In 2007, Austin High School was closed and the physical campus broken up into three small magnet high schools — Austin Polytechnical High School, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy and Austin VOISE. The closure was part of former Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which was launched in 2004 to restructure chronically failing schools.
Now, less than a decade later, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) may consider trying to put the high school back together again.
At a Tue. August 11 meeting held at Michelle Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison St., the Austin Community Action Council (CAC) unveiled several recommendations to restructure the three magnet schools at 231 N. Pine Ave., and Douglass High School at 543 N. Waller Ave. One of those recommendations includes recombining the three magnet schools into a single high school.
Since the small school concept didn’t catch on, CPS officials approached the CAC to brainstorm different ideas for the campus of the old Austin High School, said CPS Network 3 schools chief Randel Josserand.
“We really wanted this to be a very community-driven approach in looking at what we should do,” Josserand said. “And you can’t have a conversation about Austin without talking about Douglass. So a year ago, we charged the Community Action Council to come up with recommendations that eventually will go back to the Board of Education.”
“What we currently have is not robust enough for students to be successful, so we’re looking to reinvent [and] do something different to make students thrive and be more successful,” said Mildred Wiley, Austin CAC’s co-chair.
For Douglass, the Austin CAC recommended maximizing underutilized space by creating a “working family center” that would house needed services for the community. Another recommendation is to keep Douglass as a separate high school as long as enrollment doesn’t dip below 250. If enrollment drops lower than that, students would be absorbed into the restructured Austin High School.
Austin CAC has been working for several months to shore up the Austin campus and Douglass High School, both of which face dwindling enrollment. The Austin community’s shrinking population has contributed to low enrollment at both schools, Wiley said. Current enrollment at Austin is 395, while Douglass’ enrollment is 261.
“A lot of schools in Chicago are having declining enrollment — not just us,” Wiley said. “But in our area … we don’t have enough [eighth graders] to populate our schools [and] some of our kids are going out of the neighborhood [for high school].”
He said records show Austin eighth graders went to 94 high schools in CPS. He also noted that some of Austin’s schools face a branding problem, which forces students to look elsewhere for their high school education. Josserand said focus groups demonstrate that students and parents perceive both Austin and Douglass high schools as violent and that parents don’t want to send their children to either one.
“The schools have a reputation of violence in the buildings” he said. “There are fights everyday inside the schools. So we feel like if we can get more people into the schools for other purposes, it will have a positive impact.”
That’s the reasoning behind the idea to use part of Douglass to house the proposed working family center, Josserand noted. Possible services suggested for the center included a childcare-based learning initiative.
Wiley said she would like to replicate a similar program at Truman College that trains people to become licensed childcare providers. She said the area lacks qualified childcare providers and that such a program could fill the need, while also attracting students to Douglass. An advisory committee would be established to vet possible services for the Douglass site.
Reactions to the recommendations were mixed among the few residents who attended the meeting.
Austin resident Grady Jordan questioned how both schools could sustain their respective enrollment levels when the number of available students in the community is decreasing.
“To have a comprehensive educational program, you got to have a critical mass of students,” Jordan said. “If you don’t have a critical mass, you can talk about unique program all you want. You got to have students.”
Former Austin High School alum and third vice president of the West Side NAACP Renell Perry supports the concept of Austin as a full-fledged neighborhood school. When she graduated in 1975, she said, the school was top-flight.
“There are a lot of us who are Austin alumni who would love to see it restored to what it used to be. We are supportive of this,” Perry said.
Douglass High School local school council member Catherine Jones criticized the lack of community and parent input on these recommendations, adding that they were fleshed out in a CAC subcommittee that only met twice before presenting its recommendations at Tuesday’s meeting.
Jones, also a CAC member, said the high school model doesn’t work for Douglass, which originally was built as middle school. It became a full high school five years ago. She would like to see the school return to its originally purpose.
“It is has not worked. Enrollment has dropped,” Jones said, noting that when her son graduated eighth-grade in 2004 Douglass had a student population of nearly 1,000. “I think they need to take it back to a middle school and let Austin High be the regular high school in Austin.”
The goal is not to close any school, noted Allen Van Note, also a CAC member. But the challenge, he said, is “to figure out how to fundamentally reimagine our community and our schools in a way that makes our schools and our community a place where people want to live instead of to flee. That’s what we are doing here. That’s our challenge.”
The Austin CAC will present its recommendations to the community at a public meeting September 15th at 5:30 p.m. at Michele Clark High School, 5101 W Harrison St.