Austin Short on Options

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In the past four years, three new elementary schools and three small high schools have opened in Austin. But the new schools have barely made a dent in that community’s need for better schools.

In 2004, a study by the Illinois Facilities Fund found that Austin had the largest gap in the city between the number of seats available in good schools and the number of children who needed them: 20,000. Austin ranked second among Chicago communities in its need for better high schools, and third in the need for better elementaries.

The gap now stands at 18,600, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of current enrollment in Austin’s new schools. Austin is not slated to get any new schools in the latest rounds of the district’s Renaissance 2010 initiative.

Meanwhile, mistrust of CPS is still evident among activists who opposed the closure of the old Austin High.

The small high schools, which initially were unpopular, are just now making inroads in the community. Elementary schools have recently begun to let recruiters talk to graduating 8th-graders, says William Gerstein, principal of Austin Polytechnical, which focuses on preparing students to work in high-tech manufacturing.

“They didn’t welcome us with open arms,” Gerstein says.

The West Side Health Authority, headed by veteran activist Jackie Reed, and the community’s top public officials are behind the Austin Community Education Network, a group that is lobbying for a new, comprehensive high school that would feature a cultural arts center, vocational training in manufacturing and construction trades and college prep courses.

A contingent of about 20 residents showed up at a City Council committee hearing last summer to speak out against the city’s plan to use tax-increment financing dollars to lure a warehouse operator to the site of a shuttered candy factory, where the education network wants to build a new high school. The residents spoke about the need for a high-quality high school, calling it a question of equal opportunity for the impoverished neighborhood. In the end, however, the city’s proposal won out. Reed says the education network has entered a waiting period in its campaign against the warehouse proposal. She says the worsening economy may derail the venture.

Meanwhile, Schools CEO Arne Duncan has voiced support for a new Austin High, though he estimates it would cost more than $100 million—a tall order for a cash-strapped school district.

Gerstein says the days of the large, comprehensive high school are over. “High schools have been reinvented, and you have choice. And that’s out of the bag and it’s not going back for a long time, maybe forever.”

Virgil Crawford, an organizer with West Side Health, believes the small high schools approach forces students into educational boxes and splits up friendships at a crucial stage in students’ lives. 

“I don’t think that we in the community should settle for piecemeal solutions,” says Crawford. “The smaller schools are not the answer in a community the size of Austin.”


Multimedia extras

  • Listen to Austin Polytechnical Principal Bill Gerstein discuss school choice and small schools in Austin. (Download MP3 audio)
  • Listen to West Side Health Authority CEO Jackie Reed discuss the various problems that Renaissance 2010 has created in Austin. (Download MP3 audio)
  • Listen to Virgil Crawford and fellow activist Anthony Bowman discuss other educational challenges in Austin. (Download MP3 audio)