Education | Features

Losing Harper High School

In a good school-bad school paradigm, Harper High School’s rich hundred-plus-year history risks being forgotten

L-R: Helen Tyner, Derrick Lawson, Sherry Williams (Maggie O'Brien)

Harper High School is the oldest neighborhood school in Englewood. Over the last century,  thousands of residents have graduated from there. Yet last month, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close Harper High School in the next few years. It is, by all accounts, considered a failing school. But for those who go to Harper now, the decision threatens to tear apart the social fabric that’s been woven across generations.

What happened to Harper, exactly? It’s difficult to answer head-on. Since its beginnings, Harper, like many urban schools, has been the victim of flawed educational policies around segregation and school funding. Harper’s portrayal in the media is itself a recursive citation to the city’s gang violence. It’s also been the subject of radical reform attempts. This confluence of bad precedents helped construct the good school–bad school paradigm that’s colored our perspective of the school.

But there’s more to Harper’s story than the negative press. What’s been forgotten in the margins of Harper’s history has been its moments of promise. Neighborhood schools like Harper are touchstones of deep social meaning. For many, Harper High School is a beloved institution. This profile aims to give a more nuanced portrait of the school, as remembered by past students, one not defined by gunshots and gang lines.

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The announcement of the closure of Harper, of course, did not sit well with those fighting to keep the school open. Community activists, students, teachers, and parents demanded the Chicago Board of Education cancel the vote on the grounds that the entire process had been a sham. Even members of the steering committee resigned because they claimed they were misdirected. Despite their passionate pleas, the Board nearly unanimously voted to shutter Harper High School, John Hope College Prep, and TEAM Englewood Community Academy after its students graduate, and to close Robeson High School immediately.

There have always been doubts about the “community support” touted by CPS around its decision to close four public high schools in Englewood. For example, there was the West Englewood Coalition, a vocal group that showed up to community meetings in matching black t-shirts to pledge support for the new multimillion-dollar high school to be built on Robeson’s campus. They posed an intimidating presence; during the first community meeting introducing the proposal, the Coalition walked in single file into the hall, stood up in unison at various points in the evening, and interrupted speakers.

The weekend before the vote, however, reporters at the Sun-Times revealed that this organization is based in Homewood, IL, though they claim to have operated and recruited in Englewood for years. Emails obtained by the Sun-Times revealed the influence of a paid CPS contractor, who had a seat on the Community Action Council, and Leon Finney, a prominent Woodlawn-based pastor and supporter of previous school closings, who both leveraged their combined influence to court the new high school.

The backlash to the closings has been so swift and fierce that two weeks prior, CPS made a tepid concession to allow the current students of Harper, John Hope College Prep, and TEAM Englewood to finish their academic careers at their respective schools. But the phase-out plan, as it has been coined, has not done much to foster goodwill with the Englewood residents.

Why should Harper, or any other neighborhood school, be saved? Observers of public education have forecasted the death of neighborhood schools for years now. Gene Demby, writing in 2015 for NPR on what we stand to lose when neighborhood schools close, notes that tearing down the school “that nobody wants” also means “wiping out something central to our personal stories of growing up and coming of age and being from a place.” The oversaturation of charter schools in urban areas helped accelerate neighborhood schools’ demise. Shrinking budgets and the cutting of school programs, along with high crime and poverty in the surrounding neighborhoods, also led to under-enrollment and low academic performance in these schools. But what we lose, Demby goes on, cannot be measured in grades and test scores. Harper’s early days paint a picture of a school where people found a place to belong.

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Harper High School opened its doors in 1911 at the intersection of 65th Street and South Wood Street. The school is named after William Rainey Harper, a well-known education reformer and activist of the late nineteenth century. The school mascot is the cardinal, the state bird of Illinois.

Harper’s identity is inextricably linked to the social, cultural, and economic transformations of its neighborhood. In the early twentieth century, Englewood was majority-white and made up of mostly German immigrant laborers. Railroad workers, truck farmers, and stockyard workers purchased homes in the neighborhood, which was in the midst of a commercial boom.

