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Last June, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced their plan to construct a new high school in Englewood, slated to be built on the grounds of what is currently Robeson High School. The new school is yet another component of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “holistic” strategy to reduce crime in Englewood by investing in the neighborhood’s businesses and schools. “Investing in our education, our after-school and summer jobs…is important to our safety and [the] vibrancy of the community,” Emanuel said.

Any excitement over the new high school has been overshadowed, however, by the news that it will come at the expense of yet another round of school closings in their community—just four years after six elementary schools were closed in Englewood, along with forty-six others, mostly concentrated on the South and West Sides. CPS plans to close all four neighborhood schools in Englewood: TEAM Englewood Community Academy High School, Harper High School, Hope College Prep High School, and Robeson High School—each of which has a student body of less than 200, and ranks amongst the lowest achieving schools in the entire system.

To quell concerns and questions around the school closures, and to attempt to represent the community voice of Englewood in decision making, CPS has formed a steering committee comprised of thirteen local stakeholders, community members, and educators. In a press release, former CPS CEO Forrest Claypool stated: “Families, educators and community leaders in Englewood have such a strong vision…we want to incorporate that vision in key decisions,” he said.

However, the unpopularity of the decision to close every high school in Englewood and the failings of prior working groups have raised questions about the committee’s legitimacy and effectiveness—even among committee members themselves.

From the committee, the Weekly spoke with Dori Collins and Ed Ford from the Englewood Community Action Council (CAC), the CPS-affiliated group that helped the district decide to close the schools; Asiaha Butler, the president of R.A.G.E., a local community activist group; Craig Lynch, the Interim President of Kennedy-King College (KKC); and Dr. Jonathan McKenzie, the founder and CEO of the Family Centered Educational Agency (FCEA), a nonprofit working with students to prepare for college through intensive tutoring and mentorship services. Of the remaining members—Perry Gunn, Keith Harris, Eddie Johnson of Antioch Church, Darlene O’Banner, Debra Payne, Coretta Pruitt, Gloria Williams, and Tyson Everett—Gunn and Everett declined to comment and the others could not be reached by press time.

Each member of the group brings with them a different personal understanding of what challenges face Englewood, in terms of education, but also economic development, safety, and other pressing issues. All members of the committee live or work in Englewood themselves.

Thus far, three issues have arisen as unofficial priorities for the committee: helping displaced students transition from the closed schools, successfully attracting neighborhood students to the new school, and ensuring students are academically and professionally prepared. Committee members have made it clear that CPS must address these three issues if there is to be a legitimate purpose for the committee and the new high school.

The four schools in question are scheduled for closure at the end of this academic school year, making decisions about the future of their displaced students a top priority for the committee. The new high school is not predicted to open until 2019, and will only accept incoming freshmen. As a result, students currently attending Englewood’s four high schools will be unable to attend the new facilities—despite CPS previously framing the change as a merger of the four schools. Instead, current students will have to leave the neighborhood for school after the old buildings close.

This decision has left many students feeling forgotten or given up on by CPS, as they voiced at protests in December. Therefore, ensuring displaced students receive adequate counseling and guidance on where to attend next is a crucial first step for the steering committee.

Asiaha Butler, the founder of R.A.G.E., a community group comprised of “well minded folks who want to make a difference or have an impact on the community,” has been especially vocal in her discomfort about the “need” to close four schools to make room for a single new school which will not accommodate today’s students. “The most pressing issue right now is the devastation of losing four neighborhood schools,” said Butler. She insists that current students at the four schools cannot and should not be forgotten in this transition if the new school is to be successful in lifting up Englewood.

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Listen to Weekly editor Bridget Newsham discuss this story on the January 16 episode of SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK:

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In the past round of closings, displaced students of closed schools were encouraged to attend the “welcoming school” CPS has appointed. These schools have tended to be only marginally better in terms of academic ratings and often present transportation and safety concerns for students and parents. Of the two thirds of students who attended their welcoming school in 2013, “only 21% of displaced students attended schools that had a top rating,” reported the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Students were often travelling longer distances, with potential risks, for schools that offered few advantages in terms of long-term success and academic preparedness.

To avoid this happening yet again, the committee has recommended that each student and family work with counselors to formulate an individual transition plan. The outline of this plan, available on the CPS website, recommends enrollment support in neighborhood or selective enrollment schools, emotional and social preparation for students, and the development of safety plans—as Englewood’s high school students will all now need to leave their community to attend school.

