Sixteen-year-old Miracle Boyd’s South Side high school is at death’s door.
All the students enrolled could fit on three yellow school buses with room to spare. With so few students, the school can only afford to offer a barebones curriculum.
In fact, Boyd’s Hope College Preparatory High School and three others in the Englewood community — Harper, TEAM, and Robeson — offer such a paltry education that the school district had planned to shutter them in June, even before a replacement high school is ready in 2019.
But last week, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said three of those schools, including Hope, would instead be phased out, giving current students the option to stay through graduation. Robeson will be closed in June so the new school could be built on its campus. CPS’ board is expected to vote on this plan on Feb. 28.
Jackson casts the dire situation of these Englewood schools largely as the result of circumstances beyond the school district’s control, like a hurricane. Families make choices, she said, by moving out of the area or by sending their children elsewhere — options she insists all families deserve.
But where do those families go? Some in Englewood and elsewhere pick Chicago schools that outperform their neighborhood options — but others do not. About 38 percent of Englewood students who rejected their neighborhood high schools chose schools that perform the same or worse, or went to alternative schools for dropouts, according to CPS data.
The complexity does not end there.
As the history of Hope High School shows, this is about more than families simply making choices. A confluence of CPS policy and political decisions over many years led to the current state of affairs in Englewood and other neighborhoods across the South and West sides with severely under-enrolled schools.
“It is multilayered and multifaceted and nobody wants to acknowledge it,” said Rachel Williams, a 2009 Hope graduate.
There are 638 CPS students in Hope’s attendance boundary. Thirty-six go to Hope. The other 602 chose other Chicago public schools.
Where do they go?
17 percent go to alternative schools 33 percent go to charter schools 42 percent go to traditional public schools 8 percent go to selective, test-in schools
Source: Chicago Public Schools
Hope was special
Hope was once known as a South Side gem.
Initially built as a community middle school in the 1970s on Garfield Boulevard west of the Dan Ryan Expressway, it later added a high school. For a few years in the early 2000s, it used modest admissions requirements and it served students from anywhere in the city.
Mahalia Hines, the mother of rapper Common, helped lead Hope’s rise. She was principal from 1996 to 2005. Inside the school system, she was considered a star principal who brought in a dynamic team of teachers, producing better graduation, ACT and attendance results than other area schools. She now sits on CPS’ Board of Education.
Among students, she was also known for being motherly, but stern, and sometimes fun. She was even willing to get on stage and do the electric slide with students.
Rica Mitchell remembers the first pep rally she attended as a 7th grader in 2003. Common and his friend, up-and-coming rapper Kanye West, showed up.
That was just the start of what made Hope special, she said. The school offered a range of honors classes and extracurriculars, including a girls club where you could discuss “things that you would feel embarrassed to talk to your mom about.” The girls basketball team won the 2003 state championship and the debate team won two city championships.
Her teachers were not just caring and enthusiastic, but many of them were black like her, she said. Two-thirds of Hope’s staff was black in the early to mid-2000s, Illinois State Board of Education records show.
“They were strong black men and strong black women that I could look at and say, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up,’ and I don’t think kids nowadays have that,” said Mitchell, who is now a teacher at a charter school on Chicago’s West Side.
But Hope began to change when Mitchell was in her final years of high school.
School reform brewing
In the 2000s, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and CPS CEO Arne Duncan adopted dramatic school reform approaches. Duncan declared some schools were in such bad shape in terms of academic performance that they had to be closed or their entire staffs replaced.
Hope teacher Greg Jackson, who has been at the school since 2004, said no one at Hope thought the reforms would touch them.
“We had a great attendance rate, we had great graduation rate, we had great going-to-college rate,” Jackson said. “So you know, we didn’t see us as doing anything wrong. We were doing everything correct. We were doing exactly what CPS was asking for.”
But then, in 2005, CPS closed the district’s lowest-performing high school, Englewood Academy High School. It was about a mile south of Hope.
Hope would become a neighborhood high school — meaning it would no longer have any admission requirements for any of its kids — and a good chunk of Englewood High School students would be assigned to Hope.
Hope parent and former Local School Council member Matt Johnson said the influx of Englewood students led to some discipline issues, such as increased fights. Some in the community began to see Hope differently.
“Certain kids came with behavior issues, a few gangs as well,” Johnson said. “Hope did all it could to welcome those kids as well and, in a matter of time, the adjustment was OK.”
Competition comes to Englewood
Daley and Duncan also wanted to apply pressure on poor performing neighborhood schools across Chicago by creating competition with new, privately run schools. To advance this goal, in 2004 Daley announced Renaissance 2010, a plan to open 100 new schools within the decade.
Many of the new schools were charter schools. Those are run by private organizations but are publicly funded.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, left, addresses the media during a Chicago press conference with Mayor Richard Daley on Oct. 7, 2009. When Duncan was CPS CEO in the early 2000s, he and Daley adopted dramatic school reform approaches.(AP Photo/John Smierciak)
Englewood, where many of the schools were poor performing, got an influx of new schools.
