Douglass Academy High School | File

Two Austin aldermen expressed their support for Douglass Academy High School’s effort to become a performing arts school, even as the school’s declining enrollment threatens the its ability to stay open.

Douglass staff, parents and Local School Council members have been hoping to acquire a performing arts designation for Douglass — a designation that’s similar to Washington Park’s Dyett High School.

During a March 7, community meeting held inside Douglass’s cafeteria, Aldermen Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th), whose wards make up most of Austin, said that they would do whatever they can to ensure that the school secures the designation.

Many people who attended the meeting, however, expressed concern about factors that might deter students from choosing to attend Douglass, which could close if at least 100 freshmen don’t enroll for the upcoming fall semester.

Declining enrollment at Douglass has been an ongoing issue in recent years. According to Chicago Public Schools data, the school currently has 155 students. As a result, it continues to lose funding. Based on CPS’s student-based budgeting model, the share of money going to individual schools is determined by how many students they serve.

Catherine Jones, a member of Douglass’s LCS, said that residents’ concerns about criminal activity around Lake St. and Central Ave. are a significant factor in the school’s declining enrollment numbers. 

Mildred Wiley, the chairperson of the Austin Community Action Council and the chair of the March 7 meeting, said that CPS officials told her that, contrary to what many people involved in the discussions had believed, Douglass doesn’t need the Chicago Board of Education’s permission to become a performing arts school. Douglass officials only need to go before the board in order to request more money to hire additional teachers or implement additional programs.

Wiley added that, although the Chicago school board isn’t considering closing Douglass immediately, things could change if enrollment drops next semester.

“The school is closed if we can’t [get] 100 freshmen,” she said bluntly.

According to Robert Crawford, Douglass’s dean of students, around 83 percent of the school’s students attend classes regularly, while almost 89 percent are on track to graduate. Thirteen students are on honor roll and six out of the school’s 27 freshmen are maintaining straight A’s.

Douglass officials said that, despite the deep cuts, the school still offers a PE dance class, art classes for girls during lunch hour, a culinary arts program and an afterschool drama program. They said that they hope to build on these programs in the future.

But that building process is difficult when so much of the positive work that goes on inside of the building gets overshadowed by what’s happening outside of it, officials said.

“Last year … we were told [by elementary school principals] that Douglass wasn’t seen in a positive light,” said Douglass’s principal, Vanessa Dereef, who called into the March 7 meeting. “They want to be able to ensure that they send students to schools that provide [students] the rigor to be college-ready.”

By acquiring a performing arts distinction, Douglass could significantly improve its current reputation and boost enrollment levels, Dereef said. Wiley said that, since Douglass doesn’t have attendance boundaries, the school will look to recruit students from areas throughout the West Side, including West and East Garfield Park.

“The great thing about this location is that it can be accessible by bus or [Green ‘L’ line] train,” she said. “We want to recruit kids from Belmont-Cragin to come down here, too.”

Wiley said that numerous community organizations have been working with Chicago police, and 15th District Commander Dwayne Betts in particular, to improve safety in the area around the school. Taliaferro said that the police are currently investigating some businesses in the area that might contribute to the crime.

The alderman also expressed his support for the performing school designation, adding that “performing arts can create opportunities” and scholarships. Taliaferro said he’d be willing to meet with members of the Chicago school board on Douglass’s behalf.

Randel Josserand, chief of schools for CPS Network 3 — which includes all schools in Austin, Galewood, Belmont-Cragin and Montclare — said that he also supports the proposal to make Douglass a performing arts school and the idea of recruiting students from other neighborhoods in the city.

Mitts expressed her support while also cautioning meeting attendees about attempts to expand the Noble charter school network’s ITW David Spee Academy, which is located in the Belmont-Cragin portion of her ward. She said the expansion wouldn’t benefit Austin.

Amara Enyia, the head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and an Austin Weekly News columnist, said that she supports Douglass becoming a performing arts school before describing her organization’s attempt to re-establish the area within walking distance of Austin Town Hall as the Austin Arts and Culture Campus.

Douglass was included in a preliminary proposal for the campus that Enyia introduced last May. The preliminary proposal outlined the possibility of locating a center for working families and literacy programming within the school.