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Hancock High happy to get programs, but community asks why

The State of Illinois handed Hancock College Preparatory High School $6 million over three years to “transform” itself. So over the past three years, Hancock did.

“We collectively worked our butts off to transform this school,” Hancock’s principal, Karen Boran, told her community last week, hours after they learned the Southwest Side school was turning into a selective enrollment school. “And we’ve raised every single major indicator a huge amount.”

Pointing to jumps in the rates of graduation, college acceptance, freshmen on track to graduate and attendance, Boran said, “We effectively, collectively — the LSC the parents, the kids — transformed this school into a quality neighborhood school.”

That leaves many close to Hancock wondering why Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel would, without any community meetings or public input, disrupt a school that’s doing what it’s supposed to — even if for a good cause.

Some Southwest Side residents have been clamoring for an elite selective enrollment high school in their community, citing long commutes to the city’s best schools. But in getting one at Hancock, they’re going to lose a gem of a school already open to all.

“This is a school that is working,” said Sarah Duncan, co-director of the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago, which has partnered with Hancock since 2008 to get more kids to college. “This is what we need in our city. We desperately need more Hancock high schools.”

Selective enrollment schools were created more as a way to keep middle-class families in the city than as a lasting educational solution, she said.

“So the surrounding community is going to lose what’s actually the goal of the last three decades of school reform: a high-performing neighborhood high school that’s serving its community.”

CPS said Hancock was chosen because of its location far from other selective enrollment options, and its relatively small boundary makes the transition less disruptive compared with other nearby schools.

The $10 million CPS estimates it’ll take to convert the school pales in comparison to the $60 million the district plans to spend to build a new selective enrollment school on the Near North Side that was to be named for the president.

Spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in an email that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett decided to change the school “at the request of the community and local elected officials, and after CPS officials evaluated options for the Southwest Side.”

A community organization supporting the change didn’t know how Hancock was proposed, saying the school already had been named when they weighed in.

Jeff Bartow of the Southwest Organizing Project applauds the transformation. As long as the city is investing in elite selective enrollment schools, it’s time the Southwest Side has its own, he says.

In a letter of support, he wrote that talented high school students were leaving the neighborhood to attend selective enrollment schools elsewhere in Chicago.

“Supporting a selective enrollment high school is not intended as opposition to quality neighborhood schools,” he said by telephone Friday. Because as he sees it, Hancock isn’t going away.

“To tell you the truth, I see it as a possibility to re-imagine and reconfigure how we do high school on the Southwest Side. More opportunities rather than less,” he said.

Hancock, 4034 W. 56th St., accepts children who live immediately east of Midway Airport in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood, between 55th and 63rd streets to Keeler Avenue for the most part but farther to Homan Avenue on the northern end. The school has about 930 students, 95 percent of whom are Hispanic and 97 percent considered low-income.

“When our kids talk about school, they say it’s safe and small and joyous,” Boran said Friday. “The reason why they say it’s joyous is because there’s a — it’s hard to describe . . . the kids are amazing, there’s a lightness of spirit, they’re happy, the hallways are safe.”

Boran detailed Hancock’s successes: Last year, all graduating seniors got into college and won a collective $10.7 million in scholarship money. Many more graduates actually went to college than the year before. Nobody dropped out. About 94 percent of its freshmen are on track to graduate, a measurement researchers say truly predicts a student’s success. Graduation rates are up to 84.2 percent, she said, well above CPS’ average 69.4 percent. Attendance rates are at 88.4 percent — up from 78.2 percent in 2010. Major incidents of misconduct were down to just 40 last year — from 105 in 2012.

And the school has climbed from CPS’ lowest academic level 3 and on probation in 2012, to solid level 2 standing without the academic probation in 2014, according to the school.

“We’re not getting different kids,” Boran said by telephone Friday. “They’re the same beautiful children they’ve always been.”

Boran and her staff will remain in place. Hancock’s students also can stay until they graduate as the other programs phase in, according to CPS. They’ll benefit from added Advanced Placement courses. But starting in September, none of the eighth-graders now living in Hancock’s footprint will be guaranteed a seat.

Half of Hancock’s next freshman class of 205 will vie academically for a place from all over the city, and the other half will apply for a career prep program. Area eighth-graders will be routed to Marie Sklodowska Curie Metro High School, 4959 S. Archer, home to 3,000 students, or to G.S. Hubbard High School, 6200 S. Hamlin, home to about 1,700. Both, like Hancock are level 2 and offer an International Baccalaureate program, though as of June 2013, Curie was on academic probation.

