In the 1970s, white flight and disinvestment took a toll on Austin. Yet, today, the area is a beehive of activism focused on affordable housing, job opportunity and helping those released from prison reconnect with the community. One in three children in Austin live in poverty; 84 percent attend public schools.
Derek is being raised by a 59-year-old great aunt on his father’s side who has cared for him since he was 9. While it’s unclear exactly why the boys’ mother wasn’t able to care for them, it is obvious why Derek’s dad wasn’t available. He has served five stints in prison on drug-related charges since 1990, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, and he is now under court supervision since his release a year ago after serving close to 12 months for narcotics possession.
An estimated 1 in 10 children nationwide has a parent behind bars, on probation or on parole. In Chicago, schools have no way to identify such children—and few resources to support them. Austin is a community where a significant chunk of people who are released from prison go to get back on their feet.
The recipe for successful schools is: Mix one strong leader with parent and community support, a strong teaching staff, a school climate that supports learning and high-quality instruction.
These are the “five essential supports” for learning, noted in decades of research on effective urban schools and outlined once again in a September 2006 report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Catalyst Chicago profiled three schools and found that while each school had a different mix of the five supports, the principal was, indeed, the spark that led to dramatic transformation.
Public schools that overcome the colossal odds that go hand in hand with extreme poverty must have a number of things working in their favor. Five things, to be exact, as has been proven time and time again by research and experience. Among them are parent and community partners that rally around efforts to improve the school and a faculty of qualified teachers who have a can-do attitude.
SCHOOL FOR ARTS About 115 people attended a kickoff breakfast to announce plans to create Chicago Public Schools’ first citywide high school for fine and performing arts. Chicago is the only urban school district that does not already have a performing arts high school. Admissions would be based on entrance exams and auditions.
South Side Parents was launched last year by a small group of parents who noted an abundance of information-sharing about schools on the North Side and wanted to launch a similar network. The group now has 79 members and covers Woodlawn, Douglas, Kenwood, Hyde Park, South Shore, Oakland and part of Washington Park. Syrennia McArthur Hanshaw, vice-chair of communications and the mother of three children at North Kenwood Oakland Charter School, spoke with Associate Editor Debra Williams.
This fall, the teachers union and the district are piloting a peer mentoring and evaluation program at eight union-run public schools, dubbed “Fresh Start” schools. The 125 new teachers at these schools will take part this year, but tenured teachers who have been given “unsatisfactory” performance ratings will be required to participate next year.
It’s a place where small corner grocers serve families trying to make it on a tight income. It’s also where the city’s first Wal-Mart opened recently, triggering a national debate about the need for a living wage. It’s a place where patches of dirt lay before run-down apartment buildings. It’s also a place where one can find block after block of neatly trimmed lawns. It’s a place where street corners give way to a bustling drug trade. It’s also where the most active block clubs and community groups are found. This is Austin, Chicago’s largest community area and a microcosm for the challenges and promises of urban cities.
When Janet House became principal of McCorkle Elementary, she faced the challenge of jump-starting a school with rock-bottom test scores, uninspired teaching and high mobility. By moving quickly to inspire confidence in her leadership and setting high standards for teachers and instruction, House led the school to raise its test scores by some 30 percentage points. Mobility, which soared to 43 percent in 1998, is now at 27 percent (The district average is 24 percent.)
When Marsh’s local school council hired Gerald Dugan as principal in 1990, tougher discipline was sorely needed at the South Deering school. Chaos reigned. But “Harsh Marsh”—as the students dubbed it—is a far different place today, with test scores above the city average and a calm atmosphere. The school is now part of a district initiative to reward higher-performing schools by giving them more autonomy.
When Janice Rosales was appointed to take over Peirce Elementary, she became the school’s fourth principal in three years—and at 34, the youngest. By the time she left 17 years later, the school had made a steady climb out of the academic basement with better discipline, new staff and a restructured school day.
When Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law to raise the age that teenagers can legally leave school, it was the first step toward tackling the high school dropout rate. Step two, advocates say, is nailing down how many teenagers are out of school now and then getting them to come back. Last month, the governor announced a new task force that will focus on re-enrolling dropouts.
Austin Business and Entrepreneurship High School is one of the district’s new schools opened under Renaissance 2010, an aggressive plan to close failing schools and replace them with a mix of smaller schools. Eventually, two more small high schools will share space in the same facility and, after a three-year phase out that ends next June with the last class of graduating seniors, the old Austin Community Academy High School will cease to exist.