The dynamic of the neighborhood soon changed. Beginning as early as 1916, the Great Migration saw thousands of African Americans move from the South to parts of the Midwest. In the 1930s, redlining, or the refusal or limitation of loan lending based on geographic location, particularly in Black neighborhoods, detracted from the property values of homes and impeded commercial development in the area. In the late 1950s, blockbusting, or the tactics of real estate brokers to convince white homeowners to sell their properties out of racial panic, quickly led to turnover of neighborhoods from majority-white to majority-Black. During the same period, the construction of what would later be the Dan Ryan Expressway forced Black families to move to the South and West Sides of the city. Many of these residents settled in parts of Englewood.

Sherry Williams, a 1978 Harper graduate, was one of the first Black residents to move to West Englewood in the seventies. Williams’s mother moved her and her brothers to a house on 60th Street and South Marshfield Avenue. Her family was the second Black family to move to that block. Within three months, Williams recalls, Black families occupied the entire block.

The transition of Englewood from white to Black from 1950 to 1960, as Natalie Moore writes in her book The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, saw the number of white homeowners selling their homes rapidly rise as speculators played into their fears of the rising Black population to turn a profit. Black homeowners’ payments on their newly acquired properties were set sky high. Soon, the outlying suburbs saw increasing investment and attracted more consumers. Shopping malls were built outside of the cities that drove activity away from 63rd and Halsted. Other harmful practices, like redlining and the refusal of businesses to open up shop in Black neighborhoods, halted economic progress and denied residents access to financial capital.

As a kid, Williams witnessed white flight first hand.

“Moving west of Ashland back then was unheard of,” she recalled. “We moved in and the whites moved out…[but] we wanted a decent home, family, and food on the table, just like everyone else.”

Williams also remembers the challenges of navigating a racially divided neighborhood and the strict codes of conduct that were socially enforced.

“Lines were drawn,” she said. “We had a polarized community. In terms of understanding social mores of the neighborhood, there were certain mores African Americans did not cross. One time, I went to the library at 55th and Racine when I was a student. When I came home, I was scolded by my mom: ‘Why did you go there?’” she said. “My brothers told me they were taunted by the white kids [around West Englewood].”

Betty Tobler, who graduated from Harper in 1981, also moved to the neighborhood in the seventies. Her older brothers went to Harper at the time. She remembers those rough early days where she heard stories of her brothers having to dodge the white teens in the area in order to avoid getting beat up.

“They had to fight to go to school,” she said.

At this time, the stewardship of neighborhood schools by CPS was in crisis. In 1960, African Americans made up twenty-five percent of the city’s population, but majority-Black schools were languishing due to overcrowding and by the administration’s refusal to reallocate resources. That same year saw CPS superintendent Benjamin Willis’s infamous use of mobile buildings or “Willis Wagons” to relieve overcrowding. For students and teachers, it was a poor consolation and only further proved the administration’s refusal to provide better resources and working conditions to Black schools. These conditions led to the famous 1963 school boycott.

In 1966, after Willis resigned, the new superintendent James Redmond introduced plans to desegregate schools, which were met with formidable opposition. The perceived threat of an integrated public school was another central catalyst of white flight in many U.S. cities.

Amid the backdrop of this upheaval in public education, Harper then became the center for West Englewood’s Black community life.

“Harper became a haven for Black students,” Williams said. “It was one of the high schools where people could go to without friction.”

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When Helen Tyner, a 1977 Harper graduate, heard the news that her alma mater’s closing was final, it brought tears to her eyes. Memories of her teen years at the school flooded her mind. Tyner was a good student, but reserved, and she kept a close circle of friends. She was drawn to Harper’s woodshop, because she liked the way she could build and create something with her hands. As an adult, she became an artisan, designing and creating jewelry using equipment she kept in her basement. Tyner later served as the community representative on Harper’s local school council in the early 2000s.

When she was a student, “we had the resources we needed,” Tyner recalled. “In my days, there was home cooking. There were cooking classes for young ladies who wanted to work in the restaurant. We learned a lot of trades. The auto mechanic shop was very popular. People were very proud to support that program and brought their cars to the school to get fixed. I loved being a student living in that community. There would be school trucks that would bring supplies every day. Teachers were happy and not burdened to spend their own money.”

Other graduates shared this sentiment. Derrick Lawson transferred to Harper in the middle of his high school years and graduated from there in 1988. The Black teachers at the school became his role models, and he ended up joining the baseball team. He holds fond memories of his days as a player.

