Austin’s Frederick Douglass High School is looking to become a performing arts school, similar to Washington Park’s Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts.
The new classification would allow principal Vanessa Dereef to hire arts instructors, which the school doesn’t currently have. The faculty, parents and members of its Local School Council hope that the change will cause more students to enroll, in addition to helping the students who already attend. The school is planning to make its case to the Chicago Board of Education in April. If its request is approved, the new program could be in place by the fall.
Douglass High School started out as a middle school, but it was converted into a high school in 2007, as part of former Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plan. As part of the same plan, Austin High School was closed, and its campus became home to two charter schools — Austin Polytechnical Academy and Austin Entrepreneurship & Business Academy – and the VOYCE Academy magnet school.
Over the last few years, Douglass saw continuous drops in enrollment. In 2015, the Austin Community Action Council, an organization made up on community members, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers and staff, and parents, proposed turning Austin High School back into a neighborhood school and keeping Douglass High School open so long as its enrollment doesn’t dip below 270.
The Chicago Board of Education adopted the proposal the following spring. According to CPS’s website, Douglass currently has 151 students, but there have so far been no moves to close the school.
CPS currently allocates funding based on the number of students, which caused the school to lose money. Douglass lost $198,659 this school year. The mid-year budget cuts implemented in early February 2017 caused the school to lose another $56,979, leaving its budget at $2,778,470.
In a recent interview, Catherine Jones, a member of the Douglass Local School Council, said that the major reason for the drop in enrollment was concerns about violence around the Lake Street/Central Avenue intersection. She said that the school community has been brainstorming ways to reverse the downward trend. In November, the LSC sent out a survey to get parents’ feedback.
“[The survey] asked what kind of school they want and they said the arts school,” Jones said.
According to Douglass’ website, the school currently doesn’t have any art and music teachers.
Jones explained that they are looking to create something similar to Dyett High School. When CPS shuttered Dyett school in 2015, a group of students, parents and activists pushed to have the school reopen as a performing arts school focusing on global leadership and green technology.
After a 34-day hunger strike, the district agreed to reopen it as an art focused school, offering general classes along with an expanded selection of arts classes in areas such as visual arts, digital media, theater, and dance. Dyett also got a new dance studio, a renovated library and a room where students can learn how to build sets.
Douglass is already an open-enrollment school, so students wouldn’t necessarily have to be in Austin in order to enroll.
Dereef said that, if her school becomes an art school, it would be a boon not just for the current students, but for all Austin families.
“We hope that becoming a performing arts school would help provide more opportunities to the children in the Austin community,” she said, adding that more teachers would likely be brought on board if the program is approved.
“We would have to hire teachers that specialize in the programming we would offer, but our core instruction teachers would remain unless there is a performance issue that has nothing to do with the classification,” she said
Since December 2016, the school has been working on a plan that it expects to present to the Chicago Board of Education’s April 26 meeting.
“The plan will include letters of support from potential performing arts partners, elected officials and our LSC,” Dereef said.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct last name of Catherine Jones. In addition, she said the council wants Douglass to become a performing arts school, not a magnet school. AWN regrets the error.