Members of the Austin Community Action Council (CAC) at a community meeting held at Michele Clark High on Wednesday, Sept. 16. Michael Romain/Staff.

What was supposed to be a meeting to gauge community sentiment about proposed recommendations for improving Austin’s high school campus at 231 N. Pine Ave. and Douglass High School, 543 N. Waller, turned out to be something of an inquisition for the Austin Community Action Council (CAC) and a much broader discussion about ways to make Austin high schools more palatable to Austin’s students and parents.

CAC — comprising community members, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers and staff, and parents — is the organization responsible for drafting the recommendations that will be turned over to CPS officials later in the year.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, CAC held a community meeting at Michele Clark Magnet High School, 5101 W. Harrison St., to present seven recommendations, which were unveiled at a CAC meeting last month, for the Austin and Douglass high school campuses.

The recommendations included possibly recombining Austin’s three small magnet schools into a single traditional high school — which had been the configuration of the school for most of its more than 120 years in existence; and merging Douglass High into a re-unified Austin High School if enrollment at the former dipped below the CPS minimum standard of 270 students next academic year.

According to CAC’s co-chair Mildred Wiley, community members approached CPS officials last year requesting changes be made to the Austin High School campus.

In 2007, the traditional Austin High was closed and its physical campus divided into three much smaller magnet schools — Austin Polytechnical High School, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, and Austin VOISE. The changes were part of former mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which was implemented in 2004 in order to revive schools that were considered to be chronically failing.

But now CPS officials, in addition to many community members, don’t think that the smaller school concept has worked. Moreover, Austin’s three magnet schools and Douglass are confronting a crisis in enrollment. The number of students attending Austin high schools has declined significantly since the 2011-12 school year.

According to data CAC presented at Wednesday’s meeting, campus enrollment at Douglass has dropped more than 35 percent, at the Austin High campus nearly 40 percent and at Michelle Clark nearly 30 percent, since the 2011-12 school year.

Wiley said in 2014, a group of community members approached CPS officials suggesting improvements be made to the Austin High School campus. CPS then tasked CAC with gathering community input and drafting a series of recommendations, a responsibility that the group has been grappling with since last December.

There were some people in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting who had opinions about CAC’s formal recommendations.

Wallace Wilbourn, Jr., an Austin native who teaches at Oscar DePriest Elementary School, said he’s not in favor of Douglass becoming a middle school.

“The idea of creating middle schools and K-6 setups does not serve our students best,” he said during an interview before the meeting started. “The research shows that students in K-8 settings perform better than students in middle school settings.”

Communication miscues 

But the bulk of public comments was targeted at a point of discussion at one of the group’s planning meetings — not a formal recommendation.

CAC members, some of whom sat at a table positioned in the center of Michele Clark’s auditorium stage, were caught off guard by a barrage of complaints from parents and community members who thought their recommendations called for taking students out of other schools, such as Spencer Elementary Technology Academy and Ellington Elementary School, and sending them to Douglass.  During its previous committee meetings, CAC had discussed converting Douglass to its original middle school format.

“I came to speak on a proposal that I thought was going to be proposed tonight, which would have taken our 6th, 7th and 8th graders from Spencer,” said Cynthia Peterson, a Spencer staff member whose grandchild attends the school. “We were going to fight for that, because we were not going to lose our [students]. This was not going to be the last you heard from us tonight.”

Wiley emphasized that, although the matter was discussed at an earlier CAC committee meeting, the proposal to relocate students from other schools doesn’t exist as a formal CAC recommendation.

“I don’t know what you all were told about this meeting tonight,” said Catherine Jones, a community representative for the Douglass Local School Council and CAC member. Jones said she proposed that Douglass be reconverted into its original middle school format, but that she didn’t want students being transferred out of other schools for that to happen.

But Jones’s and Wiley’s adamant clarifications didn’t stop other people in the crowd from doubling down on Peterson’s protest about a possible exodus of students from other schools into Douglass, which led members of CAC to wonder where the parents and community members may have gotten the false impression.

Roughly halfway through public comments, someone mentioned that a flyer containing false information about Wednesday’s meeting had been circulating throughout the community.

“Whoever did that shame on you for doing that! Shame on you for doing that!” said Jones.

Audience members also had complaints about CAC’s communication efforts throughout the process of drafting their recommendations, with many people in attendance noting that they wouldn’t have heard about Wednesday’s meeting if it weren’t for school administrators and staff members.

