Storied Chicago high school nears last dance
Austin High's closing bittersweet for many

By Michelle S. Keller
Tribune staff reporter

May 31, 2007

As students rush between classes at Austin Community Academy High School, they stop to sign each other's T-shirts.

The shirts are inscribed with the same words: The Final Chapter.

After more than a decade of poor test performance, the West Side school is closing this year. Three smaller schools will occupy the golden-brick building at 231 N. Pine St.

Only seniors saunter through its near-empty halls now, a small class of 214 students. The final chapter is dominated by senior activities: spirit week, class pictures, a luncheon and Friday's prom -- Austin High School's last dance.

Once a part of a wealthy white suburb of Chicago, Austin High now lies in an African-American neighborhood. But the school's history can be told as much through the dances performed within its walls -- from the Charleston in the 1920s to break dancing in the 1980s to hip-hop today -- as the demographic and social changes in the surrounding community. And like the Charleston, neighborhood schools have become an anachronism in the Chicago school system.

Austin's last days are few, but on its walls and yearbooks are memories aplenty of a once vibrant school that has been an education center in the area for more than 100 years.

When it was founded in the late 1800s, Austin High was a small school with only a handful of students. After the western suburb of Austin was annexed into the city of Chicago in 1899, the school's enrollment, then at 300, saw lightning-fast growth. By 1931, more than 5,000 students were enrolled, historical records show.

History of elegance

Glamor and elegance surrounded Austin's formal dances in the early 20th Century. Student performers dazzled the audience at the junior-senior revel with "charm and grace," followed by informal dancing and a banquet of "chicken en casserole, sandwiches, olives on ice, ice cream and cake ... with cream sauce," according to a 1920 article in The Austinite, a local paper. The Charleston, a fast ballroom jazz dance, was all the rage.

During that era, Austin High's prominence in Chicago was well recognized. In 1924, Austin High became the first public school to have its football team play in Soldier Field.

Fashions changed with the politics of the times. By the World War II era, women wore looser skirts and were encouraged to be more active in sports and civic duties. At an all-time high, patriotism was manifested in awards for the "Typical American Girl" at Austin, according to yearbooks from the 1940s.

As in many parts of America, racial tensions peaked in the 1960s. Riots erupted at Austin as the school dealt with demographic changes, according to Amanda Seligman, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has researched Chicago's neighborhoods.

The large migration of African-American families to the West Side was an unwelcome change for many established white families, Seligman said.

"The big racial change in Austin came in the early 1960s, after a similar set of changes had occurred in North Lawndale and west Garfield Park," Seligman said. "One of the ways that residents managed racial change was in trying to manipulate the boundaries of Austin High School. They tried to get the school to rewrite the boundaries to push out the black families, but the school board wouldn't assent to that change."

The school board did, however, allow white parents to transfer their children to other high schools, Seligman said. Although by 1970 the neighborhood was more white than African-American, more than 75 percent of Austin's students were African-American, the Chicago Tribune reported.

By the late 1970s, the school was nearly 100 percent African-American. The academic emphasis had slowly changed from college prep to training the next generation of industry, office workers and homemakers.

Stung by stigma

Even so, the decade saw a depressed economic situation for the Austin neighborhood and the school received an increasingly negative academic reputation. When current Principal Anthony Scott joined the school as a math teacher in 1976, the neighborhood's best students were known to go elsewhere.

"Kids who could read would leave and go to schools like Taft High School," Scott recalled.

But for the students who attended during that period, the stigma was only from the outside. They still had a great deal of pride in Austin High.

"The school had so many clubs back then," recalled Jacqueline Brooks-Paige, who graduated in 1974. "The school was bursting with activity."

Like the dances held in the early 1900s, Austin's prom that year was a formal affair -- with the dancing reflecting the times.

"It was the disco era," Brooks-Paige said. Her prom dress gleamed with white satin and navy-blue pipping and was covered with a satin swing coat, she said.

With the break-dancing craze of the 1980s, fancy footwork dominated the dance floor at Austin's proms. Fashions were loud and bright.

Yet Austin's future was anything but. The administration changed frequently in the late 1990s and early 2000s, primarily as a result of poor school performance.

By May of 2004, during Scott's first year as principal, the faculty was informed by Chicago Public Schools officials that the Austin High would be phased out.

"I was told that I would not be taking any freshmen," Scott said. "I thought I had an opportunity to change the school, but that changed. The community was in a short uproar."

Austin along with Calumet Career Prep Academy High School and Westinghouse Career Academy High School are being phased out this year. Austin is being transformed into smaller schools, including the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, which is already open, and Austin Polytechnical Academy, which will begin classes in the fall. The small schools concept, part of Mayor Richard M. Daley's Renaissance 2010 project to replace older schools with new innovative ones, promises to relieve overcrowding and provide different educational options for the district's children.

'Opportunity' on horizon

While the school's closing is a sad note for many, Diondai Brown, president of the Austin High School Alumni Association, sees it as the next step for the community's children.

"I think it's an opportunity," Brown said. "When one door closes, another one opens. We need to try to give support to the students who are there."

Scott partially blames the lack of stability the students had in school for the disappointing test scores. But the tough neighborhood surrounding the school didn't help, he added.

"They have a lot of competition from the streets," he said, referring to gang violence.

But neighborhood troubles will fade into the past as the seniors gather for the last prom on Friday. The prom committee selected as the theme "Make It Last Forever."

Although the seniors are excited about their last high-school rituals, they are saddened too. .

"This is it, the final chapter," senior Adriane Reed said glumly as a friend signed her shirt recently. "No more Austin."

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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