Butler made it clear the committee was pushing hard to ensure students were provided an education in line with what the new school will have to offer. “A lot of these schools the students have been attending have been starved for resources…we just want to make sure these new schools are really well-rounded in terms of academics and after school activities and the students have the best experience possible in this transition.”

Moving forward, committee members have suggested the committee turn its attention to understanding what the new school should have in terms of academics and professional training, and how these programs could attract and retain neighborhood students. Craig Lynch and Jonathan McKenzie of FCEA have spearheaded the efforts around college and professional preparedness—which is, of course, tied up with how attractive the new school will be to students.

McKenzie is intimately familiar with what gaps students face in terms of academic readiness and required skills for post-secondary educational enrollment; through his work with FCEA, he tutors students over the summer and outside of school hours in missing or neglected topics. Through this work, he can identify what the larger reasons are for the exodus of students and what disciplines are critical to develop in the new school.

“Many don’t have the courses to be ready for graduation or for college enrollment,” McKenzie said of the four neighborhood schools planned for closure. “They don’t have a teacher teaching a foreign language or required math classes. You are required to have these classes to meet the graduation requirement, let alone get into college.” Many students have left in recent years in favor of local charter schools, or selective enrollment and magnet schools, further decreasing the student body and the resources available to the students. At Hope, Harper, and Robeson, over seventy-five percent of the student bodies left within the past ten years.

It is a vicious cycle—the fewer students enrolled, the fewer per-pupil dollars a school received and the less it could offer, leading to less interest from students and continual decreases in resources. The question is then: how will this new school attract neighborhood students and draw them away from charters, selective enrollment, and other surrounding schools? This question is absolutely critical to the success of this project and committee. “Will parents send their kids to this [new] school?” McKenzie questioned. “In the past, millions of dollars have been put into these schools, and students have continued to leave.”

In addition to the obvious need for the required classes for graduation and college application, both Lynch and McKenzie are pushing for resources that will ensure students are well prepared for intensive college courses and the professional workplace. “The workforce lens is really important, because as a [college] we are talking to employers––so we really have a deep insight and understanding in terms of what kind of skills, both hard and soft, students need to be successful [after high school],” Lynch said.

Lynch has proposed a partnership between Kennedy-King College and the new high school so students will have access to courses and facilities, which will expose students to post-secondary coursework and professional training. In his words, “The intent is to provide the infrastructure around the programs. [For example] we have welding machines. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for a high school to go out and buy welding machines. We have those.”

He believes the early exposure to college classes and facilities will be important to ensure “students are able to graduate college-ready and even career-ready if they want it…it will be an important part of what needs to happen to continue to drive the transformation of the community and the success of the school.” Therefore, it will be an important element in successfully pulling in students, maintaining funding, and being an overall effective resource for students.

The committee members who spoke to the Weekly have demonstrated their commitment to the task at hand. However, they have acknowledged concerns that they and people outside the committee—including other Englewood residents and public education activists—have about the validity of the group, and CPS’s past tendency to fail at following through on recommendations made in “community engagement” processes.

Before the 2013 mass closings, CPS formed the Commission on School Utilization to highlight key areas of concern that community members and leaders had regarding the planned wave of school closures. While the district took some of its recommendations at the time—like refraining from closing high schools, due to safety risks—several crucial ones fell through. The Commission also recommended only closing schools where students can be transferred safely to significantly better-performing schools  and making sure shuttered schools are repurposed or torn down so they do not become unnecessary eyesores or targets of vandalism. But most students attended schools at a similar or worse level than the school they were forced to leave. And five years later, a third  of the buildings that were intended to be repurposed still remain vacant.

The feedback process around the Englewood closings—considering that the initial feedback from Englewood residents was not to close the four schools at all—has not inspired a lot of confidence. “I just want to be very transparent that CPS is definitely using very manipulative language to act as if the whole community has been behind this without discourse, but a lot of our recommendations [thus far] have fallen on deaf ears,” said Asiaha Butler.

But if CPS is serious about increasing its enrollment, improving its reputation, and gaining back the trust of students, parents, and community members at large, taking and implementing the committee’s recommendations would be an important first step.

Correction (1/11/2018)A previous version of this story listed Asiaha Butler as the executive director of R.A.G.E. She is the organization’s president. 

Correction (1/13/2018): Due to an editing error, a previous version of the story reported that committee members Perry Gunn, Keith Harris, Eddie Johnson, Darlene O’Banner, Debra Payne, Coretta Pruitt, Gloria Williams, and Tyson Everett declined to comment on this story. These committee members either declined or could not be reached for comment by press time. 

The previous version of this story also misspelled Coretta Pruitt’s name.

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