Englewood: Best-performing high school opens its doors to neighborhood kids

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Englewood’s namesake high school earned a dubious distinction a year ago when it posted the worst test scores in the district. Fewer than 5 percent of juniors passed the Prairie State Achievement Examination.

Citing a “culture of failure” there, Chicago Public Schools officials decided that Englewood Academy High School would not accept freshmen this fall, and that it would close after the remaining students graduate. Like Flower, DuSable, Austin, and Calumet high schools, Englewood would be replaced by several small themed high schools.

Residents and community groups were invited to submit proposals.

The goal is to improve the quality of high schools in Englewood and offer students there a choice. But just a mile or so to the north, another school—one that happens to have the best academic track record among the community’s three high schools—is bracing itself to deal with the impact of a district decision that will drastically alter the mix of students next year.

That decision, made to relieve overcrowding at nearby high schools, will require John Hope College Prep to enroll freshmen on the basis of newly drawn attendance boundaries. Previously, the majority of Hope’s 9th-graders were drawn from its own 8th-grade class; others had to apply to get in.

“We tried to pick the best and the brightest,” says counselor Aretha Williams, noting Hope generally received 25 applications for each open slot.

Now, Hope must admit any student who resides within the new boundaries, which were cobbled together from areas previously assigned to Tilden, Gage Park or Harper high schools.

The next two years will be a particular challenge, says Principal Mahalia Hines, as the school accommodates both its own rising middle school students as well as those who enter 9th grade from nine feeder elementaries. Next year’s freshmen class could double in size, estimates Hines, who fears that accommodating extra students will mean losing space for 7th- and 8th-graders.

“Once we take kids from feeder schools, there probably won’t be space to house the middle school,” says Hines, who has been principal since 1988. “The success we’ve had is because we’ve been a middle school.”

District spokesman Tim Tuten notes that expectations for Hope remain the same. “The thinking is always that test scores will go up,” he says.

Teaching jobs cut

Hope evolved from an elementary school that added a 9th grade in 1997, then later converted to a 7th- through 12th-grade format. Since then, it has amassed an impressive academic track record, winning a rising star award from the district last year after it registered a 12-point increase in its pass rate on the Prairie State exams.

Hope has racked up other accolades as well. Its debate team has won citywide competitions and its girls’ basketball team competed for the state title in two of the last three years.

But Hope faces challenges beyond those posed by an onslaught of new students. In this year’s tough budget climate, it was forced to cut 12 teaching positions. History teacher Edward Gallagher says more students and fewer teachers means overcrowded classrooms. “The morale here has been very seriously affected,” he says. “We’re seeing outstanding teachers dismissed.”

Still, the principal sounded an optimistic note. All 9th-graders are required to attend a two-week summer orientation program that spells out school rules and effective study habits. Assistant Principal Michael Durr has met separately with each class of returning students, asking them to welcome new students and help them learn the ropes.

“We need kids to buy into this,” Durr says. “We want them to say, ‘This is how we do things in our home.'”

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.