“I loved Harper. The sports [at Harper] had been staples in the community… It was a big deal at the time. They were competitive. They were in the playoffs every year. At Harper, I played varsity baseball to my senior year. I was able to stay active,” Lawson said.

Williams also reflected on the lasting impact having Black teachers had on her education. She recalled her teachers assigning her Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America by Lerone Bennett Jr. It spurred on her love of history, and she now serves as the President of the Bronzeville Historical Society. (As of 2015, only twenty-three percent of teachers in CPS were Black, compared to about forty percent of students).

In 1981 a consent decree was signed to fully integrate CPS schools, but desegregation faded as a priority within a few years. Busing students was a contentious issue and the dwindling white population in CPS made integration less feasible. All-Black schools in CPS after 1980 still endured the consequences of segregation sanctioned decades earlier.

Much like in other urban areas across the U.S., Chicago’s minority neighborhoods in the eighties and nineties faced an epidemic of drug use; they also saw an uptick in gang activity. The federal government’s strict anti-drug policies led to hyper-policing of those areas. Increased arrests for low-level drug offenses resulted in higher incarceration rates as well.

In 1991, forty percent of all homicides in Englewood were tied to drugs and gangs. The effect of this rise in drug- and gang-related crimes also spread into the schools. Educator and civic leader Nicole Jeanine Johnson of Teamwork Englewood, a neighborhood organization that focus on youth and community development, outlines the long-term damage: “When you take out those stabilizing forces and the tax base is limited, the community goes into a downward spiral. In the midst of all that, there were residents who had to circumvent those social illnesses to support the community,” she said.

These struggles gave rise to several social service organizations, like Imagine Englewood If and a host of others that sought to fill the gaps in both government and schools by providing youth leadership development, healthy living, and mentorship programs. In 2003, Teamwork Englewood was formed to unify several community agencies and bring residents together to draft the neighborhood’s Quality of Life Plan.

Harper, along with other neighborhood schools, was not immune to the changes around it, and in the decades to follow, the school would become the poster child of urban inequity. In the 1990s and the 2000s, Harper underwent an on-and-off whirlwind of restructuring plans. In 1997, Harper, along with Orr High School on the West Side, went through “reconstitution,” a highly experimental and controversial school reform strategy at the time that required the firing of a substantial portion of the school’s key personnel, including principals, teachers, and other critical support staff.

There appeared to be immediate positive results: an increase in staff morale and a drop in truancy rates, and in 2005, the school gained a new computer lab with the hopes of concentrating their efforts to improve the students’ reading levels. But years later, testing showed that students still read at a fourth grade level. Critics of reconstitution argued that the drastic intervention produces more harm than good as it undoes the social fabric of the school.

In 2008, to combat declining resources at the school, CPS CEO Arne Duncan selected Harper as one of the first schools in his turnaround agenda. Even though millions of dollars were invested in the school, the plan required teachers to reapply for their jobs the following year in order to keep the money. Many of those teachers were not rehired, as reported by the Chicago Reporter. In 2011, Harper was once again selected by the Chicago Board of Education for another turnaround, citing the school as one of the lowest performing in the nation.

During another period of staff overhaul and restructuring, This American Life ran a four-part series on Harper in 2012 that amplified the school’s profile on the national stage. The story documented the presence of gangs at Harper, how student lives were paralyzed by violence, and how educators and social workers worked around the clock to prevent conflicts wherever they could. While most national and local news coverage of the school over the years, including from the New York Times, focused on incidents of violence and gang activity, the This American Life story served to humanize the lives of the Harper community in contrast to the superficial, crime beat reporting of other outlets. But the follow-up coverage from other outlets focused on one eye-catching number: twenty-nine current or recent Harper students shot in one year.

The solidifying of Harper’s reputation as a troubled school happened alongside a declining population in the area around the school overall, as well as an over-fifty percent decline in the school-age population between 2000 and 2016. Even fewer of these students were attending neighborhood schools, as many students opted to attend nearby charter schools like Urban Prep Academy. (A 2017 Roosevelt University study found this transfer of students from neighborhood schools to charter schools occurring across the district.)

In the past ten years, the student population of Harper and its fellow Englewood neighborhood schools has been slowly dwindling. As of 2016, only eleven percent of the high school age population in Englewood attended neighborhood schools. There are only 125 students enrolled in Harper this year; a decade before, there had been over a thousand. In 2017, CPS rated Harper as a Level 2 (in need of intensive support) on its annual school rating scale. Harper received low marks in public safety and academic growth.

