Renaissance 2010 high schools in Austin fight to provide better education for students

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Sharon Morgan sits at her desk surrounded by piles of paperwork and a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. As she shuffles through the paperwork, she marks her calendar on the day where she plans to speak to her 7th and 8th grade students about completing applications for the best high schools in the city.

With the application deadline for Chicago’s best college and career academies quickly approaching on Jan. 20, Morgan reassures herself that her students will be equipped with all the necessary tools to apply.

Morgan is the director of Community Outreach and Graduate Support at Austin’s Catalyst School-Circle Rock, one of Austin’s newest K-8th college preparatory charter schools. Catalyst School-Circle Rock opened in September of last year and operates under Renaissance 2010, a Chicago initiative to close down failing schools and open 100 high-performance schools in needed communities.

“Renaissance 2010 schools give parents choice,” said Morgan.

Catalyst School-Circle Rock works hard to ensure that students and their parents are prepared for the transitional challenges of high school including equipping students with practical life skills and teaching them how to complete high school applications.

Because the majority of these students live in Austin, many of them will apply to high schools in and around the Austin community.

Since the closing of Austin High School in 2006, Renaissance 2010 has opened three smaller high schools in its former location. Each of the three smaller schools — Austin Business and Entrepreneur Academy, Austin Polytechnical Academy and Austin VOISE Academy: Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment Academy — feature specialized curriculums.

Renaissance 2010 supporters say these smaller schools will better prepare students for college and the workforce than traditional general education high schools. Each school accommodates between 560 to 600 students with hopes of having a higher graduation rate than regular Chicago high schools.

“Renaissance 2010 provides high quality education in a community like Austin. Students attending the smaller high schools are receiving a different education to get them to the next level,” said Chicago Public Schools’ spokesman Malon Edwards.

However, some argue high schools in Austin under Renaissance 2010 do not fully prepare students for college or today’s workforce.

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) believes Renaissance 2010 does not benefit a community like Austin. Ford has been instrumental in the fight for Austin to have its own neighborhood high school.

He and other community leaders, including Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Ed Smith (28th), believe Austin needs one high school as a way to accommodate all youth in the community. Ford has been fighting to have a high school placed at the former Brach’s candy site located at 410 N. Cicero Ave. He believes that students in Austin need an option of a general education high school.

“Renaissance 2010 does not address the educational issue in Austin,” said Ford. “It just closes down failing schools without providing any support for the schools to remain open.”

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), said that although CPS claims that students in Austin’s three smaller high schools receive everything required under the CPS graduation policy, “it’s doubtful that students actually receive the basic all-around education they will need to qualify for college or for many jobs or careers.”

“These small, narrowly focused schools don’t have the staff to offer a full range of subjects,” said Woestehoff. “CPS has decided it will no longer try to offer a quality general high school experience like students in Chicago used to have, and students in the suburbs still receive.”

However, Principal Todd Yarch of VOISE Academy said that VOISE combines the use of technology, best distance learning practices and quality online curriculum to better prepare students for today’s technology-based society.

“We prepare our students to be better competitors for today’s labor force,” said Yarch. “Teaching our students online learning and technology helps them qualify for the best colleges and jobs in the city.”

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