Group wants to convert Austin High back to one school

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The Austin High School campus currently housing three smaller schools should be combined into one school, a community group says.

The Austin Community Action Council wants the school converted back to one campus, part of its seven-point plan of improving West Side neighborhood high schools.

Austin High School, 231 N. Pine, closed in 2004 and reopened two years later with the first of three charter schools slated for that location. Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy was followed by Austin Polytechnical Academy and VOISE Academy.

The Austin CAC spent the last year hosting focus groups and community meetings with parents, teachers and students about how to improve their schools, Mildred Wiley, a member of Austin CAC’s executive board, said at a press conference held Tuesday on the Austin campus.

A recombined Austin High School would be a college-and-career track institution, Wiley said. The group would like to see the new Austin High School open in the fall of 2016, with a liberal arts focus. Wiley said the group’s plan will be presented at the Nov. 18 Chicago Board of Education meeting.

Austin CAC’s plan includes making improvements to Michele Clark Magnet High School, 5101 W. Harrison, and Frederick Douglas Academy High School, 543 N. Waller. Michele Clark should remain a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school, the group says.

Douglass’ campus would house a newly created “working families center” with programs for restorative justice, child development and community organizing.

Austin High School closed under the Renaissance 2010 reorganization plan that shuttered under-performing schools with smaller charter schools.

Austin CAC’s goal is to offer students a quality experience in their own neighborhood schools without the need for charters, members said. But high crime and dwindling housing choices has forced families to flee the neighborhood, greatly impacting the schools, Wiley noted. 

Enrollment has dropped at each high school in recent years. From 2011 to 2015, Michele Clark has seen a dramatic drop in its student population, from 969 students to 492 currently, according to its state school report card.

Douglass has 428 students currently enrolled, down from 485 students in 2011.

The three schools operating on the Austin High campus have a combined enrollment of 558 students: ABEA (149), Austin Polytech (158) and VOISE Academy (251). That’s far less than attended in 2011, when there was a total of 1,121 students: ABEA (393), Austin Polytech (362) and VOISE Academy (366).

Before converting to three charter schools, the building’s enrollment had reached 1,400 students.

The drop in enrollment is tied to families enrolling their graduating eighth graders to suburban or out-of-state schools, said Randel Josserand, CPS’s Network 3 chief of schools, who oversees schools in Austin and Belmont-Craigin. Parents are looking for programs not offered in Austin’s schools, and students have safety concerns about attending schools in the area, Josserand noted.

Wiley said safety has been a concern for parents and their children, but families have also been pushed out due to school closings. Rental and residential properties being torn down in the neighborhood has also affected families, Wiley said. But the neighborhood around the school, she added, has improved, a message that needs to get to parents.

“If you’re someone who frequents Central and Lake, you’ll see that it’s cleaner, it’s quieter. So it’s getting those visuals out to the parents that things have changed over here.”

But the fear remains, Austin CAC members noted – fear of the surrounding neighborhood and fear of what’s going inside the building.

Wiley said discipline incidents have gone down significantly inside the building in recent years. Austin CAC member Sherman Reed said several row houses in the neighborhood known for attracting crime have been torn down.

Catherine Jones, an Austin CAC member whose son graduated in 2000, said the campus itself is still well kept.

“It’s a beautiful facility, just beautiful; we just need to restore it back to where it was,” she said. “The fear just needs to leave the community. It has to start with the community.”

Wiley said neighborhood partnerships with the police and other groups will help families feel more secure. She said partnerships with private funders can help secure money for their vision, but support from CPS is also needed.

Josserand said he could not speak for the board itself but said CPS is very receptive to the group’s plan.

“We see this as a model for other communities. This is different than other proposals because this involved a broad base group, with parents and students, and the community, involved,” he said. “I would be surprised if the district didn’t support every recommendation. We know this is a school we have to invest in.”

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