As it winds down its last year as a neighborhood school open to all, Hancock High School has won a national award celebrating how it has embraced its surrounding community.
The Coalition for Community Schools heralded Hancock’s vast network of partnerships with at least 20 outside organizations that have resulted in a “strong school climate and culture” and presented the Southwest Side high school with its National Community Schools Award for Excellence and a $2,500 cash prize in Washington, D.C., last week.
“We’re looking for schools that have students in place and really gather the community around,” Coalition President Martin Blank said.
“The way in which they gathered their community partners together with the school to address the challenges their kids brought to the table grew and deepened over time,” Blank said of Hancock. “For this group of kids in particular, these young men and women need the kind of support our partners can offer. So that’s what we think makes Hancock special.”
Blank hoped that Hancock, 4056 W. 56th St., might continue its partnerships as the school prepares for major changes in the fall.
The small neighborhood school just east of Midway Airport was suddenly tapped in October as the site for a test-in selective enrollment school on the Southwest Side, which had been clamoring for one. Come September, half of its freshman class must have excelled at the citywide admissions test, the other half accepted to a career prep program open to students from the Southwest Side.
“This is how we look at it: We still have the beautiful kids from the neighborhood who will be there for the next three years,” said Karen Boran, Hancock’s principal since 2013. “These bright lovely kids we’re going to work very very hard to make sure they mesh seamlessly with the bright neighborhood kids who got in through testing.”
When Boran arrived at Hancock in 2011 as an assistant principal, she said, the school sat in the bottom 5 percent of all high schools statewide. It since has flourished with a graduation rate that went from 57 percent in 2010 to 77 percent in 2014 — that’s a dozen percentage points higher than the district’s average. Attendance also jumped in that span from 78 percent to 90 percent.
The school won a federal three-year School Improvement Grant that allowed them to hire Youth Guidance as a community partner, then a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. They brought in programs such as guitar lessons from the National Museum of Mexican Art. An onsite Parent University lets families finish a GED or learn English. Students are encouraged to perform community service.
“There is an extra layer of social and emotional support above what the school is already offering,” said Kathryn Rice, hired through Youth Guidance as a resource coordinator. “We have a number of afterschool programs that create space for students to develop as leaders and really have a voice in the school.”
The high school with 96 percent low-income kids and 95 percent of whom are Hispanic also saw its first Gates Millennium scholar this year, a highly competitive and prestigious scholarship that means Stephanie Ruizesparza, 18, won’t pay a dime for college — and maybe not for graduate school either. Four students also won full rides to four-year colleges as Posse Scholars.
Many of the partnerships will remain in place next year, Boran said.
“Being a teenager in 2015-16 is very complicated and a difficult thing to do, and they’re still going to need the integrated … supports we’ve worked so hard” to bring in, she said.
“We’re hoping to just continue to evolve and grow. … Our goal is there’s one Hancock.”