Pilsen & Little Village: It’s not your father’s Farragut

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Farragut High JROTC

photo by John Booz

Farragut High JROTC

Long seen as one of the most undesirable high schools in the city, Farragut Career Academy has made major strides in the past half-dozen years. Attendance, reading scores and the graduation rate have all risen significantly.

Now, says social studies teacher Matthew Katz, Farragut is “one of the most under-recognized success stories in the city.” But doubts persist.

In years past, students used to run the halls in groups, attacking each other, according to a 31-year veteran at the school. Fire alarms were pulled nearly every day. On Nov. 6, 1991, 13 students and a teacher were injured, and more than 40 students were arrested in what the Chicago Tribune described as a “daylong series of gang-related skirmishes.”

Those days are over, say many observers. Darrin Maloney, a security guard who graduated from Farragut 20 years ago, says there hasn’t been a fire alarm pulled all year.

The relative calm came in the wake of concerted action by Principal Edward Guerra, who became principal a decade ago. Guerra kicked out some of the most hard-core offenders, brought in more security and implemented a dress code.

In the achievement arena, Guerra focused on getting kids to class. He beefed up anti-truancy efforts, hiring community members to make home visits, telephone calls and even visit classrooms to make sure that chronic truants are where they’re supposed to be.

“We call them the attendance police,” says one Farragut teacher.

Guerra gives his teachers wide latitude to engage their students in schooling. As a result, students have attended protests, participated in mock trials downtown and attended seminars on race and history. Last month, a team of students from the school won the $4,000 first prize in a 30-school competition on identifying community issues

“Now we have teachers who are proud to be here,” says Katz, who led one of the two Farragut teams in the contest.

The school has a strong auto repair program, but it also plans to add Advanced Placement courses next year, bringing the total to five. Some 300 students participate in Junior ROTC, which occupies the third floor. The school also has an on-site health clinic and soon will get an on-site law clinic.

On a long road

Many of the teachers, parents and students at Farragut feel good about the school, crediting Guerra for the progress.

“At first, I had bad feelings about sending my daughter to Farragut,” says Thomas Gutierrez, who went to the school in the 1980s. He had tried to get her into Curie, where her brother goes. “It’s nothing like it was in the 80s,” he says. His daughter agrees, saying she has yet to witness a fight and would like to stay at Farragut.

Still, Farragut is stuck on academic probation, and last year it had about 30 new teachers.

To some, the school’s size and location are impenetrable barriers. Four stories high and almost a block wide, Farragut houses 2,300 students and serves an attendance area that is bisected by gang boundaries.

Jaime DeLeon, community initiatives director for the Little Village Community Development Corporation, sees Farragut as a glass that is half empty. “There are over 2,000 high school kids leaving the neighborhood every day,” he stresses. “They don’t want to go to Farragut.”

Farragut’s loss factor—the percentage of neighborhood freshmen who go to other public high schools—is about average, 50 percent to 60 percent, according to a Catalyst analysis. Its student body is about 85 percent Hispanic and 15 percent African-American. Under current plans, the new high school would be about 70 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African-American.

“Parents have a negative view of Farragut,” acknowledges Miguel Vasquez, principal of Eli Whitney Elementary School. “We try to combat that by having them visit the school itself, but the perception persists.” He believes these views will change over time. “The school is an excellent institution for learning. Principal Guerra has turned the school around completely.”

But Tamara Witzl, principal of Telpochcalli, a small-schools-style elementary school, does not recommend it. “Sure, we’ve had kids who have gone there and done well,” she says. “But most kids that have any small issues have a hard time there. If they have big issues, forget it.”