Given all of this, residents have been left asking why such conditions have been allowed to persist at Harper year after year. “Now you don’t have [the resources] twenty to twenty-five years later,” Tyner said. “When you have people from the community at the table, it’s our right to safety and education. I always hear you have to invest in the infrastructure [of a neighborhood]. Schools are a part of that. Our schools have not been getting invested in. There’s so much we can do.”

Later in the day, Tyner drove me to Harper to show me where the old auto mechanic shop used to be on the north side of the building. Harper is over a century old and it is massive. The space inside has been described as capable of filling nearly four football fields. A few murals on the facade of the school near the front entrance give it a needed splash of vibrant color and verve. The black frames of the windows, lined up row by row, are uniform and monochrome. It’s clear just from observing the grounds that the building hasn’t been restored in decades. “Look at all this,” Tyner mused as she turned the corner. “All this space is being underutilized. It’s a waste.”

Before we left, we spoke with a Harper freshman who said he is uncertain of his future and worried about going to school outside of Englewood. He’s a young man of few words, but when asked about what Harper meant to him after one year, he simply said, “Harper is family.”

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As the phase-out plan goes into effect, the halls of Harper High School will become ghost towns. With each passing year, there will be no incoming freshman class. It will render the school’s enrichment clubs obsolete. There won’t be enough students for the football team, marching band, or choir. The vanishing student body will be robbed of a high school experience altogether.

The new Englewood school’s promise of innovation and resources could turn the tides for Englewood’s neighborhood schools. Or it could signal the first waves of gentrification, as more affluent families begin to see Englewood, increasingly depleted of its Black families and students, as an attractive option. There’s the question of whether or not the building will become another blighted property, with no official discussions so far on if or how the space will be converted. There’s also the question of the safety for the students who will go to schools outside of Englewood, with many expressing fears about crossing into another gang’s territory.

Much is uncertain.

But if Harper must serve as a cautionary tale, one critical lesson is the harm done by pathologizing Black schools, both by CPS, who failed to provide investment and resources, and by media, who seized on the school’s violent reputation for a good story. Right now, there is no framework, no language that opens up the conversation on urban schools to see their strengths and what they mean to their communities. By understanding Harper only through the prism of dysfunction, we ignore signs of hope and possibility.

That is the underlying dissonance between the way CPS measures the value of schools and the way its community does. For schools like Harper to thrive, there needs to be investment in people, not just buildings. Harper’s students, old and new, will act as its last living history—proof that the preservation of the community of a school matters. After all, it has survived all these years. 

Reporting contributed by Erisa Apantaku. A story about the history of Robseon High School, also slated to close by CPS, will air on SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio show on WHPK, in upcoming weeks

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Thoughts on “Losing Harper High School”

  1. Harper High School has assets currently underutilized. Those of us in mentioned in this article are savvy and ambitious enough to build resources at Harper. Just thinking out loud how triumph is possible.. Ask Derrick Lawson about the needs of African American veterans in Englewood. He would gladly support use of the pool, library, auditorium for the Veterans he services. I could easily see transitioning empty classroom into spaces for student and community sewing, cooking courses and exhibition spaces…. this is just a start of ideas for REPURPOSING and REVITALIZING our beloved Harper High School. Thank you for bringing the demise of Englewood High Schools to light.

  2. I came to Harper High School in 1966 as a Biology teacher. At that time, we had about 3500 students. We had Black and White students. Everyone, including faculty and students were very proud. We had a good academic and athletic program. Those were some of my best days. I retired in 1994 as Dean of Students and Disciplinarian. We did not have the problems that you now talk about. I hate to see Harper close. It was a great school.

  3. I am sadden by this news. Growing up, my family moved a round a lot. I didn’t have the privilege to attend a school longer than a year. Harper was the first school that I was able to attend all four years. During my time at Harper, I’ve met some outstanding people. I’ve built friendships that stands strong til this day. Encountered wonderful staff like Coach Wiley and Dr. Boraz. I couldn’t imagine attending that school without any extracurricular activities. It was there I decided to join the United States Army. My education and experiences at Harper greatly contributed to the woman I am today. Signed Class of 2004.

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