I can hardly believe that it has been 50 years since I marched into the auditorium at Dunbar Vocational High School and became the first in my family to get a high school diploma.
As a non-traditional college student (I completed my undergraduate work while raising a family), I didn’t have the normal college experience.
But I still crave “lunchroom” cookies and remember how I felt when Dunbar lost a big game.
Ironically, all of the elementary schools I attended no longer exist.
Henry O. Shepard Elementary in the Lawndale community closed in 1981.
Daniel Hale Williams, located in CHA’s Dearborn Homes, was one of the first Renaissance 2010 schools, closed and reopened a year later as two new schools. Both of those schools closed in 2013, and nearby Drake Elementary School moved into the building.
And Albert Einstein Elementary School at 38th and Cottage Grove, closed in 1999, three years after CHA’s Clarence Darrow high-rises were demolished.
As far as my school days go, Dunbar is my touchstone.
I thought about that last week, when the Chicago Public Schools announced it would close four high schools — Harper, Hope, Robeson and Team Englewood — and merge those students into a new $75 million shining bauble in Englewood.
Frankly, I expected some community uproar, but apparently the students at the impacted schools are ready to go.
“We haven’t gotten any pushback from the students. We’ve gotten the exact opposite,” said Janice Jackson, CPS Chief Education Officer.
“A lot of people want an investment in the community and people fully understand that it is the right thing to do. Community members are agreeing with the district people. They are excited and want this opportunity for their children,” she said.
Abandoning your high school colors is one thing. But a lot of the students at the new open-enrollment high school would likely have to cross gang boundaries to get to school.
While gangs don’t get to dictate who goes to what school, gang rivalry is something that CPS definitely has to take seriously.
Jadine Chou, CPS’ chief safety and security officer, said the key is creating a new environment that will create a new culture for all the students.
“We have begun to bring together students from the four high schools that will be merged together,” she told me.
“We put them together into an after-school jobs program where they work together to rehab and transform CPS auditoriums. This program has been going on since the beginning of last summer until now. We have not had a single incident,” she said.
According to Jackson, more students in the Englewood area travel to attend neighborhood schools than students in other areas.
“The ultimate goal is to create a high-quality neighborhood high school,” Jackson said, pointing out that 41 percent of the students travel 4 miles, and a lot of them are traveling to other neighborhood schools.
“Building a new high school is one of the ways that shows a commitment and investment to the neighborhood,” Jackson said.
Still, closing a high school is a lot different from closing an elementary school. Every high school has its own unique culture.
Additionally, CPS will have to make sure it is not compounding disciplinary problems by increasing the number of students under one roof.
Chou said as a way of building positive relationships, CPS is reaching out to students at feeder schools and extending the jobs program through the summer.
“We are looking to work with kids who perhaps may have made decisions in the past that have gotten them off track,” she said.
Students who walk through the doors of a new high school in Englewood a few years from now stand to gain a lot.
I hope they find a cool way to honor the alums from their old high schools who will leave their memories behind.
Their school spirit made this new day possible.