Between 2005 and 2015, CPS opened nine high schools within about two miles of Hope. Johnson said many families were enticed by the prospect that the schools would offer their children something better.
“It turned into a competition,” he said. “Those schools … they campaign, they go out and knock on doors. Some of them knocked on our doors.”
Hope was not only in competition with new charter schools, but also with other traditional neighborhood Chicago public schools.
CPS over the years has expanded choice across the board, allowing district-run high schools to accept students from anywhere if they have space. And many traditional high schools added attractive specialty programs, such as STEM or International Baccalaureate programs, that draw students.
Hope did not.
Population loss in Englewood
As competition over students heated up, Englewood was losing residents and students.
For the last 50 years, the area population has been shrinking. So many homes have been demolished that some blocks are just fields of weeds. What’s left are side streets with wood frame homes, many of which are boarded up.
The Englewood community has lost homes and population. This boarded-up building sits across the street from Hope High School. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)
Rachel Williams, the 2009 Hope alumna who is now 26 and an activist, said the last decade and a half has been brutal. Not only did the housing crisis hit areas like this hard, but also the expansion of a massive rail yard swallowed up many of the homes.
Since 2000, there’s been a 42 percent drop in the number of school-aged children in Hope’s attendance area, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Generation All, an organization that advocates for neighborhood schools.
This population loss reflects a larger trend in the city. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of African-Americans in Chicago dropped by 240,000, U.S. Census data shows.
Williams blames the city for what she calls massive disinvestment in the area. She said it feels as if Hope and the other schools are being punished for the population loss.
Others said the school district’s policy of school closings — both for academic and for low enrollment reasons — has contributed to population decline. In addition to Englewood High School, CPS has closed 14 area elementary schools over the past decade, including half a dozen in the 2013 historic school closings for low enrollment. They said school closings destabilize communities and push families out.
Last fall, Hope had about 95 students; 36 of them lived in Hope’s attendance boundary. Today, that’s down to 90.
About 640 total CPS high school students live in the Hope attendance area — enough for a viable, though small school, according to school district data.
But about 600 chose not to go to Hope. They are spread out among 110 Chicago public schools. About 27 percent of the students attend schools that are among the highest rated in the school district, according to CPS data.
About 22 percent go to high schools that are just as poorly rated as the four Englewood schools that are closing.
Another 17 percent attend a growing number of privately run, publicly-funded alternative schools for dropouts, many of which are run by for-profit companies. Many criticize these half-day, online schools as subpar. The remaining 33 percent of the students go to mid-tier CPS schools — ones that are slightly better, but not much better than Hope in terms of measures such as test scores and graduation rates.
For Englewood as a whole, about 10 percent of high school students attend their neighborhood high school. Citywide, 22 percent of students attend their assigned neighborhood high schools, 2017 CPS data show.
As school districts like Chicago have embraced choice, one concern is about potentially leaving the neediest students in the most challenged schools. That seems to have happened at Hope.
Half of Hope’s students are in special education, and a quarter are homeless, according to CPS data. Hope earned one of CPS’ lowest academic ratings last year. CPS considers the school below average and in need of “intensive support.”
Jackson, the Hope teacher, said he feels some regret that more was not done to encourage students to attend Hope.
“But at the same time, we started being able to offer less,” he said.
‘A death spiral’
Chicago has always tied school budgets to enrollment, but in recent years as CPS has adopted a market-based approach to education, the relationship has become stronger.
Starting in 2013, CPS implemented student-based budgeting, where money follows students. That thrust schools into fierce competition for students.
“What ends up happening is that you [are] creating a sort of death spiral for schools,” said Kurt Hilgendorf, a former Hope teacher who is now a policy advisor for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Hilgendorf and others said schools like Hope couldn’t compete with new schools, some of which benefited from the support of wealthy donors. There was also no guarantee the new schools would be better than the existing ones; and in fact, three of nine new high schools opened in Englewood over the past decade already have closed or are closing for poor performance.
Schools CEO Janice Jackson argues that giving students choices has created opportunities for them to attend better schools. She said that is one of the factors driving the district’s much improved graduation rates.
“Parents are more discerning,” Jackson said. “They know what a quality school is … and students are choosing those options.”
But it’s been a disaster for Hope student Miracle Boyd and others like her.
Miracle faces the prospect of attending three schools in three years.
For ninth grade, she tried Johnson College Prep, a Noble Street charter high school in Englewood. Back then, she said she was impressed by a promise the school would get her to college.
But her mother was disappointed with how Johnson dealt with bullying and what she considered high student fees.
Miracle’s older brother had gone to Hope so her mom transferred her there.
She wants to stay at Hope but won’t if she finds a school with more offerings, especially ROTC because she’s interested in the Army.
Miracle can’t understand why it’s so hard to get a high quality education at her neighborhood high school.
“They are closing us due to low enrollment … but how is that our fault?” Miracle asked at a recent community hearing where she fought to keep Hope open. “Provide us with a rigorous education and the tools we need to lead us to a road of prosperity and success.”
Sarah Karp is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation.