Austin needs more public high schools, some say

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Local officials in Austin say if Chicago Public School leaders don’t create more high school seats in the West Side neighborhood, more youth will end up in the streets of Chicago’s toughest areas. But CPS officials say Austin residents will have to be content with their three Renaissance 2010 high schools.

Austin High School, the only public school in the community, shut its doors four years ago. Its successor, Austin Community Academy, which was open for one year, was shut down by Mayor Richard M. Daley and converted into three small high schools with an attendance of 1,038 students, compared to the 6,000 students the academy held.

Austin officials worry that rising crime rates will climb even higher if CPS officials don’t take action to bring back Austin High School.

About 14,000 high school-age kids live in Austin, which has a population of 117,000, making it the largest community in Chicago. But less than half of the 14,000 students can attend a high school in their neighborhood. Austin has no public option for high school, forcing students to travel long distances, apply for selective magnet schools to which they have little chance of acceptance, or their final option – drop out of school entirely.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Ed Smith (28th) have said their community needs one high school to accommodate students who live in Austin. Mitts said youth on the West Side have no high school, forcing too many of them to spend their days on the street.

Kathryn McCabe is the director of the Cluster Tutoring Program in Austin, a non-profit group that works with about 100 Austin students in after-school programs, and she disagrees. She said the former Austin High School was a “horrible school” and provided “no real educational value for the students.”

“I am not sure there was much of a negative impact in shutting down a lousy school,” she said. “It was a bad school, and I am not sorry to see it go, but now we have a real problem in Austin because there aren’t enough seats for the students that live in the community.”

Malon Edwards, spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, said the district has no plans in the works for opening another school in Austin.

“Austin students have opportunities at several charter and magnet schools within the community,” he said. The public options are the three Renaissance 2010 high schools: Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, VOISE Academy High School and Austin Polytechnical School.

“We have other neighborhoods that need schools as well – this is not just a problem within Austin, and we cannot approach it that way,” said Edwards.

But Mitts said there was money for a new school, noting that funding for a new school was secured through Mike Kelly, former president at Park National Bank. Since federal officials closed the bank late last year, the funds are in limbo, and Mitts isn’t sure US Bank, who took over, will honor the agreement made with Kelly.

Ald. Smith, however, said Park National Bank never committed any money for a new high school in Austin. He said the community bank was interested in funding a new YMCA on the same lot as the school.

“Park National Bank was never going to give any sum of money for a new school in Austin,” Smith said. “They wanted a collaboration with the city; basically, if the city built a new school they wanted to build a new YMCA on the same land.”

Mitts is clear on what she believes is the answer: She wants one high school open to all students in the community, and she wants it built at 1450 N. Cicero Ave.

“The answer is finding the funding and opening a school,” she said. “We need a new high school, and we need to get the process going now.”

Edwards said CPS officials have met with community members in search of a solution but said, “This is a problem that cannot be solved overnight.”

But McCabe feels differently. She said CPS’s agenda does not include building or adding schools in the Austin neighborhood; meaning they are not addressing the problem.

“There are no plans to open additional charter schools in the Renaissance 2010 plan,” she said. “There are no plans for a new high school. These kids have no where to go. It is pretty sad.”

McCabe doesn’t think one big high school is the solution; instead, she said there has been great success in charter schools.

“The emergence of these schools has been very positive,” she said. “I think the charter schools have worked well for this community because they are smaller and these students need extra help and support.”

Smith said the solution is one school for all students. He said the location is set, “the only problem now is money.”

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