Reviving a Hollowed-Out High School

Austin High School on Chicago’s struggling West Side is a proud school with a bad reputation and too few students. It likely has just one more shot at survival.

Austin has hollowed out in recent years, as have dozens of similar schools across Chicago’s poor and mostly Latino and black neighborhoods. With 391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1,700, Austin is one of 35 Chicago public high schools that are well under half full. Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full.

These schools face a set of woes that make a turnaround all but impossible. A citywide school-choice system leaves these mostly open-enrollment schools with some of Chicago’s most challenging and low-achieving students. Deeply strained budgets fueled by declining enrollment hurt staffing levels, teacher retention, and programming. Mix in a stubborn reputation for violence at many schools—unwarranted in the case of Austin and some others—and these schools are in a death spiral.

Kate Grossman

In a high-school universe defined by choice, these schools and students are the clear losers. Chicago’s neediest students are clustered at the bottom of the pecking order of the district, in the most under-resourced and embattled schools.

Chicago has a poor track record of delivering for its weakest students but this latest chapter, arguably an inevitable and predictable consequence of school choice, may be a new low. Students who need the healthiest and most stable schools are segregated in the most unstable institutions, often with the most troubled classmates. Victims of a set of powerful and destructive forces that have undermined their schools and neighborhoods, these students and their schools face an increasingly bleak and uncertain future.

Despite that, Austin’s loyal supporters believe they can come back from the brink. They recently launched a plan to save their beloved school that hinges on a counter-intuitive strategy: reopening next fall as an old-fashioned comprehensive high school, a place that takes—and works for—all comers from the larger Austin neighborhood, one of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

Nearly 76 percent of Chicago’s high schoolers this year opted against attending their assigned neighborhood high school, CPS data show, accelerating a trend since the early 2000s of students bypassing their default school.

At Austin, only four families came to a well-planned open house in March, despite sending 430 invitations to students admitted to Austin’s manufacturing-technology program for next fall. Certain schools deserve to be shunned because of violence and poor academics, but many like Austin, though relatively low achieving, never get a chance to show what they have to offer. Once saddled with a bad reputation, changing the minds of parents, students, and elementary school counselors—who hold great power in dictating where eighth graders go—is a Herculean task.

Austin was once a storied school that served students of all abilities, but its run as a neighborhood school ended poorly, as happened in other increasingly poor and violent communities. Austin was phased out beginning in 2004 because of weak performance and chaos in the building—a legacy that still haunts it today. Austin was part of a wave of school shake-ups starting around 2000 as the city grappled with weak and chaotic high schools and flight to the suburbs. New school openings, as well as greater choice in a system traditionally built around neighborhood schools, were central to Chicago’s turnaround plan.

The Austin campus reopened in 2006 with three small schools, available to anyone in the city, though nearly all came from the Austin community. The academies, focused on business, manufacturing, and technology, attracted students early on to a safer and more academically rigorous environment than at the old Austin High, though achievement remained low. But then enrollment fell off steeply, by 400 students between 2012 and 2015. And, most troubling for plans to draw primarily from the Austin neighborhood this fall, just 8 percent of 712 eighth graders in Austin’s attendance boundary chose Austin in 2014. That’s common among Austin’s peer schools: 14 schools enrolled less than 10 percent of eligible neighborhood kids this year, CPS data analyzed by the Chicago Tribune shows.

The Austin High School building is
designed for nearly 1,700 students, but now holds just 391. (Kate Grossman)

Like other schools hanging on by a thread, Austin can’t seem to catch a break. Each school has its own story: Austin was hurt by staff turnover and its location in a rough neighborhood. The foreclosure crisis as well as a big drop-off in the 15- to 19-year-old population in the Austin community—a 17 percent decline between 2010 and 2014—also appear to have hurt Austin’s enrollment.

But a common set of themes connects all hollowed out schools. Most are open-enrollment neighborhood schools and nearly all are on the city’s mostly black South and West sides, which suffered major population loss between 2000 and 2010, though the number of children in some areas hasn’t changed. The black population dropped by 181,000.

