Chicago Public Schools Leaders Continue to Ignore Unsafe Conditions in Southwest Side School

During this holiday season, Chicago Public Schools students prepare for concerts in school auditoriums that can accommodate guests and students’ creative expressions of drama and music. But not at the city’s newest and only Selective Enrollment high school on the Southwest side: Hancock College Prep.

For over a year, Hancock’s auditorium, which can accommodate an audience of over 1,000, has had a stage officially deemed unsafe and, therefore, not usable after an inspection.

So for over a year, holiday concerts, school celebrations, our pep rallies (because our gym is suitable for a K-3 building), and any events with guest speakers had to be held off the stage, without stage lights, and with a portable sound system--not good for a Selective Enrollment high school given the title of a “Creative Arts Level 1 School.”

About six years ago, an attempt to update wiring, lighting, and to remove asbestos (yes, the cancer-causing agent), resulted in the front stage lights that illuminated performers being cut.

According to staff and administration at the time, the workers saw updating the wiring of those essential lights as out of their scope of work. Because they could not update them to code, they cut the wires. Today, there are no lights to shine on performers.  With the house lights off, they look like this:

What performers on Hancock College Prep's stage look like because of the lighting that has not been repaired in years.

What performers on Hancock College Prep's stage look like because of the lighting that has not been repaired in years.

According to formal estimates, lighting repairs would run around $120,000.

Furthermore, an antiquated system of pulleys—also found to be dangerous—prevent the theater curtains, which are torn from age and use, to be operated.

The temporary solution, chains and locks, to the unsafe stage rigging system at Hancock College Prep

The temporary solution to the unsafe stage rigging system at Hancock College Prep

When one of the cheerleaders spoke to the Board of Education in January, she explained how when they would practice on the stage after school, sometimes the lights from above would explode; broken glass fell.

During any drama performances, there could be no to minimal scenery on stage, and the lights that did work were either on or off.

Hancock Drama Teacher Sarah Baranoff explained the results of the assessments by The Chicago Flyhouse, a company that specializes in rigging systems for performance spaces, and Grand Stage Chicago, which focuses on lights and curtains.

According to those evaluations, repairs to the curtain and light rigging system would run approximately $130,000.

That’s an estimated $250,000 in repairs.

But Baranoff, who has plenty of drama experience, estimates $300,000 “to make the auditorium completely usable again—not even state of the art—just fully functional.”

CPS staff, however, suggested that the entire flight system of pulleys and wires be disconnected.

“The problem is that without a functional fly system, the stage becomes an empty black box where no one can be seen and no one can be heard,” Baranoff explains.

Even if the lights are repaired, the rigging system that controls the curtains and other hanging parts of this 1950s stage--with asbestos and outdated fire retardant material—would still not be adequate for today’s performance needs.

Baranoff emphasizes, “None of the systems can or should be maintained by the custodians or engineers that work in the our building, even though they do an excellent job of maintaining our building.  These systems require highly trained people."

Baranoff stresses, “It’s imperative that CPS reach out to somebody who is an expert in this field in order to correct these dangerous situations."

For years, at least three administrative teams have been advocating for the repair of this stage.

When Hancock became Selective Enrollment in 2014, the main floor of our auditorium was gutted and leveled to comply with ADA guidelines. New seats were put in.

But nothing was done to the stage.

In the last couple of years, Hancock paid for a new sound system—which is barely being installed this week for a cost of about $10,000. Again, this was a school expense—not the district’s.

Bids were supposed to be placed months ago to repair the stage. Nothing has moved forward.

So for the band and chorus concerts this holiday season, our students must make do—again—with what we have.

The stage conditions are forcing the school to have to look at other venues for the two drama performances scheduled this school year.

But I’m not surprised.

Hancock has always had to make do with what it has. I’ve written about these sub-standard conditions many times. I’ve spoken at Board meetings. Students have spoken at Board meetings. Board members visited the school.

Still, in the eyes of CPS leaders, this run-down building full of striving students—that received 4,000 applications for about 200 seats in its freshman class last year—must do what it can with what it has.

This is the 21st century’s new form of educational inequality in the Chicago Public Schools.

Because none of this would fly at Whitney Young, Jones, Payton, or Northside College Prep.

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