Fredrick Douglass Academy High School is in danger of closing if the school doesn’t get at least 100 new students for the next school year.
Parents, school officials and community supporters are trying to make that happen, but they acknowledge they face an uphill battle to keep the school at 543 N. Waller Ave. open.
Douglass currently has 150 students, and after this year’s seniors graduate, just over 100 students will be left come fall 2017.
“I don’t know where these students are going after this year,” said Catherine Jones, a school activist and member of the Austin Community Action Council.
The closest high school that could take those kids is Austin High School, which is a few blocks east and south at 231 N. Pine.
Douglass’ parent and community task force group has spent the last couple of years trying to attract more students. School supporters are pushing for Douglass to become an arts-focused school if it can remain open.
Jones said the school wants to attract students from any part of the city, not just from Austin or the West Side.
“We’ve been working at this for two years. If we don’t get 150 students before the year is out, we can hang it up for next year,” Jones said.
Students have also been talking about the school’s pending fate.
Parent Willie Pendleton said his son, a junior and football player, is considering what school he’d need to attend if Douglass closes.
“My son is already looking to transfer just in case things don’t go right,” Pendleton said. “It’s a lot of questions running through my mind as well. I think it needs to be open with the amount of children in this area. I’m for keeping it open.”
Jones, a longtime Austin resident, said it’s been difficult to get students from neighboring grammar schools to attend Douglass.
“The elementary schools don’t want their students to come to Douglass,” she said. “They said it’s not the building, it’s around the building. The violence on Central and Lake, the violence on Chicago Avenue, and kids don’t want to cross the [gang] boundaries.
“They’re afraid for their students, and I don’t blame them,” Jones added.
George Bady, a minister and anti-violence activist, said more positive activities are needed to attract kids. That, he insisted, will help Douglass.
Bady is a Douglass alum who graduated in the 1980s when it was a middle school; it converted to a high school in 2007.
Part of the building could be converted for some other use while a smaller school remains, said Bady, CEO and founder of Jehovah Jireh #1 Outreach Ministry.
As for neighborhood violence deterring the school’s growth, he added: “Sometimes kids need a goal in front of them, something different to shoot for that’ll keep them engaged.”
Douglass avoided the fate of some 50 schools that CPS closed in 2013. But Francis Scott Key Elementary at 517 N. Parkside, right across the street from Douglass, was among the 50 that was shuttered, along with three other Austin schools, AustinTalks reported at the time.
At that time, CPS officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised a five-year moratorium on school closures. Here’s the press release then-CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett issued, pledging no more school closures until fall 2018 at the earliest.
Though Douglass’ student body is small, the campus is located in an ideal area, said Jamay Nellum, a 15th District police officer and school resource officer for Douglass.
Austin Town Hall and a public library at Central and Race are nearby. And Douglass is just a few blocks north of the Lake Street Green Line, Nellum noted.
Austin, she added, also has the Safe Passage Program, a Chicago Police Department initiative to get cops and adults on the streets in the mornings while kids walk to school.
“It’s sitting in a gold mine,” said Nellum, who’s remaining optimistic about the school’s future. “I’m not only hoping for the best, but I’m claiming it. Douglass High School will definitely be a school of the arts by September. We just have to continue to organize and project that positive image.”
Jones, however, is less certain about it’s future.
“I don’t want to downplay what we’re doing now. What we’re doing now is fine, but it should have been done sooner,” she said. “I don’t know what’s in play now. CPS knows.”