Both have “awesome people,” Boran said. “We can’t be so arrogant to think we’re the only ones who can help these kids.”

The $10 million in state money will help pay for long-needed repairs and updates. Ray Salazar, a writing teacher at Hancock, detailed some of the problems in a post this week in his blog The White Rhino.

A colleague “taped off a section of the room because a piece of the ceiling fell.” In another classroom, a piece of cardboard still remains patching up a hole. . . . In a science classroom, the cold water does not run. In another, the sinks don’t work at all.”

Boran told her LSC she hopes the money will fix things the school has needed: “Paint, patching, tile, this is crazy — electricity in every classroom, the works. Wireless drops in every classroom, crazy things — outlets. Internet on the fourth floor. Every bathroom will work, every bubbler will work. Crazy things, you guys.”

Duncan questioned that spending, too.

“Why is it OK to say if it becomes a selective enrollment school, it needs $10 million?” she wondered. “Either the building needs renovations or it does not. What are we saying to kids in the city — that some are worth more?”

McCaffrey said the money will “ensure all students at Hancock have access to classrooms that support 21st century learning.

For example, CPS plans to build new science and computer labs and to buy new furniture and other equipment, he said.

The money comes from the State Gaming Fund intended for “education program investments in the southeast and southwest sides of the city. CPS designated Hancock to benefit from these funds to satisfy the community’s call for a selective enrollment school,” McCaffrey wrote in an email.

Senior Jesus Patino, 17, told the Sun-Times last week he fears the new status will create haves and have-nots at an already good school.

“I think all kids deserve the same opportunity as someone who goes to [a] select enrollment,” he said. “It won’t affect me, but it will affect the community. They will get more money and better things just because the are ‘smarter’ students.”

English teacher Natalie Garfield said the school’s solid performance might have played a role in its selection, saying, “They weren’t going to put a bunch of resources into a school where they didn’t have some level of confidence that it would work out well.”

Ultimately, Garfield believes the change will be good. But she added, “parts of us . . . are sad about not having all of our neighborhood kids come to the school. We all feel that way. We feel a loss that we are not going to be able to accommodate our neighborhood kids.”

The decision to turn Hancock into Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school appears to have been made with scant collaboration and community input. Neither CPS nor the mayor’s office nor anyone at Hancock could point to any meetings open to community members.

Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) has been asking the Board of Education since March for a selective enrollment option on the Southwest Side, saying commutes to the city’s other best schools are about 90 minutes long. But Quinn did not return multiple messages for comment, and Friday afternoon a staffer in his office hung up on a reporter.

The decision appears to be yet another example of the top-down, paternalism that has gotten Mayor Rahm Emanuel into political trouble repeatedly over the last four years, particularly on education issues.

After admitting he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss with another selective enrollment school in an affluent white neighborhood that offended black elected officials and community leaders, the mayor subsequently dropped the name. The city is also preparing to change the site of that school amid opposition from community leaders who had no input before the Stanton Park location was chosen.

The mayor’s office declined to comment about Hancock, deferring to CPS.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is exploring a run against the mayor, has argued that Emanuel’s stumble over the naming of Obama Prep was a classic example of his top-down approach.

“It works better when you include the people it would affect in the process from the very beginning,” she told supporters last week.

CPS has promised to hold a public hearing before putting the Hancock decision to a vote on Oct. 22 by the Board of Education. The board must approve the plan and its accompanying boundary changes before it can take hold, though the district is already accepting applications to both programs Hancock will offer.

Chicago Teachers Union staff coordinator Jackson Potter said the Emanuel administration has been betting on elite schools, which disproportionately serve wealthy and white students while underfunding neighborhood schools.

“It appears that the real objective long-term is to create a series of schools that respond to different segments of the city,” he said. “You’ve got to start asking why aren’t we taking models that are meeting the targets, making incremental progress and fortifying those models because they’re serving all kinds of students, instead of constantly disrupting those places and scattering students to the wind.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Potter continued. “On the one hand, I’m happy for the students who are going to get access to those resources and concentrated attention as a result of testing well on the entrance exam, but everybody else is left behind.”

Contributing: Brian Slodysko