling resources and lagging enrollment three Austin High Schools have restructured to better serve students this school year.

Austin Polytechnical High School, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy and Austin VOISE have allowed students to take classes at any of the three schools housed in the former Austin High School building at 231 N. Pine. 

“We have one campus, three schools, one vision; so we’re all moving in the same direction,” said VOISE Principal Ennis Harvey of the three schools’ collaboration. That direction, he said is giving students more options to be successful in their post-secondary choices “whether it be college and/or career.”

Last school year the school began piloting a few classes students could take among the three schools. If a student wanted to take a business class, learn manufacturing or use technology in their learning they can do so and not be “pigeonholed into one track,” said Austin Polytechnical Principal Ali Muhammad.

The restructuring is part of an effort to determine the future of the Austin campus schools which are struggling to attract students and is seen by many parents as the school of last resort.

But since the restructuring, gains have been made said ABEA Principal Wayne Issa. He noted attendance is up and freshman on-track rates are also up across the campus. Even misconducts and suspensions are down, he added.

During a November Black college fair students from the three schools secured $2.5 million in scholarships. 

“That’s huge. We have students with full rides to school,” Muhammad said.

Chicago Public School’s Network 3 Chief of Schools Randel Josserand applauded the collaboration. 

“I really think we are doing a great job on the Austin campus of maximizing the available resources in ways that we weren’t a year ago,” he said.

Before, Josserand noted, teachers were asked to do the “impossible,” in a high school each with 150 students. He explained an English teacher would be responsible for teaching freshman, sophomore, junior, senior and honors English. He admitted that’s a lot for teachers. 

“What we’ve done is combined the teachers to support the schools,” Josserand said.

Issa agreed. “The collaboration between the three schools have provided a synergy across the campus whereas when we were working as three schools in silos people were beginning to get frustrated.”

The extended campus has become what Issa called a learning community where teachers can now collaborate among each other. 

That benefits the students who now have a stronger curriculum including more elective courses, something not offered last year. If students wanted to take an elective it was through an online course, Josserand said, noting that the campus now offers a drum corps as an extra-curriculum activity. 

The challenge is getting students to attend these high schools. An analysis of where Austin eighth-graders went for high school over a two-year span showed the Austin campus is not students’ top choice. 

Only two of the schools – VOISE and Austin Polytechnical – made the top ten where students with 57 and 43 students respectively. The majority of Austin eighth-graders chose Michele Clark (107), Legal Prep (101) and Prosser (95) high schools.

That information, Josserand said, shows there is no clear feeder patterns of high schools eighth-graders chose. Some, he added have even gone as far as Fenger High School on the South Side because families have moved. 

Parents, Josserand noted, feel good about the area’s elementary schools, but don’t “feel good about the options of high schools in Austin. … And you got families that just step over the border (to Oak Park) because we’re right there on the western rim.”

Compounding the issue further is an even larger number of Austin eighth-graders who left the district altogether. Over the last two years 220 left the district. Many of these kids, he noted, left the state altogether.

CPS’s student population is shrinking as a whole, he said. The 2010 census showed that the city dipped in population by over 200,000 while its African American population fell by 177,401 with many residents moving to suburban Cook County. High schools – neighborhood, charter and parochial – now compete for the remaining students.

Education advocate Dwayne Truss was critical of the small school concept, which the Austin campus schools are based on. Truss prefers a neighborhood school that serves all Austin kids.

“The small school concept should have been a dead issue a long time ago. It doesn’t work, hasn’t and is not working now,” he said, noting the lack of teachers ABEA had for its students early in the school year.

Truss cited CPS’s student based budgeting formula for exacerbating problems at the Austin campus. With only a few hundred students, these schools cannot get a full complement of teachers or resources they need, he said. Collaborating helps but the schools are still going to be lacking, added Truss, who said he was not surprised that the Austin campus is not a top choice for kids.

“If kids can see that there is a commitment for them to realize their dreams [they] will buy into [them],” he said.