Austin Business and Entrepreneurship High School Credit: Photo by John Booz

Rev. Lewis Flowers walks down the echoing hallways of Austin High School with such authority that one could be forgiven for mistaking him for a principal.

On this Thursday afternoon, Flowers is sporting a gray suit, black shirt and a purple print tie. He is on the fourth floor meeting with Deanna English, who, at the time, was one of two real principals who occupy the building. 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 other new, but smaller 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.

Change at Austin, the yellow brick fortress on north Pine Avenue between Fulton Boulevard and West End Avenue, is nothing new. Flowers has been along for the high school’s rocky ride for more than a decade. Ten years ago, when he was a member of the local school council, Austin was in the crosshairs of the district leadership’s school improvement sights, and was tagged to receive a “miracle” interim principal (Catalyst, October 1996).

While there was some improvement in test scores under Principal Arthur Slater, progress was short of the miracle some had hoped for. Since Slater left in 2000, Austin had three principals. The current principal, Anthony Scott, took the post in January of 2004.

Over the years, saving Austin has become a crusade aimed at preserving a place that, for much of the last century, was a West Side institution. Austin’s football teams were feared, its academic programs were respected and its bands were a source of envy. Among music historians, Austin is known as the birthplace of Chicago-style Jazz. But white flight that began in the 1970s gutted the neighborhood and its high school of diversity and resources that made both vibrant and successful.

These days, Flowers is putting his hope in another effort to save Austin. Initially, he was not in favor of CEO Arne Duncan’s decision in 2004 to close Austin and replace it with several smaller high schools in the same building. “I’m not going to say the school wasn’t working,” Flowers says. “I feel that we were doing a damn good job.” He concedes that progress may not have been as fast as some would have liked, but notes that it was progress nonetheless.

But like others in the community, Flowers, CEO of the West Side Ministers Coalition, says he had little choice but to get on board with Renaissance 2010. In fact, he went a step further last year and teamed up with American Quality Schools, an educational management organization that runs six local public schools, to pitch the district on a high school that would train students in business and entrepreneurship skills. Their proposal was approved last November.

Since then, Flowers—who chairs the board for Austin Business and Entrepreneurship—has been making sure the new contract school offers concrete opportunities for Austin’s youth and restores confidence in public education in the community. It’s a massive job, but Flowers says his focus is on the most import component—the students.

Austin Business and Entrepreneurship started fresh in September with about 220 freshmen. The school will admit approximately 200 students each year until it has full enrollment in the 2009-2010 school year.

Just outside the principal’s office, Flowers spots a despondent student sitting in a folding chair wearing black pants and a maroon top, the school’s uniform. Flowers approaches her and, whispering, repeatedly asks her what’s wrong. After three tries, he gets a response: The girl says she may be suspended for cursing at one of her teachers.

Flowers leaves. When he returns and shares the teacher’s side of the story, the girl looks a bit sheepish. The teacher says even before the most recent incident, the girl had not turned in assignments and kept her head down during classes. Flowers knew where the girl went to church and threatened to report her to the pastor. She promised to mend her ways and Flowers won her a reprieve from suspension.

More than tough love

Flowers knows it will take more than tough love and a new name to make Austin the high school of choice rather than the school of last resort. He reached out to Michael Bakalis, known for his tenure as state superintendent of education and a short-lived campaign for governor in 2002, to help develop the new school. Bakalis is now president of American Quality Schools, which runs nine charter or contract schools in Chicago and Indiana, including Austin’s newest high school.

One of Bakalis’ hires for Austin Business and Entreprenuership was Malcolm Crawford, the director of the Austin African-American Business Networking Association and owner of an art and home décor store on Chicago Avenue.

Crawford, who is now the school’s director of external relations, says he wants students coming out of Austin to be ready for college, but he also wants them to be able to write a business plan. Responding to critics who claim the school is not academically focused, Crawford says the first student organizations to come together are honed on academics: student council, college-bound club and the honors club.

Freshmen and sophomores will follow a traditional class schedule four days a week with 55-minute classes in English, language arts, mathematics, social studies, reading and science. On Wednesdays, students will participate in business-related seminars, tutoring sessions and attend independent study sessions. They also will be encouraged to join a club, among them one for students planning to attend college.

But some observers aren’t yet sold on the new school. “They don’t promote college,” says LaShawn Ford, the likely next state representative from the 8th District, who would like to see a high school installed at the site of the shuttered Brach’s candy factory on Cicero Avenue. “They promote these kids getting a business after high school.”

Bakalis says that while he hopes the new school will eventually result in more homegrown businesses in Austin, the school is not encouraging students to make the leap immediately after graduation. Instead of steering Austin students away from academics, they say they are promoting innovative options.

Reform is messy

There are signs, though, that a new era of reform at Austin won’t be easy. Just weeks into the school year, English was shifted to another position and a new principal with experience in middle school, Stefan Fisher, was brought in. Early expectations were not being met and a leadership change was necessary, says Flowers. English is comfortable with the change, he says.

The idea for a small school centered on business has been around for a while. A previous principal, Learna Brewer-Baker, tapped Bakalis for a potential partnership and then successfully applied for a planning grant from the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, which was charged with dispensing funds to help large high schools improve by converting into several smaller schools. The overall effort was bankrolled by a $12 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and additional contributions from several local foundations.

But before the effort could get off the ground, Brewer-Baker was removed amid concerns about school security and discipline. (Catalyst, October 2003.) Not long after, talk of a districtwide new school plan began to surface and the small schools grant was put on hold.

The sudden turn of events was another disappointment for Austin, and Flowers felt the best move would be keeping the small-schools plan on life support by applying to reopen under Renaissance 2010. “You either get on board with [CPS] or you lose out,” Flowers says.

Several others, including members of the Austin Transition Advisory Council, the group established to weigh options for new programs at Austin, felt the same way.

After reviewing the final round of applicants of schools that would open this fall, advisory council members decided that none of the three applications were ready to fly. The other two applications were Austin Polytechnic, a program to train students for manufacturing careers, and a math and science academy run by Concept Schools.

In the end, Schools CEO Arne Duncan decided not follow the advisory council’s advice, and recommended that the School Board approve Austin Business and Entrepreneurship.

“We’re not going to wait forever to reopen these schools,” says Jeanne Nowaczewski, director of New Schools Development. “Arne Duncan and the office of New Schools Development listened to the [advisory council] for the entire six months that this was going on.”

Duncan’s decision did not exactly go down smoothly.

Advisory council members “harbored resentment, but they felt that they had to be on board and be a good sport,” says Khalid Johnson, who was not on the advisory council for the first round, but was close to the process. This year, he is a member of the advisory council for the second round of school selections.

Two proposals are currently under consideration for a second school. One is for Austin Legal Studies and Criminal Justice Academy, another contract school that would be run by American Quality Schools in partnership with the West Side Ministers Coalition. The other is Austin Polytechnical Academy, which was also under consideration in the first round.

Curtis Lawrence

Curtis Lawrence is a freelance writer and director of the Journalism Graduate Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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