Sheriff gets new digs at Austin High

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The Chicago School Reform Board is undertaking a $1 million renovation of a wing of Austin High School to create a training facility for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. A similar training program is planned for 12 other schools with the Chicago Police and Fire departments, but will not involve renovations.

Board officials say the rent-free arrangement at Austin will benefit the school in part because it will include a training program for students. But that’s not yet the sheriff’s department’s understanding.

Testifying at the School Board’s September meeting, Rosie Randle of the Northwest Austin Council said that an area of Austin High containing seven classrooms, the gym and part of the football field have been partitioned off for use by the sheriff’s department. Bathrooms have been remodeled, new carpeting put in and air conditioning installed in that section, she said.

“Austin is at 50 percent capacity, so there is room for this program without taking away from the kids,” responded Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. “We thought it would be a way to have security in the building. And there will be an internship for students.”

School officials repeated this explanation at an Oct. 10 community meeting, taking the edge off parents’ and residents’ concerns.

“The way that it [the remodeling] is going to be paid back is through programming,” Chief of Staff Phillip Jackson later told CATALYST. “It’s not going to be paid back through hard dollars.”

The community will benefit because the sheriff’s officers will patronize nearby businesses, students will have a set of “outstanding role models,” and 25 cadets will be trained each year, starting in their junior year, he added.

Craig Williams, the board’s director of vocational programs, said the student training likely would begin next September. “We are hashing out the fine details,” he said. “Most of the information is public, but it’s not in a formalized document.”

But the information hadn’t reached the ears of sheriff’s department spokesman Bill Cunningham, who knew only of an intention to mount a training program. “We’re working on something that’s really just in the talking stage—not really on the drawing board yet—about putting together some sort of partnership with the Board of Education,” he said.

Plans for the department itself are set. “We’re going to train correctional officers,” Cunningham said. “We’ll have some ongoing administrative training for supervisory staff.”

To Wanda Hopkins, parent advocate and trainer for Parents United for Responsible Education, the student training sounds like an idea that arose only after the renovation was planned. “There has not been any agreement. The only thing that’s happened is that the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has come into Austin High School to renovate. Now they’re developing a program and a plan as to how the Austin High School students will fit in.”

However, Jackson maintained, “At the same time we started the build-out for the sheriff s center, it was always the intention to go in there with something that would help the students and improve the community. People knew what was happening. Was there a community hearing? There hadn’t been [until October]. But there was lots of communication.”

Dion Miller-Perez, community outreach associate with Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, noted that while students might benefit from an intensive cadet-like program, the sheriff’s department would benefit as well. “It would not make sense for the schools to pay for this, if the sheriff’s department is going to benefit by getting new recruits,” he said.

Unlike other programs

“If it ain’t on paper, that’s just a conversation,” Miller-Perez added. “It may be a close conversation, since I understand that [Sheriff Michael] Sheahan and Vallas both live in Beverly.”

The School Board has no renovation plans for the 12 Chicago high schools that will participate in a combined Police and Fire department program to train students. Officials hope the program will begin in January. “That’s the beauty of it—there’s no need for any additional construction,” said Maj. Antonio Daggett, the coordinator for the Chicago Police/Firefighter Training Academy. “Existing facilities will suffice for what we’re trying to do.”

The program will enroll juniors and seniors, who will receive instruction from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; training will continue for two years in City Colleges, resulting in an associate degree in public safety. Twenty-five students per school will be accepted.

Vallas said the sheriff’s program would be “a little more extensive” than the police and fire department programs and integrated into the school day rather than held after school. Williams said the curriculum might call for two or three hours per day of sheriff’s instruction for the participating students.

Vallas also noted that the board has made other capital improvements at Austin. “Bear in mind, we’ve already invested, what, $2 million plus on the building, exclusive of the sheriff’s facility.” he said. “What remains to be done are the science labs, which we’re beginning to work on, windows and improvements to the campus.”

The board’s budget shows $1.3 million in completed renovations, with another $1.5 million planned for this year, including $600,000 for an infant-toddler center for the children of student moms, and $900,000 for new lockers. Another $1 million project, including the windows, is unfunded.

Randle of Northwest Austin has her own suggestions. “Our kids have to drink hot water,” she said. “The bathrooms are in bad shape. I just wished that the rest of the school would be made to look as nice as the sheriff’s part.”