Meanwhile, the city since 2000 has opened dozens of schools to offer more choice and retain the middle class. Most are public charter schools that admit by lottery but a bevy of test-based schools and programs also launched. Chicago now has 101,000 students in 140 high schools, excluding alternative schools. In 2000, CPS had 93,000 students in 86 high schools. That’s a 63 percent increase in schools against an 8 percent increase in students. For neighborhoods like Austin that have lost population, this seats-students mismatch is particularly devastating.

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School type defines the pecking order in Chicago’s choice system. Open-enrollment neighborhood schools are at the bottom, especially in low-income communities. All rising ninth graders are assigned to one of these neighborhood schools based on their home address, but any student can bypass by applying elsewhere. The options include lottery-based charters, selective schools that admit based on test scores, neighborhood schools outside a student’s community with space, or magnet and specialty schools that draw citywide. Accepted students inform their elementary counselors. For the rest, the neighborhood school is the default. This sends the message that neighborhood schools are for the leftovers.

Choice works well for many kids, especially those at CPS’s 11 selective-enrollment high schools that admit based on student grades and test scores. And choice is most prevalent in neighborhoods with weak schools, with many students seeking out the charters that have opened in recent years. Students assigned to the lowest-performing schools are most likely to avoid their zoned school, according to a 2015 analysis by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

the school’s dropout, graduation, and attendance rates in recent years. “The cream of the crop is together at selective enrollment schools. The second tier, with involved families, is at charters and magnets. Then the ‘rejects’ end up in neighborhood high schools.”

Her read on school choice is backed up by a 2014 analysis of CPS’s choice system—aptly titled “The Big Sort”—by Chicago’s public radio station.

And for many kids in the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, the choices are illusory. Research by the Northwestern sociologist Mary Pattillo found that issues of safety, financial and travel limitations, as well as the complexities of the application process significantly limit the education options for poor and working-class black Chicago parents.

Chicago’s choice system reinforces perceptions, many formed years ago, that neighborhood high schools are unsafe, low quality and not worth considering. “I heard this school was horrible, but it was from people who never stepped inside,” Jervon Adams, a senior at Austin, explained during a discussion this winter in a wood-paneled library at the school. “We want to be able to tell younger kids about the good things at our school.”

Students who end up at low-enrollment neighborhood schools also suffer because their teachers are challenged with educating some of the city’s neediest students on an ever-shrinking budget.

Among the 10 most under-attended neighborhood schools on the South and West sides, the average ACT score is 14.3 compared to the city average of 18.2 (out of 36). Many students arrive several grades behind and the schools deal with stunningly high annual mobility rates—students who transfer in and out in a year—of 57 percent on average. The citywide average is roughly a third that. The average percentage of special-education students is 28 percent compared to 15 percent citywide. Every school has a poverty rate above 90 percent, most above 95.

“You only have the most vulnerable kids left,” said Maurice Swinney, the principal of Tilden High School on the South Side. “There are nearly 40 percent of our kids who in some way have a learning disability that need support, but there isn’t real support around that. It creates this big problem with schools with little money serving the most at-risk students.”

Low-enrollment Chicago schools have always suffered budget-wise, but the burden has grown worse since 2013 when CPS switched to a per-pupil budgeting system where a set dollar amount is attached to each child. The lower a school’s enrollment, the smaller the school’s budget. There are advantages of being small—it allows for more personalization—but money woes often outweigh those benefits.

Tilden, for example, lost nearly $200,000 this year because of enrollment declines and other budget cuts in a city grappling with huge deficits. That’s on top of the expiration of a three-year, nearly $6 million annual federal grant meant to help low-performing schools turnaround, stripping the school of key clinical staff to help the most troubled students.

Wells, on the city’s gentrifying Near Northwest Side, lost $450,000 this year when enrollment dropped by 100 students and it has lost more than $3 million over the last three years because of additional enrollment declines, citywide budget cuts, and the end of a federal turnaround grant. The principal has shed staff repeatedly, including 10 teachers, three security guards, a budget manager, and an attendance clerk.

Austin also has faced the same challenges, cutting electives and special activities.

“We have a group of teachers here dedicated to the kids—they’re all just doing more,” said Josserand, the CPS administrator.

