West Side group envisions new Austin High

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • December 03, 2008 @ 9:00 AM

A West Side community group has visions for a new Austin High School campus that would be located on the former Brachs Candy site near Cicero and Lake streets, and accommodate 3,000 students in four buildings over 30 acres.

However, there are big obstacles facing the group, which is made up Austin-area parents, community residents and leaders from the Westside Health Authority (WHA) and Austin Community Education Network (ACEN). ML Realty has targeted the Brachs property for use as a warehouse, although a contract has not yet closed on the property. In July, the City Council’s Finance Committee approved $10.6 million in TIF funds for the ML Realty project despite objections from Austin residents.

Even if the Brachs property was secured for a new campus, there is an issue with funding. Chicago has received zero money from the state for new school construction in the last five years, a fact brought up many times by Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan in his criticism of the state. The approximate cost for an Austin High campus with multiple buildings would be $300 million.

Jacqueline Reed, WHA president, sees the Austin High School proposal as a way that president-elect Barack Obama could get a “showcase” school built in Chicago to show the rest of the nation.

The WHA and ACEN group held a community meeting last night to re-state its hope for an Austin High School campus, and to organize a mentoring and assistance program for Austin-area students.

The time has arrived to create a “new mindset“ in Austin, Reed says. The program, called “Culture of Learning” was introduced to Chicago Board of Education members last week, Reed says, and their response was favorable and supportive. The University of Illinois-Chicago has already agreed to partner with the WHA program.

“We need to have a bolder and bigger vision for our children,” she says.

It is a new thinking that will help Austin children even more than a new building, Reed says.

“...(A) building is (just) bricks and wood,” Reed says. “You can learn in a hut.”

But in the case of Austin, that would be one big hut. More than 7,000 freshmen alone at city schools are from Austin, says Van Gooden of WHA. Of those, 1,200 ninth-graders are bused out of the Austin community to other city high schools. The community has 120,000 residents.

Despite three specialized high schools with smaller capacities opening since 2006 at the old Austin High School campus, 231 N. Pine, CPS officials recognize the need for a new Austin High campus. Other sites for a new Austin campus are being examined, says Michael Vaughn, CPS spokesman. Those sites include the former Aldens property at Cicero and Roosevelt, and taking a part of Columbus Park to build a new school. The Alden’s property is 12 acres smaller than the Brachs property and West Side leaders are opposed to losing a part of a city park for a school.

“We need our park,“ Reed says.

It is the Brachs property that West Side community leaders want, and they have been attempting to get local businesses and celebrities (Oprah Winfrey’s name came up at yesterday’s meeting) to donate funds. Their plan includes separate buildings for an Austin college-prep school, plus three other schools specializing in green technology, trade courses and cultural art. But the entire campus would be linked as one school.

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.