Dozens of parents, principals and community members gathered last week at the Westside Health Authority to discuss ways to slow or halt shrinking enrollments at the majority of Austin's public schools.
"We have 7,000 high school-age youths, but only 840 currently attend high schools in Austin," Quiwana Bell, COO of Westside Health Authority, said after the Oct. 10th meeting.
"Enrollment in nearly every Austin school is going down, and its forecast (to go) down even further," Bell said.
Last week's meeting was intended to give parents a chance to discuss the issue and ways to improve education in Austin.
Fifteen Austin schools lost a total of 780 students compared to last year, according to 10th-day enrollment data released by Chicago Public Schools. Just two schools did not see their enrollment drop — Michele Clark High School, whose student body remained unchanged, and Lewis Elementary, which has 9 more students than in 2016.
Worries over the years-long decline in students at Austin schools have grown as the five-year moratorium CPS put on closing schools in 2013 ends next year, Bell said.
The moratorium was issued as CPS shut down 49 "underutilized" elementary schools across Chicago, including four in Austin, AustinTalk has reported.
The 2013 school closures have caused "an environment of chaos" in Austin schools, said Dwayne Truss, a longtime Austin resident and a member of the Austin Community Action Council.
"We just have been spiraling downwards because again, there's no stability when it comes to our schools," Truss said.
Among the biggest enrollment decline is Frederick Douglass Academy High School, where just 12 freshmen started this fall.
That number is far below the 100-student target CPS set in consultation with the Austin Community Action Council.
The community education group negotiated with CPS to turn Douglass into a citywide enrollment school and to re-consolidate the former Austin High School, just a few blocks away, into the current Austin College & Career Academy, which is now a neighborhood high school.
"Douglass is clearly on the radar," Truss said.
It won't be known until Dec. 1 at the earliest as to whether CPS will take action to shutter the school.
"It really has to be able to get out there and present itself citywide as a performing art school," Truss said, adding Austin CAC and others in the community are working to get the word out and recruit beyond the community.
Earlier this fall, CPS issued new guidelines for 2017-2018 "school actions, which state that community input will be a prerequisite for any school co-location, consolidation or closure.
Without a proposal from community members, parents or principals, no school will be closed at least for this year. But those schools that are losing students, including Douglass, face an uncertain future in the school years to come, Bell said.
"We want to be proactive with the process," she said, adding there needs to be more discussion about what the community should be demanding of CPS.
While many agree that no more schools should be closed, opinions vary among parents and principals as to how Austin schools can attract more students and how the community can advocate for more investment from the city.
"Our schools are outdated and seem to be falling apart," said longtime Austin resident John Neal, a graduate of the former Austin High School.
Neal, who attended last week's community meeting, said a number of parents like him want to see a new "high-tech, state-of-the-art high school to be built here" in Austin.
That's what's needed to turn around the negative perceptions outside the community that Austin does not have equitable resources compared to other parts of the city, he said.
"Almost every day we see other communities breaking ground for a new place, but there's a drought in our community," said Neal, who has a grandchild who attends Michele Clark High School.
He noted that the community has discussed for years the idea of opening a full-service Austin high school – to no avail.
That idea was met with opposition from many of the principals and teachers who attended last week's meeting, including representatives from John Hay, Leland, Austin CCA, Michele Clark, Young, Lewis and a few other elementary schools.
They say their schools have resources to offer strong programs that provide a quality education.
But violence in Austin is a big minus for parents selecting a school for their children to attend and must be addressed, they said.
Some questioned whether Austin schools have received the resources they need.
"We had things in the school like chorus, bands and plays," Neal said. "We don't have that anymore. Because there's a budget shortfall, and the first thing that's cut are those type of programs."
Austin does not get its fair share, Bell stressed, adding that investment could come in the form of a new high school.
"We are talking about a complete shift, and that type of investment will anchor the whole system," she said. "What we have been doing has not been working."
Not everyone, though, supports the idea.
"We don't need a new high school because we already have three high schools that now have 860 students," Truss said, adding that Austin CCA and Michele Clark each have viable programs, citywide partnerships and a nurturing environment.
What the community needs now is more program investment and wraparound services, Truss said, not capital investment.
"If you don't have social workers, counselors, emotional support programs for the kids in the building, what's the point of having a new building if there's not the proper programming?"
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