Staff at neighborhood schools and their advocates have been asking for years how CPS could let this happen and are pushing for change. Citywide, an effort is underway to grow neighborhood schools and their surrounding communities and to combat the worst consequences of the choice system. A foundation-supported effort called Generation All has been working on a grass-roots plan for over a year to be released April 13. The group is pushing for a moratorium on school openings and closings until the city creates a comprehensive plan that prioritizes neighborhood schools.

Knowing the choice system likely is here to stay, the group didn’t go after it. However choice is discussed in a section of their report called “Outdated policies that backfired,” said the group’s executive director Beatriz Ponce de Leon.

CPS’s leaders are aware of the problems at neighborhood schools and with the choice system. CPS quickly used up $8 million set aside this year to prop up the most troubled, low-enrollment schools, and Generation All was founded in partnership with the school system and the teachers union.

But they stand by choice.

“It used to be that if your child couldn’t test in, or you weren’t affluent, there were no choices; more choice is more equity,” said Janice Jackson, CPS’s Chief Education Officer, a former principal, CPS grad, and parent. “With better policies and management, we wouldn’t see those consequences—schools where children just don’t go.”

Austin students gather in their school library soon after plans were announced to fold Austin’s three schools into one and make it a neighborhood school. (Kate Grossman)

Jackson, on the job since last summer, said CPS is trying to get smarter and more strategic about where and when it opens new schools, noting that her administration has slowed down openings. CPS is contemplating a new enrollment system where all children make a choice, she said, and she’s working to involve communities more in shaping their high schools.

Critics like Ponce de Leon counter that neighborhood schools always will be a last choice, no matter what choice system is used, if CPS and communities don’t invest in them.

In some communities, the push to improve neighborhood schools is starting to pay off with improved academics and enrollment. But those tend to be in established, more affluent neighborhoods where families are turning to neighborhood schools when faced with fierce competition to get into a test-based school. There is also growth in burgeoning Latino neighborhoods with strong community partners.

Most half-empty Chicago schools don’t fit into either category: Nearly all are in struggling black neighborhoods where population has declined. The question of survival looms. When CPS closed nearly 50 under-enrolled elementary schools in 2013, many in these very same neighborhoods, high schools were spared and the mayor pledged a five-year closure moratorium. Powerful academic and financial arguments support school closures, even in the face of concerns about high schoolers crossing gang boundaries to attend new schools. The moratorium could lift in 2018, though there are no plans to do so, Jackson said.

The potential threat of closure only ramps up pressure on Austin’s would-be renaissance. Community members and CPS staff worked for over a year to draw up a plan to save the school—and they know what they’re up against.

Austin beefed up student recruitment significantly this year, led by a top-flight counselor who oversaw admissions at a test-based high school. It’s been a struggle. The counselor Jean Harmon has hosted two parent open houses. One family came in the fall. Four came in March.

She invited 30 all-important elementary school counselors for a fall breakfast—too few replied so she cancelled it—and asked them to bring their middle schoolers for a one-hour open house. Only two schools agreed to come.

“The only way to change the image is to bring them in and show them it’s a safe, viable option,” said Harmon, who is weary but undeterred.

It seemed to work.

In late March about 50 eighth graders visited from a nearby school. They heard college plans from nine seniors, learned about Austin’s state-of-the-art metals-manufacturing lab, as well as the intimacy Austin’s small size offers. They toured the orderly and clean, though aged, building, including the lab, an art class and a computer lab, and left with swag—cookies and an Austin backpack.

Students weren’t told that the school was in flux—that the existing three schools were folding into one and some staff may be let go—but the core of what Austin offers today is expected to remain.

The choice machine was in high gear that day, and for most of the visiting eighth graders, Austin didn’t seem to be on the radar. Several knew nothing about Austin before arriving or had heard only negative accounts.

“People said Austin had a bad reputation based on fights and disrespect,” said Nyla Ewing, an eighth grader. After an hour at the school, Nyla made up her own mind: “I didn’t believe what I heard—and it does seem more fun and more advanced than I thought,” she said, echoing the impression Austin made on several others.

That’s a real victory for Austin.

But like many students at the open house, Nyla already had been accepted elsewhere. Most didn’t know Austin was their local high school. These students, like many in Austin and across Chicago, didn’t even know their neighborhood school was an option worth considering.