“Why isn’t [this information] more readily available?” asked Claude Jackson, who also noted adamantly that his grandson, who attends Ellington, would stay where he is. “What about maybe passing out flyers in the school to make more parents aware that meetings exist. We’re not even aware of this. Normally, I’m at work right now.”

Dwayne Truss, a CAC co-chairman, said his group would “have to take ownership of the lack of communication,” adding that there could be more outreach within schools to spread information about the group’s meetings.

Austin high schools’ perception problems

Beneath the misinformation and communication miscues, however, was a premise that may be the biggest hurdle between Austin high schools and their future solvency.

“If we want our schools to remain here in Austin we have to get children in the seats,” said Wiley. “Everybody here wants to maintain Douglass, the Austin campus and Michelle Clark. It’s all of our responsibility to share what’s going on in those buildings with our parents of 8th graders, so they can stop sending their kids to Westinghouse … stop sending their kids to Steinmetz, Foreman and Prosser.”

Many parents in Austin perceive Douglass and Austin’s three magnet schools as prohibitively dangerous. At a CAC planning meeting last month, CPS Network 3 Schools Chief Randel Josserand said the schools “have a reputation for violence in the buildings” and referenced a survey demonstrating that many parents in Austin believe the schools are violent.

Some parents and community members who spoke also noted that, if Austin and Douglass combined, the result could be potentially lethal violence.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, some CPS administrators and CAC members worked to push back on that perception, which they considered overblown.

Minnie Watson, the principal of Oscar DePriest Elementary School, applauded the “wonderful programs” at Austin’s three magnets, Douglass and Michele Clark. She said the parents at her school are more fearful of the Lake Street corridor than the inside of those school buildings.

“What the CAC needs to find out is how to make that area a little safer, so that the parents feel safe sending their children through the streets, not inside the schools,” she said. “The schools are wonderful.”

Wiley said that CAC should perhaps retrieve Lake Street incident data from the Chicago police, because the parents’ perception may not be based on reality. Watson said the principals at the Austin high schools should communicate with elementary school parents to change the latter’s perceptions about the schools and the area surrounding them.

“When you look at the demographics, some of the kids from Austin and Douglass live literally on the same block. I heard [some comments about] kids in Douglass and Austin killing each other,” said Truss. “You’ve got the police department and public safety people there. I have not heard of one incident or altercation between Douglass and Austin High students … as if they just meet up at Austin Town Hall Park and have the high school rumble or something like that. I really want to push back on that perception.”

Deeper problems of resource inequity 

For Wanda Hopkins, an Austin resident whose child attends Whitney Young Magnet High School, the perception of violence is just one aspect that influences her decision not to send her child to Austin’s community high schools.

“I will not be transferring my child from Whitney Young to Douglass nor Austin for the record,” she said. “In order to have parents wanting to go to a high school, we cannot have what is being offered at Austin or Douglass. We need to look at the resources that are coming into our schools. We’re being cheated ladies and gentleman.”

Hopkins also addressed what she considers to be the extreme inequality in resources between schools within CPS, noting that Whitney Young gets “so much money that it makes me sick to my stomach.”

“They’re playing games with our children, they’re reaping the benefits off our children and they’re not giving us the same resources they’re giving other children,” Hopkins said.

Dr. Louverta Hurt, a retired educator and longtime education advocate, echoed Hopkins.

“The same resources being given to charter, magnet and all the other schools can be given back to us,” she said. “They are really doing a job on us because nobody is saying anything and silence means consent with most people and most places.”

Austin Community Action Council recommendations

  • Maintain Michele Clark Academic Preparatory Magnet High School in its current configuration, as a STEM magnet serving students in grades 9-12 for 2016-17 school year
  • Recombine the three small schools of Austin Campus into one school for school year 2016-17
  • Transition the "neighborhood" school status from Douglass High School to the recombined Austin High School for school year 2016-17
  • Maintain Douglass High School and Austin High School as separate campuses for school year 2016-17, with the understanding that Douglass would be folded into the Austin Campus if enrollment drops below established minimum high school levels
  • Academic focus of Austin High School will be a comprehensive high school with a career and technical education focus for school year 2016-17
  • Academic focus of Douglass High School will be a "Unique" learning focus for school year 2016-17
  • Maximize unused space on Douglass High School campus to develop a community-based "working Families" Center to open in July 2016 

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